The best video games provide an immersive experience, creating a world that seems as vast as our own. The illusion begins to break, though, when you start bumping against the boundaries of that virtual world. When you run into the edges of the game design, you’re reminded that designers sitting in an office actually created everything you’re experiencing.
Recently the MIT Technology Review profiled a remarkable new video game called No Man’s Sky that has solved this problem by changing the way games are designed: Instead of a team of artists, who eventually get exhausted, it relies on an algorithm that can generate near infinite variety of new worlds to explore.
The premise of No Man’s Sky is straightforward. You begin on a planet and your mission is to find evidence that explains the origins of the universe. Along the way, you discover new species and name physical features like mountain peaks. When you’ve seen what there is to see, you fly into space and find another planet. And which planet do you land on next? There are a lot to choose from.
“If you were to visit one virtual planet every second,” co-creator Sean Murray of Hello Games told the Technology Review, “then our own sun will have died before you’d have seen them all.”
Up until now, video games have been designed by huge teams of artists, who create impressive virtual worlds that are ultimately finite in scale. By contrast, No Man’s Sky was built largely by just four people—with the aid of an algorithm. The designers gave the algorithm some simple rules, which take into account how far a planet is from its star, what kind of star it is (yellow suns cast a different kind of light than red dwarfs), and the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. With those kinds of parameters, the algorithm generates a landscape and populates it with flora and fauna, which reproduce and evolve over time.
This method is known as “procedural generation,” and it’s the same one used, on a much simpler scale, in the popular game Minecraft. Procedural generation lets designers create immensely larger universes. It also brings its own challenges—namely, quality control. It’s impossible to test every corner of a never-ending virtual world, so the Technology Review explains that the designers came up with a solution—analogous to our space probes—that really drives home the scale of what they created: “automated bots that wander around taking screenshots which are then sent back to the team for viewing.”
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.