How No Man’s Sky paints 18 quintillion worlds with an algorithmic brush

“I guess I work with other artists,” Grant Duncan, art director for Hello Games opened his talk with yesterday at the Game Developers Conference. “But they’re all procedural artists, so I guess they’re idiots.”

Before a packed house, Duncan walked through the labor-intensive process of creating a holistic palette for the 18 quintillion worlds that will populate space exploration game No Man’s Sky when it’s released. Due to the small size of the Hello Games team, Duncan says that they developed a “blueprint system” that leans on “procedural generation” to make each individual world feel and look distinct. It was one of the most fascinating talks that I’ve ever heard.

Procedural generation refers to process popularized by games like Minecraft that allow for a high degree of variability in the creation of aspects like terrain, color, etc. Minecraft’s process leans heavily on what’s known as Perlin noise, pioneered by NYU professor Ken Perlin who used the process to develop the CGI for the movie Tron. Noise maps create semi-random patterns with particular densities that can then be used to populate elements of world, but in a structured way. Complete randomness, according to Duncan, is useless.

The system even dictates the number of bones in a creature’s body 

Essentially, procedural generation turns part of the process over to algorithms that dictate, in the case of No Man’s Sky, everything from the height of a tree to the gait of an intergalactic creature. “Our engineers told me you essentially take random elements and funnel them into a box of ‘maths’,” Duncan jested. But the goal is that the process should generate the same planet if given the same inputs.

“We wanted to capture the feeling of going to beach as a child,” Duncan says. “That everything was new and interesting.” But to make the blueprint system work, they had to give it interesting fodder to work with. Swamp planets, for example, will automatically give its creatures a more amphibious feel and waxy skin via a tagging system. The overall color for that exact planet bleeds into the creatures; some may use it as camouflage and others may use the color to standout, much like an Amazonian tree frog would. The system even dictates the number of bones in a creature’s body, as heavier ones might have a slower bulkier walk while lighter ones “bound like a gazelle,” Duncan says.

No Man’s Sky is about creating something that is simultaneously sui generis and yet completely bespoke. In many ways, Duncan is both Adam and Darwin, giving the animals their name and discovering their purpose.

And if this all sounds a bit chaotic, it is 

And how exactly does one do quality control on 18 quintillion planets? Duncan has hundreds of tiny drones that land on each planet inside the game, record a tiny animated video, convert it to a gif, and place it on a Pinterest-like microsite so Duncan can review them all en masse. The process is a quintessential example of what writer Clive Thompson titled “centaurs”: humans using computers to create something new, beautiful and distinct.

Naturally, other artists bristle at the the accidental nature. “A lot of people think that procedural art is shit,” Duncan observed. And if this all sounds a bit chaotic, it is, but only because games are starting to tread into territory already established by artists like Sol Lewitt, who used formal systems to generate pieces of great size, order, and ultimately beauty. “The system is the work of art; the visual work of art is the proof of the System,” LeWitt once argued against those who whined against his work’s deceptive simplicity. “The visual aspect can’t be understood without understanding the system. It isn’t what it looks like but what it is that is of basic importance.”

But it’s always nice to have it both ways.