Feature

The Secret Story Behind No Man's Sky

by Jeff Cork on Dec 19, 2014 at 08:00 AM

No Man’s Sky has captured imaginations since it was first announced at last year’s VGX awards. The space-exploration game is incredibly ambitious, with an entire galaxy of procedurally generated worlds to explore. It’s especially impressive considering how small Hello Games is, hovering at about a dozen employees. During our cover story trip to their Guildford, England, studios, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about the project’s origin. As it turns out, it’s a story that’s even weirder than we expected.

Judging by the scale of the game and the size of the team, you might assume that work on No Man’s Sky began as an all-hands-on-deck effort following the release of Joe Danger 2. Instead, it began several years before that, as a splinter project within the studio. For a year, a four-person group worked in isolation within the walls of Hello Games, in a secret space with its own entrance and a mirrored window that peered into the rest of the office. They recognize how odd it may seem to outsiders, but there was a definite method to their apparent madness. Here’s the story of the secret development of No Man’s Sky.

“After Joe Danger finished, maybe in the middle of Joe Danger 2, I was having a bit of what I’d describe to people who know me as a mid-life development crisis,” recalls Hello Games programmer, managing director, and co-founder Sean Murray. The series was doing well and the studio was growing, but he detected a familiar pattern. Before founding Hello Games, Murray worked at Criterion, where he worked on the Burnout franchise. He loved Joe Danger, but he was concerned that the studio could fall into a rut of pounding out sequel after sequel.  “Suddenly we were making Joe Danger, and we were making Joe Danger 2, and we were making Joe Danger iOS, and we were making it for Vita and for Linux and for PC and for Mac – that would be seven different versions. And what’s after this? Maybe Joe Danger 3? You kind of think, ‘How many games am I going to make in my life?’”

Joe Danger 2

Murray says that it came at a time when the company was having problems with “a certain publisher.” The publisher was based in the U.S., which meant the time difference between there and his Guildford, England, studio required him to stay late. “I just remember it was around Christmas time, the 21st of December or something like that, and I stayed all night.” During that time, owing to either inspiration, desperation, or a mix of the two, he started to work on an idea he’d been kicking around forever. “The guys came in and I’d started writing this new engine. It was like, ‘It’s time. We’re going to make that game.’ It was just kind of at the right time, and the rest was the guys saying ‘Cool.’ And the madness begins.”

Project Skyscraper
No Man’s Sky came from an idea that Murray had since he was a child, which speaks to one of Hello Games foundational ideas. “In the early days of Joe Danger, when we wanted people to join, we said that we wanted to make games of things that you wanted to be when you’re a kid. Right now, we make a lot of games about being a soldier, as in the industry does. And that’s one thing that kids want to be when they grow up. And that’s a popular thing, but if you think of the range of things that you want to be, whether it’s some kids want to be an archaeologist for a while or a fireman or a policeman or a stuntman or whatever – we do not cover that range very well.” 

One of the things that Murray wanted to be when he was younger was an astronaut. “My parents were over [from Ireland], and they were telling me  – and I don’t remember this – that they remember me being seven years old and talking about this game,” Murray says. “And not that I wanted to make it, but that I wanted to play it…. I was playing Elite at the time, and I would talk about games like that and what you could do and where games were going to be and all of that.

“That sounds a bit ridiculous, because every developer says that, ‘It’s the game I’ve wanted to make my whole life,’ or whatever, but it’s a little bit true with this, definitely. And probably a little bit easier to believe and imagine rather than Vin Diesel’s Wheelman is the game I’ve always wanted to make.”

Joe Danger 2

When Murray left Criterion in 2009 to found his new studio, he was moving away from a dependable job to something considerably riskier. At that time, there weren’t many success stories that he could point to, either.  “I was trying to convince the guys that they should leave their really good jobs and come and join me, and Dave [Ream, creative director] in particular sort of got cold feet when I was trying to convince him to leave.” 

