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Few games have captured the public imagination like No Man’s Sky. Due out in June 2016, the game promises an entire universe to explore: some 18 quintillion planets, which would take some 600 billion hours for players to fully explore. (Who knows, though; never underestimate the public’s appetite for videogames.)
This would all be impressive enough, but what turned our heads was the kaleidoscopic array of colors in which the game is painted, full of toxic green skies and impossibly lush plants, dank caves and deep purple starscapes. The small team behind it drew inspiration from classic sci-fi artists like Chris Foss, John Harris and Ralph McQuarrie. But in a long conversation with Kill Screen founder Jamin Warren, the game’s managing director and creative heart Sean Murray reveals the game’s more personal, and terrestrial, influences, including the Alaskan wilds and his childhood on the Australian outback.
Kill Screen (KS): As someone who liked the Joe Danger franchise, it’s interesting seeing you guys go from that to No Man’s Sky. Does that feel like a big jump to you?
SM: It’s weird, actually. When you say to me that you liked the game, 100 percented it or whatever, that gets me right here. It’s really meaningful because, of anything that I’ve done, it’s one of the things that I’m most proud of. And it’s amazing doing the whole No Man’s Sky thing and talking about it. People are inadvertently dismissive of it. Like, they don’t mean to be, but they’re like “Oh, how did you guys who did that little thing … now you’re doing No Man’s Sky, which seems cool.” And they don’t mean to be (dismissive), and they’re totally right obviously, but there’s this really strong gut reaction to say, “Joe Danger was awesome. I’m really proud of that.”
KS: Well, I played it on the original PS3 when it came out. And it’s rare, because I go through a lot of games, it’s rare to play something that was designed for another system and then moved on to mobile, but one that I felt took advantage of it. There are a lot of games which take advantage of swiping and touch. You really made full use of my fingers when playing the game, so I appreciate that.
SM: We made Joe Danger 1, which was on consoles, then we made Joe Danger 2, which was also on consoles, and we found that process of making Joe Danger 2, making a sequel, very difficult. The company grew—we had been 4 people and then we grew to about 10 people. Making a sequel reminded me of some of the stuff that I had left behind at (previous employer) Criterion, where we had Burnout after Burnout after Burnout, some of the things that I had wanted to get away from, and suddenly I felt like I was running a proper studio and it felt like a job. And also, it became a much more commercial endeavor, like, “the game has to sell this many copies to keep the studio afloat, and as soon as it’s out, we better come out with the next idea.” And actually, we were very lucky with Joe Danger 1. It came out kind of right as the indie bubble was rising. It came out next to Limbo and Braid and those kind of games. And those games were selling really well. And Joe Danger 2 came out when there was a real squeeze on indies. People were playing XBLA and PSN a lot less. And we were really just struggling to stand out. And I kind of felt like, “Is this what my life is now?”
KS: Is there a moment when you just kind of looked in the mirror and wiped the mist away and were like, “Who am I?”
SM: It was December 2012, and we were on the phone with Microsoft arguing back and forth on where our game that we just released sat on their dashboard and the trouble people would have with finding the game, which was a problem all indie games were having at the time.
KS: Right. Immortalized in Indie Game: The Movie.
SM: Right, right. I remember writing an email, and it was like, “To find our game, the minimum number of button presses was like 17 button presses, and it had just been released.” It was just a nightmare. So we were going through that, and that for me … like, they were great. They said, “Let’s get on the phone, let’s chat about it,” but they couldn’t do it until like 3 or 4 in the morning our time. And no one was in the office, we were off for Christmas. And I just sat there and I was like, “Well, I can sit all day and work on Joe Danger, or I can start something new.” And, actually, the studio at that point brought out Joe Danger on iOS, and that was sort of the reaction of that feeling. That, “Let’s do something new.”
KS: Was that the seed of something kind of new on that Christmas? Was it on Christmas day?
SM: No, not Christmas day. It was like December 21.
