‘No Man’s Sky’ Designer Sean Murray on New Gaming Horizons and Never Giving Up
VICE meets the man at the heart of one of 2016's biggest video games, to learn about stresses and relief, hopes and hardships.
I know from previous experience that you don't really interview Sean Murray, co-founder of Guildford's Hello Games, the company's managing director and lead designer on No Man's Sky. You show up to wherever he is, and you let him talk. Since living for a few years under the wide skies of Australia, Sean's been fascinated with what's beyond our own atmosphere, and No Man's Sky has finally provided him with a vehicle to go there: into the unknown, into infinity. The week before the game's worldwide release, I met him at Sony's London headquarters, and I basically just sat back and watched the minutes tick by on my little handheld recorder. It seems like baggage to present the below as a Q&A; instead, what follows are Sean's words, spoken in a voice of fatigue and relief, and just a little apprehension. On how he feels with the game imminent (well, out, now); on the challenges and inspirations the team faced along the way; and on its own Big Bang back in the winter of 2013.
That New Baby Smell
Seeing the game boxed feels weird. We weren't originally going to physical retail, but even back then, before we conformed a boxed version, places like Tesco would have No Man's Sky available for pre-order—and that used to scare the life out of me. I've obviously worked on boxed releases before, but I never really understood or appreciated what was happening then. I worked on games like Burnout and Black, and those meant a lot to me but not in this way. The night Burnout came out, I didn't bother to get a midnight copy, whereas a lot of the team did. Now I just feel that this is so meaningful to us, to be on the shelf. Seeing it at Tesco, I move all the No Man's Sky boxes up to the number one slot.
But what's scarier than people's money, through pre-orders, is their time; the amount that they've invested in us, on a forum, talking about a game that isn't out for another three years. You didn't mean that to happen, but when it is happening, you suddenly think, What have I done? Because back then, at that point, we've still got years ahead of us. And it's the most difficult thing to deal with, when people are spending their time just discussing the game, speculating, building it up in their minds.
In 2011, in the evenings, and on the weekends, I was doing No Man's Sky, and I don't think people realize, or appreciate, what that really means. – Sean Murray
I started working on this game in 2011, in my spare time, while the studio was still making versions of Joe Danger. In the evenings, and on the weekends, I was doing No Man's Sky, and I don't think people realize, or appreciate, what that really means. It's when you finish work in the evening, and you're tired, and there's nothing you'd like to do more than just sit down and shut off, but there's this thing in your head that makes you get up, and go and do a couple of hours of work every night. It becomes this really meaningful thing—"passion project" feels like quite a throwaway phrase. I'll be out with friends, and they'll say: "What is the point of you coming out tonight?" Because I'll just be sat there, with my mind on work. It takes over everything.
It's just years of making yourself get up and making this thing become a reality. It's so much pushing and driving. And that turns it into your baby. You care about this so much, way more than you should, because it represents not just this game, but also all of these sacrifices—all of these weekends that you didn't go and see your friends, or the evenings when you got no sleep. That obsession breeds further, well, obsession through guilt.
We didn't do a Kickstarter, and it was discussed. We didn't do early access, either. I was really resistant to both of those things. Everyone was saying, early on, "Presumably you're going to Kickstart this?" I remember when we were flooded in late 2013, and we'd only just announced the game at the VGX Awards—I had friends in the industry thinking that this was too perfect a situation, and that our Kickstarter would go crazy. But no, we'd never had any intention of doing that. All of that terrifies me. We are going in the opposite direction to what a lot of studios are going. A lot of other developers look to take as much feedback as possible from the community; they want to base design decisions on what that community is saying; and they want to provide really early versions of the game. And that's lovely, but it's not something that really appeals to me.
'No Man's Sky,' VGX Awards 2013 reveal trailer
The Biggest Bang
So I was doing the game my spare time, but it didn't really start at the studio until about a year after that. Then four of us got in a room—me, Grant (Duncan), Dave (Ream), and Innes (McKendrick)—and we got a load of old sci-fi books, and we cut all the covers off them and put them on the walls. We had this entire wall plastered in sci-fi book covers. We just put ourselves in this space, surrounded by the imagery. And that was actually how we ended up on the VGX Awards in 2013. Geoff Keighley, who was arranging and hosting the awards, was over to see Media Molecule. He came to visit us too, just because we're right next door to Media Molecule, and he was looking around the office and went into that room—our sci-fi Hannibal Lecter sort of room, with all these images cut out and stuck to the wall. We quickly ushered him out of there, but then he emailed me, asking what we were up to, so I guess it stuck with him.
Geoff mailed me, about three or four weeks before the VGX Awards. He sent me this mail that had just one line in it, saying something like: "Are you ready to join the big time?" Or something like that; something that nobody in Europe would ever send anyone. He said that they'd show whatever we had; the VGX Awards wouldn't usually have many indie games on them, because it was a place for the big triple-A announcements, so this was a massive opportunity. We were still building tools and technology at the time, but we already had some cool stuff. It was madness to think we could put together a trailer in that length of time, and the studio had never had anything like this before.
But we got it all ready, and then right at the end we changed our minds, because we didn't think it was good enough, and we tried to talk Geoff out of showing it. But he'd already booked in the time. We flew over to the States—the whole thing was really weird. The rest of the team didn't know, and most of them hadn't even seen the game themselves, yet. They came in one morning, and we were packing our bags: "We're off to America, to be on the VGX Awards, see you later!"