Murray put together a collection of photos to lure Ream over, separated into two categories. The first group was images of towering office buildings. “I said, ‘This is what we build right now. We’re making these skyscrapers. They’re big and functional and they’re perfectly good, but they’re monoliths and they’re too blueprinted out.” Next came a series of what Murray calls crazy and weird buildings – things like treehouses and minimalist houses, and esoteric Swedish architecture. “This is what I want to make instead,” he said.

The approach worked. “I remember him saying at the time, he was like, ‘That’s cool, and I’ll leave, but on the condition that Hello Games is one day going to make skyscrapers. I want to make something that’s going to compete with what Criterion is doing.’ We didn’t mean it, that makes us sound really pretentious and arrogant, but it’s one of those stupid things that you say with your buddies. ‘We’re leaving this job, and you’re going to regret it! We’ll shut you all down,’ or whatever,” Murray says, laughing. “‘We’ll make the most amazing games!’”

Their first game, Joe Danger, was a whimsical game about a stuntman inspired by classic Nintendo games. Its color and charm belie what Murray says was a tough development period. Money was tight, and Murray had to sell his house to keep the company going. During that time, Murray and studio co-founders Ream, Grant Duncan, and Ryan Doyle, would refer to something called The Game. The point of the exercise was to think about what would be the most ambitious thing they could come up with – limitations be damned. “It was fun, because we weren’t trying to make it, we were just thinking about it while we were making Joe Danger, and it was cheering us up,” Murray says. The Game was also appropriately referred to as Project Skyscraper.

 

Development on Project Skyscraper took place in a separate office within Hello Games' studio 

 

The Secret Room
Development on Joe Danger in its various forms continued after Murray started work on his new project. Once Joe Danger 2 was finished, he set up a small office away from the rest of the studio’s staff. “It’s funny, because he was in a little room upstairs, where he was kind of like doing lots of business stuff that he wanted to be away from, but at the same time he was also doing his real basic super-core tech proof that you could generate these things,” Ream says.

Murray worked on the engine in his spare time, setting aside one or two days out of each week. That continued for about a year, until he was ready to begin development on the game in earnest. “A game doesn’t actually start until you get a bunch of people together like that, and even though you have this crux of an idea, it just totally doesn’t start to form until the team is there properly and they’re all working on it,” Murray says.

That initial four-person development team consisted of Murray, Ream, Duncan, and programmer Hazel McKendrick. Hello Games’ co-founder Doyle stayed with Joe Danger development, since they wanted to ensure that a senior member of the company was involved in that aspect of the business. Everyone else knew about Project Skyscraper from working on the first Joe Danger, but McKendrick wasn’t at the company at the time. That meant bringing her up to speed. “We had been talking about it a lot, but it had been secretive,” Murray says. “[Hazel] got brought in, and it was like, ‘Let me tell you about this crazy idea.’ She was the one who had to have the full induction.” 

The team-within-a-team decorated their new space with concept art and inspirations from classic sci-fi paperbacks

If there was any reluctance to join this splinter group, nobody was showing it. “The idea was an easy sell, for me it definitely was,” Duncan says. “You always dream about making a world or some kind of set and then populate it with creatures and inventing everything. No Man’s Sky is humongous and we are building a universe and designing planets. …When we started Joe Danger, there was just a magic air of a small, focused team that had dedicated themselves to making this idea, and although we grew to make Joe Danger 2 and were happy, the vibe felt a little bit different and we felt that we needed to separate ourselves.” There were a few reasons for that exile. In addition to rekindling that original startup atmosphere, the Project Skyscraper team wanted to give the people now working on Joe Danger – for whom many of them this was their first industry job – ownership on the project. And, as Ryan explains, having two games being developed simultaneously in such a small space would have been a big distraction for everyone.