KS: Ah, it would have been great for me as a storyteller. It’s on Christmas day, and like—
SM: Everyone had gone home. So we were there at like, Joe Danger on iOS kind of was spurred from that. And there was a real feeling in the studio of “let’s do justice to this game, we’re tired of this battle.” For me, there was a real push to start something new. So I started coding No Man’s Sky like that day, basically. And I remember mailing Graham David Ryan, who I founded Hello Games with, at like 4 in the morning, and giving them a list of things that we’d sorted out with Microsoft about placement on the store and everything, but none of it matters, because we’re doing this thing! Because we had always talked about No Man’s Sky as a game, as a concept. But it was like, “All right, we’re gonna do this.”
KS: Do you remember the first line of code, like, what was the first thing you started with?
SM: Actually, at the end of that day, I had something that looked basically like Minecraft. But Minecraft, like, on a planet kind of thing. And like a very basic version of Minecraft, but that was the starting point.
KS: It’s a prototype.
SM: Yeah. And I remember showing everyone excitedly, and they were like, “He has gone insane. He’s so excited about this thing that looks really crappy.”
KS: So how did you describe it to your co-founders?
SM: Yeah, we’d always talked about, as a high concept, doing a very ambitious game, one set in space, where you could go anywhere and visit any planet. Something kind of without boundaries. That was an aspiration, and it was a thing that would keep us going. Like, even now as we’re working on the final stages of No Man’s Sky, the thing that will keep us going is, “What’s the other game that you’d really like to make?” It’s just always a pub conversation kind of thing. So we used to always have that chat. And we’d kind of describe this game, but I don’t think we necessarily pictured ourselves making it. It was like an aspirational thing.
KS: Like, “Some day, after Joe Danger 7.”
SM: Not even that. Just like, “We’ll draw pieces of this, we’ll make a smaller version of this,” that kind of thing. And the idea I sold the guys on was basically, “We have X amount of money in the bank, from Joe Danger.” Traditionally, I guess you’d use that to make similar sized games, keep some in reserve, that kind of thing. The idea I sold the guys on was, “Let’s just … spend everything we have and make this game.” And our state of mind was such that that would be no bad thing. I remember Graham being like, “If this all ends tragically, then I’m kind of ok with that. I’ll go off and find a normal job. But at least that’s better than the alternative, which is just this forever.” You know, making Joe Danger 7 or, like he was saying, if we made a similar-sized game, he was saying he’d be disappointed if it were successful, because he’d know he’d have to make a sequel and then a sequel to that.
KS: It’s that burden of creativity, huh?
SM: Right. And it would just sort of turn into a slog. Like, at some point, the commercial side of it has to stop. So, the idea of going bankrupt was appealing to him. Then we’d go out in a blaze.
KS: What’s that saying? “There’s no such thing as bravery, only people backed in a corner”?
SM: So yeah, there were definitely those conversations. For us, describing it, you were saying, “How would you describe it to the rest of us?” We had the overall high concept, but that conversation that kept happening was, we would talk about, “Well, we’re making it super ambitious. Like, you can go anywhere, all those kind of things.” But, occasionally, we’d have these conversations like, “Well, if this system that we’re working on doesn’t work, we’ll tone that back. At some point we might start making specific levels, it won’t all be procedurally generated.” And at various points, we’d have little offshoots where somebody would start doing that, and we’d have these little conversations which were like “Are we ready to decide to pull back the ambition of this yet?” So there was a lot of that when I was showing that prototype. I remember it being us gathered around going, “So, actual planets, then. Actual planet-sized planets.”
KS: Not like background art or anything.
SM: And I was always just like, “Let’s just see how far this will go.” Dave always describes it as this snowball that we started pushing together, and it just started off really small. And I was just like, “Let’s just see how a big a snowball you can make.”
