“No Man’s Sky Will Never Run On That” – Sean Murray Talks Defying The Odds On Switch

No Man's Sky
Image: Hello Games

Over the holidays we’re republishing some choice features from the last 12 months. A mix of talking points, interviews, opinion pieces and more from NL staff and contributors, you’ll find our usual blend of thoughtfulness, expertise, frivolity, retro nostalgia, and — of course — enthusiasm for all things Nintendo. Happy holidays!

Anyone who has played or has even been remotely interested in No Man’s Sky over the past six years will most likely have heard of Sean Murray. The founder of development studio Hello Games and creator of No Man’s Sky’s ever-expanding universe, Murray’s name sits above the game’s official Twitter account – a fitting reminder that he is one of the lead brains behind the intricate operation.

Our video producer, the lovely Alex Olney, recently got the chance not only to play an early version of the game, but also to sit down with Murray and talk about all things No Man’s Sky on Switch. This included a discussion about the difficulties of the port, Hello Games’ business model, and which Nintendo character Murray would most like to add into his game (yes, it’s the one you are probably thinking of).

Nintendo Life: First of all, hello! Thank you for speaking to us.

Sean Murray, Hello Games: Very good to talk to you!

So, simply, why the Switch? For one thing, its power must have been a tremendous hurdle.

I suppose it’s a thing with Hello [Games] that we like a challenge and we’re led a lot by what the team wants to do. I’m not sure how much you know of our history and things that we’ve done, but, almost in a similar way with the VR or Xbox version, it starts with some of the team being excited about it. In this case, I have to admit, I thought a little bit like I did with VR, like, this is going to be impossible. And the more I think that, the more I say that, the more excited people get. The project reached a point where you suddenly think, ‘oh, you know, actually this is really exciting.’

But you asked ‘why the Switch?’ I think not just because it’s an exciting technical challenge. There’s part of us that wondered how well the game would play on the go. I think it’s ok to say that. I genuinely sort of thought, ‘I wonder if this is the sort of game that people would like to play, take it around with them and have on the train or whatever.’ Some games it suits better than others, right?

I think recently it’s been really heartening for us, it’s been really exciting for us. We released on Steam Deck and for the last six months we’ve been one of the most played games on Steam Deck, which is a real surprise. Now, I know that people already own No Man’s Sky on Steam, but, they own a lot of games on Steam, right!? It’s amazing to me — and lovely, obviously, and exciting for the Switch version, for us at least — the idea that people are playing that over and above all of the other games that they own on Steam, and more people are playing it as a percentage than they would on our other platforms. It’s obviously just become very suited for that. So that’s been really lovely to see.

Going back to your question of ‘why the Switch?’ — that’s part of it. There’s a technical curiosity and also a, ‘I think this might be a really cool game to be able to bring around with you.’ We didn’t know and I think we’re starting to feel now, ‘yeah, I think it does really work in that format.’ For us playing it in the office, you hear people saying, ‘oh this is my preference now for a platform,’ genuinely. It’s just a lovely device.

How long have you been wanting to bring it to the Switch? Is it something that came down the line, or is it something that you’ve been dreaming of since the inception?

We saw the Switch announced — I remember that happening — and thinking, ‘well, No Man’s Sky will never run on that.’ It’s not like we wanted to and just hadn’t got round to it. But actually, over the last few years, we’ve done a whole bunch of work prepping for this and actually the game reached a certain point where we thought, ‘ok, this might actually be possible, let’s try’ — like I said, the technical curiosity. Of course, we’ve always thought it would be cool, of course we did. What’s exciting for us is bringing it to a new player base; it’s not necessarily about the device, it’s all about the people who haven’t played it before. As a developer, you’re always excited about that. Especially with this where you have a new mobile component to it all, that brings some design challenges as well which are really fun.

this is the first step for us in what we see as a journey

If you want to know how long we’ve been actively in development, it’s like two, two and a half years, maybe more than that. It’s been a small team here who have been in love with the idea and really fighting that fight. Then slowly, over time, more people have gone, ‘oh actually, that looks like it could work. Ok, you’ve done this, I think I could do that’, and then the next person joins in. The typical day on Switch, certainly about a year ago, the development was typified by us having a conversation and saying, ‘I think it’s not going to work, I think it’s impossible. We’ve hit this thing and how is this going to fit?’ Moving to a different architecture and different memory limitations and things like that, each of those we hit and went, ‘oh, for these reasons I don’t think it’s going to be possible, sadly.’ Then we would all go home, and the typical thing that would happen would be the next day somebody walking in like, ‘I’ve thought of something!’ Then it would be back on and we’re all back into it.