“At various times [at Criterion] we tried to start up little incubation teams to make little projects and things like that,” Murray says. “It was always very difficult. The way I describe it is you’re working on Burnout, and you love working on Burnout and you can see someone beside you and they’re making a different project, like a little side project. If that side project is going really well, you think, ‘Screw this. Screw Burnout, I want to work on that.’  And if it’s going really badly, you think, ‘Why am I wasting my time on this when that’s going really awfully and we’re terrible and we can’t do anything and I hope I don’t get drawn into that project.’ It’s immensely distracting, and we really struggled at Criterion to come up with anything to get anything off the ground. We were just going to start a new studio effectively with its own culture and things, and I know it’s weird but it got me excited and it got the guys excited.”

Murray and his team set up shop in a space within the office that was being used as a storage room. “It’s that Ghostbusters moment, where you move into this wreck of an office,” Murray recalls. “When we moved into this bigger office first, it was a total wreck. We never touched this room, so this room always just had the spare furniture and the lights didn’t work and stuff like that.” They installed lights, added a few network points, and got the separate entrance working after misplacing the key. It was small, but it would be their home for a year. “We went and got every sci-fi book cover or sci-fi image that we could imagine, and it sounds bad, but we actually got sci-fi books and ripped the covers off of them and we plastered the walls.” That way, when someone needed inspiration, they’d only have to look around. 

“It was quite weird that we had to block the door off,” Ream says. “It was a little odd, and it definitely made you feel way more pressure, which is really good because you’re really carving yourself a path for the others and I just think things like that are what drive us forward the best, that pressure. It’s self-imposed, but really helpful.”

From their office, the Project Skyscraper crew could see their co-workers through a one-way mirror

“I agree that us being secretive from our own team is definitely weird, and I think that as things go, Hello Games is pretty weird,” Murray says. “The best way I’d describe it is you want to start a band and you want to start making music. If you said that to anyone, any normal person that tries to tell their friends, ‘Hey, we’re going to start a band, and we’re going to make an album,’ a couple of things happen there. One, all your friends think you’re an idiot, and they picture that that music is going to be awful. So you have that to prove it, I think. The second thing is, you do not want to play your music to anyone until it’s ready. If you’re writing a book or you decide you’re going to write a comic and you’re going to take a year out and you’re going to do that, human nature is you don’t want to share that. And it’s the right thing to do, to not share. It builds up this natural pressure, which I think is really healthy for the project. It’s probably not healthy for you and your friends, but it’s healthy for the project. You want to create something and deliver it in a way that seems quite whole and how you are expecting it to be. And every time you show it, I think it releases that pressure and then you probably aren’t quite as driven. And then you start to accept things, like in this case how the game looks or how it plays or whatever.”

The rest of the staff was curious, but seemed as though they understood the reason for the secrecy. Even with the separate entrance, people would occasionally catch glimpses of things by walking past an open door or through a window that connected the two offices. “It felt to me like every time I’d walk through here in the morning I’d partially cover my eyes in order to keep it a secret. The little things I’d see I’d be like, ‘That’s completely different from last time!’” says Gareth Bourne, a designer at Hello Games. That window, incidentally, was eventually covered up with a mirrored film to further prevent any snooping. “It sounds really bad,” Murray says, with something approaching mortification in his voice. “If the lights are dimmed in there, you can see in there, which makes it even worse; you could see them, just to sound even crazier.”

“At one point, somebody had seen – and I think I was just watching a video or something – and they saw an airship on my screen,” Murray says. “And then they were convinced that we were making a game about airships and extrapolating all that out. You have to say no, and there’s a process of elimination like, ‘Did I see a car?’”

“The climate was probably a bit weird, because we would be doing different hours, like if we were crunching for something they might not be in, and if they were crunching they might not be in,” Doyle says. “You’d feel a bit guilty leaving early and they’re all there. I think for the most part people were just excited and curious to see what it was going to look like.”