KS: I used to be a newspaper reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and I always used to envy people who wrote fiction—that if something doesn’t work, if the details don’t fit together, you just create them. But then I thought about it some more, because when you sit down and read an amazing piece of contemporary fiction and you read the description of the universe and you’re like ,“Oh my god, this is not a documentary, someone just invented this place in their head.” And at that moment, everything is possible, but it’s a totally separate challenge. You’re not bound by stringing these facts together to make them work, but you’re bound by the opposite problem, which is that you can do more or less whatever you want in the world of fiction, but that means you need to describe the color of what the rug is, and what it felt like, and character’s mental states and all those sorts of things. So it seems like having levels, at some level, there’s some security in that. But you have carved out a very different set of problems.
SM: Right. Because we have made games traditionally before, so you know how to do that and you know the work involved and you know the ultimate outcome of that, and we spent a year, four of us, broken away from the rest of the company making a prototype, and all throughout that, there was an ongoing conversation: “Are we going completely crazy, should we start making the game properly?” And by properly, I mean in a more traditional way, I guess. I think what kept us going in the decision-making process was that we said we would get into this to go bankrupt.
KS: A sort of Thelma and Louise moment, you’re all holding hands.
SM: We were stupid enough for it to have that appeal to us, but there’s a kind of silliness to that. I think you can only do that if you’re a bunch of friends and you’re encouraged by the camaraderie of it.
KS: Did you all meet at Criterion, or were you all here in Gilford originally?
SM: Pretty much. We didn’t all meet at Criterion, but we’ve all been friends for years. So me and Ryan started at Criterion on the same day pretty much. And we sat beside each other at Criterion for like 4 or 5 years, and we started up Hello Games, and we sat beside each other for another 4 or 5 years. So we don’t even have to talk to each other now, because we’ve had all the conversation we could have had.
KS: Everything has pretty much been said.
SM: Yeah. We know … I could write down any conversation between me and Ryan. I know exactly what he’ll say, and he knows exactly what I’d say in response. And then Dave was a friend who I’d worked with for a few years, and he had actually gone to school with Grant, so they knew each other since they were 6 or 7 years old. So we’re all extremely tightly knit because of that.
KS: Yeah, I can imagine. Where in Ireland are you from?
SM: I’m from down South. The nearest thing is a little fishing village, Ardmore, but that’s about 4 miles away, so we’re kind of in the middle of nowhere, basically.
KS: Has your family been in that area for a long time?
SM: No, my dad and mum both traveled loads. That’s a real Irish tradition.
KS: Travelling a lot?
SM: Travelling, emigrating, whatever. So my mum was born in Ireland, but moved to England, joined the British army, and then traveled a lot with the British army. Went to Singapore, Malaysia, stuff like that.
KS: Oh wow.
SM: My dad went to America to work. He was in New York for a bit, and then San Francisco, and like went as a kid. It’s kind of a classic Irish tale, but he went to America and he had never used a telephone, because they just never used them back home. And he like got a job at Bell Telephone, that sort of thing. And then they still had conscription. So even as an immigrant, you could be conscripted. So he went into the American army and traveled a lot with that.
KS: Was this all before you were born?
SM: Oh, yeah. So they both came back to Ireland, met, settled down, bought a farm, which is like a really good Irish thing to do. And they were farming, there’s like 5 of us kids—I’m the youngest. And then my dad got to about his 40s, mid-40s, and had what I presumed was some kind of mid-life crisis, like “Am I gonna be here all my life?” And he uprooted the family and went traveling, so we spent the most time probably in Australia. I was a real young kid, so it’s all normal to me, but we went to Australia, travelled around a lot farming there for a while. We were in the outback for a while, running this huge farm basically.
KS: Where in the Australian outback were you all?
SM: It would have been Queensland. And it was on this one-and-a-quarter-million acre farm, basically.
KS: What was your family farming?
SM: Cattle. We were near Brisbane on a cane farm for a while. And that wouldn’t have been that they owned them, just that they were kind of running them and stuff like that. Kind of managing a ranch. I was really young, so my memories of Australia are—it sounds really cheesy because of the game we’re making—but massive wide-open spaces, being completely alone basically, and crazy skies as well. My parents claim full ownership of No Man’s Sky.
KS: Are they going to be listed in the credits?