Were you ever tempted to pare back the port in order to make the process easier?

So, that’s a good question! I’ll explain two things about No Man’s Sky. The first thing, which I’m sure you’ll be aware [of], is what’s on screen is [procedurally] generated by the computer that it’s running on, which is different to other games. Other games you build a level and it is pre-built and what you see on screen is then — just to be really reductive about it — is a rendering of something static that somebody has already made. No Man’s Sky, when you walk around a planet or look at a tree or a leaf, the computer is having some element of generation there to create that thing that’s in front of you, which means that a tree for us is more expensive to create and to render than it is for another game. It gives some great benefits and it means that we have this infinite universe, but it does mean that it is just flat-out more difficult and more expensive. That’s one of the big challenges compared to other games that I have worked on.

I had always assumed that No Man’s Sky on Switch would have a different universe to the other platforms…It’s been a real surprise to me that we’ve managed to get the same universe to run

Running on Switch, it means that everything that you’re seeing has to be generated by that little device — docked or undocked — which just has an overall impact. For that reason, I had always assumed that No Man’s Sky on Switch would have a different universe to the other platforms. Which may mean nothing to you, but is really important to us. We have generated this universe and we have generated it in loads of different ways and we can simplify that generation. I think it would have been ok for the Switch No Man’s Sky universe to be different to the other platforms. I thought that would be ok and I thought that would be a necessary compromise.

It’s been a real surprise to me that we’ve managed to get the same universe to run. You can fly to the same planet on an Xbox or a PS5 or a PC as on the Switch and see the same terrain shapes and the same tree in the same place and all of those kind of things. That has been, probably, one of the biggest challenges, and where I thought we were going to have to compromise.

We’ve done a lot of work on this and there are places where there are differences. We have six years now of having to think about that — it’s such a long time! Six years of pretty constant updates for No Man’s Sky. I assumed that we would launch with a lot less of that six years included in the Switch version and that we would then, over time, almost run those updates again. The team didn’t think the same way and they were like, ‘we’re putting it all on from day one,’ but I assume that it wouldn’t have been that much of a problem because, for Switch users, they didn’t know that other universe and they’re starting from scratch. Maybe they don’t know the importance of those updates and they would have been delighted to get them.

But actually, the way we have ended up doing it is, we have put this full six years of development, plus the original game. For me, I have worked on this game now for 11 years, and all of that is being crammed into the Switch. That means that from day one you’re getting — and unless you’re a No Man’s Sky player, these will mean nothing to you — base building, and you’re getting pets, and you’re getting expeditions (which for us have been really popular this year), you’re getting living ships, you’re getting mechs, all of those things from day one.

We really try not to promise things. We want to just instead deliver and then see if people are happy.

There’s two things from that whole six years that aren’t on the card from day one, and that’s really been because we’ve tried to pick our battles to an extent and focused on gameplay and performance and wanting what we release to be the best possible version. People know this, but you’re not getting multiplayer day one. That is partly because, whilst multiplayer has been lovely for No Man’s Sky, it’s not actually the most important part of the game. We know from players and where they spend time, some players spend a ton of time in multiplayer, but in general, for most people, it is a game about exploring the vast universe to some extent alone.

Also, five years into the game, we introduced settlements — these huge villages with the biggest constructs that you can get in No Man’s Sky — they don’t appear in the day one version on Switch, but this is the first step for us in what we see as a journey. I imagine that we are going to continue updating Switch and we have a whole bunch of plans of stuff that we will bring in in the future. For new players, they may not know that we’re continually updating the game, but hopefully we get to introduce them to that and welcome them into our community and get them on board with how we continually bring new features and new content into the game.

