Galactic Map Puts Scale Of No Man’s Sky In Perspective

by Jeff Cork on Dec 08, 2014 at 08:00 AM

One of my favorite parts about working at Game Informer is diving into cover stories for the magazine. Most of the time, the games that appear on the front of our issues are big announcements from equally big studios or the next installments of popular franchises. Those stories are great – and I enjoy working on them – but I was particularly excited when I learned a few months ago that we were going to be putting No Man’s Sky on the cover. I knew the team at Hello Games a little, and I was desperate to learn more about their ambitious space-exploration…thing. What was it exactly? Well, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to go on the trip.

I’d gotten a demo of the game at E3, and I left with as many questions as I had before entering their hotel suite. We got the answers to many of them during our trip to Guildford, England last month, and you can read about it all in our most recent issue. One of the things that I didn’t get a sense of beforehand was just how massive the game’s procedurally generated galaxy was. As Hello Games’ co-founder and managing director Sean Murray pointed out to us later, we, as humans, just aren’t good at contextualizing numbers past a certain point. 

The scale of No Man’s Sky’s galaxy is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Murray says it’s filled with hundreds of millions of stars. That sounds like, well, a lot. And it is. Without any context, however, I didn’t quite get a sense of what that meant. That’s where the game’s galaxy map comes in. This might sound like an odd – and frankly, boring – thing to focus on, but after getting a tour of the map, it’s a fundamental part of understanding much of how the game works.

The game models an entire galaxy with hundreds of millions of stars, so it wouldn’t be possible (or make sense) to have a hand-drawn map like in an RPG. Murray gave us a tour of the galaxy using the map, which serves as a way to scout out the immediate cluster of stars ahead of you and your ship. Explorers can use it to plot their next course of action; ships can warp from star to star once their hyperdrives are upgraded. If someone’s been to a planet before you – which will be extremely unlikely for quite some time – you can see what its name is, what types of resources it’s home to, and other points of interest.

When you zoom out, that’s when the fun begins. Each star – and remember, there are hundreds of millions of them in No Man’s Sky’s unnamed galaxy – is orbited by anywhere from about five to a dozen or more planets. Each one of those planets, which has been generated using a complex algorithm, is the size of a planet that you might find in our own solar system; don’t expect Mario Galaxy-scaled spheroids. 

The galaxy map is a real-time rendering of the game’s actual galaxy, which allows for something I geeked out on. As Murray zoomed seamlessly from a planet’s surface to the map (using debug tools), he pointed out a really cool detail. “If you were watching real close you’d see that some of these stars are some of the same stars that are visible [the planet’s] night sky,” he said. “That’s because this is a real thing when you are in space looking up or when it’s night time and you see stars overhead. Those are real places.”

Murray zoomed through the galaxy at a ridiculous speed, and tiny pinpoints of light – vast solar systems that we could all explore – whizzed past. He says that players will be able to see about 10,000 stars on the map at any given moment, and seeing them onscreen made even that comparatively modest figure seem impossibly large. 

During our demo of the map, Murray acknowledged a potential problem with its scale that we didn’t anticipate. It turns out, they didn’t think about it at first, either. “There will actually be a thing that I never thought we would need, but then as soon as we put in the galactic map and started using it, it was like, ‘Oh we need this.’ We're going to have a minimap for the galactic map down in the bottom left.  Because right now I can't tell my orientation.  And I can get lost; I can just kind of go down here, and now it's quite difficult for me to find the planet that I was just on.  There will obviously be a button to send you back to where you are and a marker for that.”

A map within a map? Considering the size of the galaxy, pilots are going to need all the help they can get.

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