SM: Yeah, yeah. They saw the E3 trailer and they were saying how we used to fossilize dinosaur footprints near where we are and we used to sleep out under that. And they were like, “We did everything for you! Dinosaurs, alien landscapes, night skies!”
KS: Do your parents talk about these other places?
SM: Yeah, I think it’s an Irish thing. Irish people emigrate a lot. There’s a real culture of it. You know, and that was forcibly I guess, but now it’s seen as … I guess the American story is, you come to America as an immigrant and find your success and live in America as a good citizen. The Irish success story is you go to America or Australia or England or whatever. You become successful. You come home. That’s the, almost in school, would be seen as the great Irish success story.
KS: Or you send your money back because of low corporate tax rates.
SM: Yeah yeah, there you go!
KS: That is the true Irish success story, make your money abroad and then send it back to Ireland.
SM: So my parents would definitely fall into that, where they would talk of crazy adventures they had had. I’m not sure I would say they encourage us to go traveling, but they definitely see it positively, whereas a different culture would see that as a real negative. Like, you know, my son had to emigrate to find work, like I failed in some way.
KS: What do your siblings do? Did they stay in Ireland?
SM: They’ve all traveled, but they’re all back there now. I’m the real black sheep of the family.
KS: You’re not too far away.
SM: They’re all doctors of one type or another, basically. They all work in medicine of some sort. I make videogames. Rob people’s brains, basically.
KS: Did your parents ever have a place that they talked about wistfully? It might be different for each one of them. I don’t know if you travel, I’ve gotten to travel more as I’ve gotten older, and when I leave New York, I just remember, “Ah, the smell of New York.”
SM: My dad has a big thing for San Francisco. He thinks it’s the greatest in the world, basically. And he would have been there in the ‘60s. I can only imagine what it would have been like, and I think it to him represents the beauty of America. Because it is a very beautiful place, but also all of the cultures mixing. It must have been crazy, going from Ireland where he would have grown up without electricity and phone and then going to America. For me, I would have Australia in my mind, in terms of the outback. That’s what really stayed with me. About 6 or 7 years ago, I went on a trip to the Arctic, basically.
KS: The North Pole?
SM: It sounds more impressive than it is. You basically go to Norway and you keep on going North. But I think travel has this real ability to stick with you. My whole thing was that I was going to see the Northern lights and I totally didn’t, so. But I had a skidoo and went traveling across frozen lakes. It was the first time for me that I actually got that feeling back that you get in the outback: “I’m alone here, completely. If something goes wrong with my skidoo, I’m probably dead.”
KS: Was it just you?
SM: There was a group of us.
KS: From Hello Games?
SM: No, not people that I knew. You were just supposed to go travel in groups and stuff.
KS: For that reason. To eat somebody in case something goes wrong.
SM: Haha, yeah. I crashed my skidoo and I was at the back, and I basically fell like an hour and a half behind everyone else. To the point where I was following tracks, but I wasn’t really sure. And I should have been stressed, I should have been worried. But I was just like, “This is amazing.” I had no idea how to get back. I was maybe going the wrong way. But let me just take this in.
KS: This summer, I went to Hawaii for the first time, and it’s amazing—it’s part of the United States. I mean, if you’re Hawaiian, you probably have very strong thoughts about why that is. But nevertheless, there’s this place on the island of Lanai which is generally, of the Hawaiian islands, pretty uninhabited. There’s only about 3,000 people who live there. And the back of the island has this section where it’s the windward side, so it’s super dry and it’s called the Garden of the Gods. And it’s all red clay everywhere, and it looks like Mars. And so I was with my wife and we get out of the car and we’re like, “This is crazy! This is totally nuts!” And we just like to think that this is something that exists.
SM: I actually came back from that trip and I think I worked at, I actually went to a company called Kuju, which is also in Gilford, between EA and Criterion, and started working on their games. And at that moment, it probably sounds really cheesy, I was like, “I’m going to quit my job. I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I’m definitely going to quit my job.” Just that day to day, you don’t really take any time to think about what’s going on, and then travel, I always find I’ll have my best thoughts getting on a plane going someplace new.