No Man's Sky 5
Image: Hello Games

You have almost completely answered it, but multiplayer is absent, as you mentioned. Do you envisage multiplayer coming to the Switch version as well?

In terms of player time and where people spend their time in No Man’s Sky, it’s not actually our biggest feature, even though multiplayer is a cool thing and it’s super exciting and I love that we have it, we just know that that’s a fact of where people spend their time. We know that on Switch, of all the platforms, it’s a little bit less multiplayer and network-focused because you’re playing it on a train, or in the pub, or on the toilet, so there’s an element of that about it.

We have an attitude — and I’m not trying to answer your question in a roundabout way — our attitude with Switch is the same as our attitude on all the platforms: I really want to see it out there in people’s hands. We have a bunch of plans of what we think people are going to want the most over the next few months on all platforms, and we really want to see how people react and interact with it and we tend to listen to the community and be led by that. So, if there is something on Switch that people are really focused on, that they are doing a ton more of than we would expect on other platforms, then we will start focusing on that. If there’s something that’s missing that’s really hurting people, then we are going to start focusing on that. I find our user base a really good source of information, but I find them so hard to predict! I have a good history of being right sometimes and totally wrong other times. The number of times that I said that I didn’t think that Steam Deck would be as popular as what it ended up being — I was way off about that! So there’s certain things where I’m really curious to see and then we will follow it.

Where we want to take Switch beyond this, there’s a whole bunch of things that is really exciting.

We really try not to promise things. We want to just instead deliver and then see if people are happy. We don’t tend to talk about things before they arrive, we tend to just get on with them and then surprise people.

There’s a whole bunch of things that I have in mind that I would love to see in the future on Switch, but also on all platforms, that we are excited about. We are just going to see how Switch launch goes, but also we have a big update launching in line with Switch and that’s a really big deal for us. We want to see how people react to that and interact with that, and we are going to be really super excited to figure out what people are or aren’t doing and what they are enjoying or not with that on Switch. I can’t really quantify what that feels like. I know that I am going to be reading every comment and email. I am just about to get a ton more information that I am partly excited about, partly fearing.

Has the porting process for Switch tempted you to port it to mobile, as potentially disastrous as that sounds?

The truth is — I was sort of alluding to this earlier — over the last three/four years, we have done a lot of work on the engine and I am just super impressed and blown away by what [the team] has done. They are, to my mind, really pushing the top end on Playstation 5 and Xbox and Next Gen. No Man’s Sky has really gotten better and better looking. But also, on the lower end, how the game runs on a minimum spec PC for instance has been improving, how the game runs in VR, and now Switch. Those are two really different battles. The work in doing that has paved the way for Switch, and we have really had to dig in in terms of optimisation, and I think that you are going to see some of the other platforms benefit from that. It makes a bunch of things possible that weren’t possible before.

Mobile, I don’t know. I am so up to my neck today trying to get everything ready for release and you’re asking me about mobile! [laughing] Let’s think about it!

It’s the sort of thing where, the Switch only consumes six watts, it’s basically mobile architecture, ‘I wonder…’

I know that I am going to be reading every comment and email. I am just about to get a ton more information that I am partly excited about, partly fearing

It’s super interesting for us to be able to run on that type of device. I’m too involved in all of this stuff to give you a nice simple answer. I’m just sat there thinking about all of the things that we have had to do, and it’s not just about the doorway that it opens for other platforms, what’s exciting is what it does for people who were already playing No Man’s Sky. Where we want to take Switch beyond this, there’s a whole bunch of things that is really exciting. I can’t stop my mind going there!

No Man’s Sky was released and you have been doing this ludicrous amount of free content in terms of the updates, have you ever been tempted to include other revenue streams such as paid DLC or — I’m afraid I’m going to have to say it — microtransactions?

We have our business model which is very straightforward with the players: they pay us some money to play the game and we update the game. We give them a game that we are proud of day one and then as long as we’re excited about it, and they’re excited about it, we have been continuing to update it.

We have really enjoyed that process and that relationship. Lots of people tell us that there is this alternative business model or that alternative business model and there probably is; but we’re enjoying this right now, we really enjoy working on the game and we have got this really positive, welcoming community that I really get a buzz out of making updates for and continuing to tend to that game. So we’re happy! I don’t want to know the alternative future and how much money we could have made, don’t ever tell me that! [laughing] Don’t spoil it, this is fine!