“When people from the rest of the team asked, ‘Really Sean, you really need to give us something on what this game’s about,’ I’d say, ‘I was really into sci-fi, and you never feel like you’ve ever been an astronaut in a game before, so that’s one idea I’m thinking about,’” Sean says. “I think probably what people – if they had to guess – would picture is some kind of cute little astronaut dude running around. That probably made things even worse.”

 

Hello Games co-founder David Ream in a festive mood

Building For Their Friends
The process sounds more than a little selfish, but when you talk to the people who worked on the game during its Project Skyscraper days, you realize it’s quite the opposite. Murray says that when they first began working on Joe Danger, they structured milestones around impressing publishers and for industry trade shows. At some point, the team shifted gears and decided to make builds for shows including PAX and Gamescom, which have a strong focus on average players. 

“That felt much more healthy and much more productive and you get much more helpful feedback,” he says. “That’s what we found building stuff with a particular friend in mind. If you go back to the idea of making a book or comic, you would be writing that book, you would have a specific friend in mind who’s going to love that book, and then you wait until the last possible moment to share it with them. That’s sort of how it is.”

Hello Games is small, and as such the employees have become close over the years. They’ve gone to shows together, crunched on several games, endured an office flood that destroyed computers, and worked hard together. Murray’s decision to close himself off to work on the game ended up being, counterintuitively, an act of generosity to his friends.

“We thought of the rest of the team and we wanted to make the game and we visualized and worked backwards imagining, ‘Jake is going to love this particular bit, Aaron is going to absolutely love this.’ That’s the sort of conversations that you have. It wasn’t being mean or trying to be overly private, it’s just that you don’t want to share until it’s ready.”

“Probably the weirdest thing is that often we would turn off our screens or do something else if someone came in,” Ream says. “That always seemed a bit mean to me.”

At a certain point, Murray was given the opportunity to unveil the game at the VGX Awards. It was a big deal for the studio, and he jumped at the chance. At that point, the majority of the team at Hello Games still didn’t know what exactly what those guys in the side office were working on. A few days before the rest of the world saw it, Murray and his crew took the rest of the team upstairs to their tiny conference room, a few at a time, and introduced them to the game – No Man’s Sky.

He walked them through the trailer, showed a little bit of the tech, and then provided some context to what it was and how it all fit together. Murray says he was a raw nerve at the time, and that he was particularly sensitive to criticism. “There was a lot of pressure on us at the time, kind of like today. I think they actually liked it, but every little comment was like a knife [mimes stabbed in the heart]. It’s like the book, where, ‘I don’t know, is the prose a bit weird?’”

Doyle says that getting a set of fresh eyes on the project was invaluable, especially since it came from people whose opinions they respected. “[Would they say] ‘That’s awesome!’ or ‘What the hell have you been doing? Have you lost your minds?’ Fortunately it wasn’t that.”

No Man's Sky

Bourn recalls that he was essentially speechless when he finally got to see the game. “It was gobsmacking. I think Sean was afraid we had nothing to say, but we were all just so amazed – well I was. ‘That’s insane!’”

After the game’s unveiling, Hello Games started absorbing the rest of the staff into the project. In addition to thinking about what their friends would like about the game, they had the more pragmatic task of giving their friends assignments. “A small team is good, because you can set a lot of foundations and other people can come along, especially for art,” Duncan says. “You can take a ship prototype and do one of everything and then when the rest of the guys join they can use that as a kind of benchmark.” That was near the end of 2013, and Hello Games has been working full-time on No Man’s Sky since.

“For years, there was a link on our website and you would click and it would say games that Hello Games makes, and it had Joe Danger, and underneath, it said Project Skyscraper, just as a little quirky in-joke to us,” Murray says. “We get it all the time now. We used to have people ask us, who knew the studio, ‘What’s Project Skyscraper?’ That was nice. Now we get this really funny thing, where every now and then I’ll see somebody say, ‘They made Joe Danger, they’re making No Man’s Sky, and they’ve got a top-secret project, Project Skyscraper.”