KS: That was a human impulse for a very long time, just to discover, discover. When I was in Hawaii, I was up late one night and I was just very curious. I was on Wikipedia, and you get in these holes in Wikipedia. So I was curious: “How did people get to Hawaii?” And then there are all these smaller Micronesian islands, and I was like, “How did people get there?” They would study the currents and they’d build these elaborate maps with string. It’d be like one person in a tribe would be the wind expert. So they’d figure it out. They knew that if you had a current that was going this way and another going this way, there had to be something obstructing the current. And then they’d get in these boats and lay on their back and figure out which way the current was going and just leave eventually, like, “I know there’s probably an island somewhere that way.” We don’t all have that experience as humans, probably thankfully, but it’s important getting those moments where you feel like it.
SM: But that’s it: that shows you the drive to discover. But you imagine, probably over the course of 100 years, one guy who has that drive gets born.
KS: Yeah. This might be apocryphal story, but I heard this about bees. Like 1 out of every 100 bees has this desire to leave. Like most bees have a set path and they go forth, but 1 out of 100 isn’t wired that way and they try to go some other place. And I think part of the reason why is that if they didn’t, then bees wouldn’t really start new colonies or try to find new places to go, which is pretty cool. So yeah, you’re probably right: not all humans.
SM: Have you seen, I think it’s a Danish film, Kon-Tiki? It’s about a Dutch explorer who wanted to prove that some of these paths were possible. He’s been doing it since the ‘60s, trying to prove various migration paths that people might have taken. So like building the actual boats and then trying to make the trip himself and having no safety net.
KS: When you’re working on No Man’s Sky, do you feel like you’re trying to create that feeling again? Whether it’s the outback or being on the North pole and falling behind your group?
SM: It’s really hard to say that without seeming pretentious.
KS: Nah, go for it. You have thoughts and dreams you want people to experience—that’s not pretentious.
SM: In a non-pretentious way. We were working on Joe Danger and needed something to keep our minds going, right? In games, you never really get to explore, because anywhere you go, the designer has been there before you. So, normally, it’ll be a hidden puzzle piece, so rather than go right on the screen in a platformer, you’ll go left and it’ll be there waiting for you. But somebody’s done that and placed it there for you and built the level. It’s so hard to get true exploration, that feeling of, “Wow, I’m in a real place.” What we talked about was imagine Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption, leaving the cities and the scripted part of the game behind, going out.
If you take Skyrim, for instance, like I like to just walk in the woods and stuff. But the idea of that being a place that no one had ever been before, that is really exciting to me. And the emotion that we wanted to get from people is that emotion of, “I have travelled to a place and discovered it.” That’s an inherently appealing thing. And I was at E3 and I had somebody ask me in a reasonably crowded room—I asked for questions at the end of a presentation—and somebody said, “Aren’t you worried about the fact that the game doesn’t have missions or quests or collectibles, and would you consider putting those in?” And I had a kind of little breakdown. I was just saying, like, because I have this argument with myself all the time, because it would be really easy to put those things in. And we think that, fundamentally, there are enough games that have those concepts. Joe Danger I really love, but you collect coins in it, you collect stars, you collect nuts and bolts and puzzle pieces, we put them all in. And I have collected all of those things in so many games. Scraps of paper.
KS: Pigeons in GTA IV.
SM: And is that why I really play games? Am I proud of that as a games player? When I look back on it, am I proud of it as a games designer for making … Can I feel proud of a game that I’ve made if that’s the only reason people are playing it? I’ve flinched when a game says “54/100,” or whatever, and our core idea is that what you want to do there is, you want to explore and you want to find those things, but is it really the coins that are driving you on? And in that discussion, I had kind of a little outburst like, “Why do you play games? Why are any of us playing games? Are we playing them for those collectibles?”