If I look at compatriots like Elite or Star Citizen, there’s a ton of other games that are somewhat similar, and they have other business models which are funded by in-app purchases or season passes, and I think that’s cool – good for them! I don’t necessarily look at it and think, ‘I wish we did that’, but I also don’t look at it and think, ‘you’ve got it right and they’ve got it wrong.’ I just think, ‘cool, we are all trying to figure this out in different ways.’ I don’t know if that makes sense, or if it makes me sound naive.

No, I think it’s laudable. It’s a business model that was very popular because it was the only realistic one available, but no, I think that it is obviously a model that is a little more consumer-friendly.

Honestly, as a developer, I’m never happy.

Yes and no. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious: what we enjoy is delivering value to players. That’s what it really comes down to, that’s what I get out of bed in the morning for, seeing how long people are playing for, how many people are playing, how much they are enjoying it, that’s a real buzz. Releasing an update and seeing people be happy or even when they are not and they have problems and we go about fixing them, there is a real buzz to that. I think that is games development. We like delivering that value.

Actually — and I hope this is ok to say — the tone of the question is like there are these other business models and they’re evil and we’ve got the good one, I don’t think like that. Some of those games do really well and deliver tons of value. I have played so much Fortnite and I have never given a penny to Epic! I have got so much fun out of that game, and Rocket League, I have played an absolute ton of and I feel guilty about how I have never spent anything! It is cool that they can do that, it’s great, but that’s not what we’re doing, it’s just different. It’s probably really naive, but it’s what we’re doing and there’s historical reasons why we got into it, more purposeful reasons why we really think that it’s the right model for us at the moment.

Moving away from business models, which is a gripping subject—

I really feel like I’m about to say the wrong thing! I’m not dismissive of those, I’m not like, ‘oh boo! They do that and we’re the only ones doing it right!’ I don’t think that way, but it’s just not what we do. We’re just very simplistic, it’s nice and simple.

We have been super lucky. It has been six years and we have been one of the most-played games on Steam every year for six years. That’s a lovely place to be. So, it works and it’s fine.

On a more hypothetical note — just a bit of fun — if Nintendo gave you free rein to choose one of their IPs to include in No Man’s Sky on Switch, which IP would you choose and how—

Star Fox!

It’s a constant development process and a constant amount of being proud of what we have done

I thought it was either going to be Star Fox or Metroid.

I loved Star Fox when I was a kid. You are not old enough to remember what it was like seeing that for the first time.

Oh, I am! I am old enough to remember seeing Star Fox.

It was just incredible and, at the time, mind-blowing. It makes me sound very old, but it was like, ‘can you believe these graphics?’

Star Fox
Image: Nintendo

Have you been back to play it recently on original hardware? It runs absolutely atrociously! But it is running on a SNES, which is incredible.

Yeah, it’s incredible.

Are you happy with the Switch port in its launch state?

Yeah, I am really proud of what the team has done. We’re super focused on it, really enjoying working on it.

You’re asking me, though, the impossible question. Honestly, as a developer, I’m never happy. I am proud of the team, I am proud of what we’ve done, but I’m not happy with anything we put out! Because it is always this thing of, ‘we really wanted to get this thing in, we really wanted to do this other thing.’

Art is never finished, it’s abandoned.

Yeah, I don’t know if I would use the word ‘art’! [laughing] We were always thinking that there were like five other things that we wanted to get in. We’re super lucky that we have a development process and that we have a community and that we live in a time where there are updates to games. So there are so many conversations that end with talking someone down off the cliff edge because they are so unhappy that something is not going to make it, and then it’s like, ‘next update,’ or, ‘that will work well with this later on.’ It’s lovely that we have that opportunity.

You’re sat here talking to us, and we’re already working on a whole bunch of content for the next update and the next update. It’s a constant development process and a constant amount of being proud of what we have done and wishing we could have done more.

Excellent. Sean, thank you so much for speaking to us.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Our thanks to Sean Murray and everyone at Hello Games. No Man’s Sky releases on Switch on October 7th, 2022.


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