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No Man's Sky' is so huge players found 10 million virtual species in one night

In a March 2007 TED talk, Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard University scientist famous for studying ants, took to the stage to plead for what he described as a biological moonshot: a catalogue of all the known life forms on the planet.

No Man's Sky players discovered some 10 million different alien species in the galaxy in one night, Sean Murray, co-founder of the British game developer Hello Games, wrote on Twitter.

But Murray and his colleagues did not animate video game aliens by the millions - instead, their galaxy is populated via a constantly churning computer program.

Murray tweeted, "For instance over night we hit 10 million species discovered in NMS… that's more than has been discovered on earth.WHAT IS GOING ON!!!"

The space exploration and survival simulator hosts 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets. In the game, playable on the PlayStation 4 and coming to PCs on Friday, the goal is nothing beyond galactic expedition, a la Captain Kirk or Spaceman Spiff. Some of the 18 quintillion worlds in No Man's Sky are barren. (Boredom is, perhaps, the most damning critique of the days-old game.) Others are toxic. The lushest worlds teem with tentacled dinosaurs, giant worms or aggressive chipmunk-faced goats. The large majority of the planets and creatures inhabiting the digital galaxy will remain sight unseen by humans.

No Man's Sky marks a watershed moment in video games - a vast galaxy, immense hype and a small team of indie programmers. To make the galaxy tick, at the heart of No Man's Sky beats a process called procedural generation. The grunt work is done by computer. It is as if Hello Games created a Lego model of the Milky Way, but only by fabricating the bricks and the rules by which the blocks snap together.

"It's a bit like leaving your game uncompleted, and teaching the software to finish designing itself while someone is playing," Mike Cook, an expert on the technique at Falmouth University, told Rolling Stone.

To pull off this trick, No Man's Sky, as the New Yorker reported in 2015, leans on the so-called Superformula, an algorithm discovered by botanist Johan Gielis. (Possibly, to Gielis's company, it leans too heavily.) The Superformula describes both symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes, like rocks or snowflakes or sheep horns. "It's a new way of describing nature," Gielis told Nature in 2003.

The game's life forms are a series of chimeras, organs remixed over and over by the algorithmic engine.

Any given interaction between species is unscripted, but life-like scenarios can emerge. Once, Grant Duncan, the art director for Hello Games, began shooting strange birds out of an alien sky.

One fried body landed on the surface of a ocean. A shark-like animal, as he recounted to the Atlantic, emerged from the depths of the sea to feed on the corpse.

"The first time it happened," Duncan said, "it totally blew me away."