And then the guy was like, “But what if your game isn’t popular?” And I was like, “I’m actually ok with that.” This is a huge experiment, really. We’re going to build this universe and see if exploration and having to do things to upgrade your ship and suit and weapons and stuff to be able to survive, to be able to travel further, and saying, “Hey, there’s an ultimate goal, which is to get to the center of the galaxy, and you’re all going to explore this universe together.” To see whether that’s appealing or not. We feel like it’s appealing to us, and I probably can’t even work out whether it’s appealing to us because we really enjoy making it, rather than if it’s appealing to us to play it, but the core concept we talked about in the real early days about there not really being any proper science-fiction games that to me gave me the same feeling of reading a book. Right? Like reading actual fiction. Because what I’ve always enjoyed, like if you read The Mars Trilogy, I’ve always enjoyed just the descriptions of those worlds, and I’ll never go to those. And actually, a book can’t really give me that feeling, and a movie can’t really give me that feeling, but a game, because it’s interactive, should be able to deliver that feeling of exploration more than any other medium. So that, to me, was the core of that really exciting idea, which is if you could evoke the true emotion of exploration—that’s a really inherently human thing. I was talking to some other journalists outside of work, and they were saying that a lot of what they do and a lot of what they write about is just videogame tourism, almost. If you look at Twitch streams, what’s the most interesting about games is often just those stories of expression of how you play the game. I don’t know if it’s why people play games. Probably why people play games is that “54/100” coins collected or whatever. But for me, as a developer, the most interesting thing to me is that it’s a really exciting thing.
KS: I think it does drive people, even if they don’t know that that’s what they want. I host a show for PBS Digital Studios on games. We did an episode on No Man’s Sky. It was really interesting in the comments what people’s expectations were. There was kind of a back and forth in the comments like, “I’m worried there’s not going to be enough to do.” And my response was sort of, “You know, the chief motivation for humans for a long time, aside from getting food, was the idea that you’d go to a place and just experience it. It’s something that’s driven humans for a very long time. Like, if that is not enough for you, the problem is probably not with No Man’s Sky. You probably need to figure out why is it that you play games?” Because I think the more that games tap into these elements of what is human, the stronger they’ll be.
SM: I think we have to … this is probably of no use to our interview, but it’s just me talking. Again, at E3, I had somebody from press kind of saying that the moment I took out a gun in E3, they were switched off. Because for them, until that point, No Man’s Sky had been kind of high concept. And they were like “How do you feel…for me, I kind of wanted to explore those worlds and I didn’t want any game systems. I just kind of wanted to be let loose to explore.” And it’s really funny, because you don’t and can’t make a game to please all the types of people who play games, so for some people, exploring will be of no interest, and they’re angry. Like, “Why don’t you put coins in for us to collect?” And you can just not like if it comes out and you read reviews and it doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, you can just not play it. But we think it will be interesting to us and people like us. And other people might say, “No, I don’t want any of these elements. I don’t want you to have a gun, I don’t want…” And it’s not something we had ever experienced—we never got that with Joe Danger. It was never popular enough for people to care or want to try to steer it in a direction. But I think that the idea of it being a walking simulator, where you just go out and explore ambiently, that doesn’t appeal to me. What’s interesting is when you’re telling your story of exploring the island and working out the currents, what makes that interesting is the danger. And the outback, why it stuck with me is that when we got there, the people who lived there giving us this long talk about, “Never go out alone, if you do go out, always carry matches with you, if someone dies, stay with them. Light a fire. Light a fire at 12, light a fire at dusk, light a fire at dawn, don’t move, don’t try to find shade.
KS: “If something happens, here’s what you need to do to live.”
SM: And that’s all the danger of being in the Arctic, that’s what makes that story interesting to me. We want people to have to really earn this exploration. To kind of fight to have to survive. To say, “I landed … look at this amazing screenshot I took.” And for people to realize, “My god, to get there, you would have had to have this and this on your suit and you would have needed this type of weapon, and I want to one day go to visit these places, I want to become a great explorer.” That’s what makes exploration stories very interesting. And so we want to give people that. And so that is the game. Fighting to survive. Trading just to be able to explore. Go further, kind of find your way in the universe, I guess.
What’s the next No Man’s Sky? You’ll read about it first our print magazine. Find out more here.