I booked the flights for VGX at four in the morning, the morning before we flew. And at that point, I suddenly realized that we were about to show this, and there were people who we'd worked with before, and they're gonna be... Well, they might be annoyed. We'd been secretive about when we were doing, but I owed them that, some insight. Because this is not the way the industry normally works.
Usually you'd be spending that entire first year of development trying to nurture some kind of relationship with a publisher, or a platform, like Sony, because you're so reliant on those partnerships. You'd be talking to everyone. We should have been doing that. And it was really risky to not do that. If that trailer had shown at VGX, at a point when nobody else was involved, and it got a mediocre reaction, that would have been it. You can't then go to Sony, or Microsoft, or Nintendo and say, "we've got this great idea," because it's already proved to not be such a great one.
I am totally OK with doing something different, and I will be totally OK with some people not liking this. Over the five years of developing No Man's Sky, I've made my peace with that. – Sean Murray
The reaction from the people I showed the trailer to was really mixed. People generally said, at the time, just before we showed it at VGX, "I like it, but I don't think other people are going to. It's not everyone's cup of tea." Sony loved it, though, and here we are. Even right now, we're doing a lot of playtesting, and people frequently say: "I like this, but I'm not sure that everyone is into this type of game." On a bad day, that makes me really worried. On a good day, I'll remind myself that we're so locked into this idea of how a game should present itself, but we're not doing that.
With our game, often you're not led to an objective. The game doesn't hold your hand. And some people will like that. I've had people tell me, "I like that the game was treating me as intelligent," but then what I think they're saying is: "But I don't think gamers will be able to deal with that." I'm not saying any gamers are wrong, but I am totally OK with doing something different, and I will be totally OK with some people not liking this. Over the five years of developing No Man's Sky, I've made my peace with that.
When you're an indie dev and you've worked on a game and it doesn't really have the traction or impact you wanted it to, you then watch every other dev out there really jealously. Oh, Jonathan Blow, why are all your games so popular? But then you see some indie devs and they're on the road all the time, meeting press and doing shows, and that's not usually what they signed up for. They're out there all the time, checking every bit of feedback. But for me, if you see somebody talking crap about your game, then that's negative overall for your creative process. But also, actually hearing that people are really into it, before it's out, that doesn't do you much good either, because you then feel the pressure of having to prove yourself. So I've tended to not look at comments about the game.
There are some people on the team who do check everything, though, and they drive themselves absolutely insane. They're on Reddit, on every forum; they're just like building up this massive network of what every single person on the internet thinks about the game.
Every now and then I do check it, and I can say that there have been times during the making of this game when we definitely would have given up had it not already been announced, and people weren't excited about it. We have gone massively into debt to make this game, as a studio. I've reached a Zen of stress, basically, where nothing can stress me out now, because I'm already past the threshold. But whenever I thought about stopping, there was almost no question of doing so, because you knew people were so into what we were doing. We've signed up for this—we have to finish it.
It sounds so phoney, but without the supportive side of the community that built up around No Man's Sky, it just wouldn't have happened. There's no way we could have worked on this for five years in a vacuum, or we would have gone absolutely insane, and we could never have followed through on how ridiculously stupid this game is. We would have stopped long ago.
Seeing all of this marketing for the game, the hype, it doesn't do that much for me, really. It's cool, but I thought this would feel like success in some form, but it's not. It's cool to have a retail launch, as hardly any indie games get that, and it was cool to be onstage at E3. But personally, I didn't get much from that experience. There's no way to say this without it sounding bad, but what I like the most about doing this is working on the game. I don't like releasing it quite so much. That's the cold reality of it. I will probably be a wreck the week it comes out, curled up in a ball.
We will all be in the office when it launches. We will likely be overwhelmed by the different ways that people are playing the game, and the simple number of people who are playing, too. There will be things we need to react to, and we want to be there for that. We owe that to people. The good part of this is that we're incredibly productive as a team, so we can handle this. We've been very good at making this game better. I feel obligated to be there for its launch, to respond accordingly. But after this, I'll definitely take a break and have a mental breakdown, somewhere.
We can't deliver continuous awe for an infinite amount of time. That's not how human emotions work. – Sean Murray
With Joe Danger, we were trying to make as perfect a game as we could. I'm not saying the game was perfect, but everything we were doing on the design side, it was so precise. All the little bits came together in a very exact manner. With No Man's Sky, we've made peace with just doing something different. That's what we wanted to do. When people sit down to play it, or review it, they're judging us. But we can't control how they decide to feel about the game, and I won't be hurt by anyone saying that the game isn't perfect.
I won't be hurt by someone saying that No Man's Sky is not this "endless game," or the biggest game ever made—we never set out to do those things. We set out to make you feel emotions that you'd maybe not felt in a game before, and that's it. And that is worth the cost of entry for me, that feeling of stepping through a sci-fi book cover and that you'd landed on one of those worlds, and you'd had a moment of awe. We can't deliver that continuously—we can't deliver continuous awe for an infinite amount of time. That's not how human emotions work. But if we can do it once for a player, and make them go into the galactic map and just think: Wow, how big is this game? How big is our universe? Those kind of things. If we do that, I'm happy.
No Man's Sky is out now for PlayStation 4. It is released for Windows on August the 12. Find more information here.