Developed and published by the indie studio Hello Games, ‘No Man’s Sky’ is built around a procedurally generated deterministic open universe that contains a staggering 18.4 quintillion planets. The game also boasts complete solar systems, varied weather systems, detailed flora and fauna, fascinating alien creatures, as well as fully functioning buildings and spacecraft.
Indeed, No Man’s Sky plots the position of stars and their stellar classification, while pseudorandom numbers generated from the position of each star are used to determine the planetary system and corresponding features.
“The universe begins with a single input, an arbitrary numerical seed—the phone number of one of the programmers. That number is mathematically mutated into more seeds by a cascading series of algorithms—a computerized pseudo-randomness generator,” Roc Morin of The Atlantic explained in a detailed article about the game. “The seeds will determine the characteristics of each game element. Machines, of course, are incapable of true randomness, so the numbers produced appear random only because the processes that create them are too complex for the human mind to comprehend.”
No Man’s Sky also features the ‘Superformula’ algorithm devised by Johan Gielis, which is capable of describing numerous biological shapes with a few adjustable parameters. According to Wikipedia, No Man’s Sky exploits L-systems as well as fractal equations developed by Aristid Lindenmayer in 1968 that can create structures resembling algae and plant life forms. In practical terms, this means the creatures of No Man’s Sky are generated via the procedural distortion of archetypes, with each given a unique behavioral profile.
“There is a list of objects that animals are aware of,” Hello Games Artificial Intelligence programmer Charlie Tangora told The Atlantic.
“Certain animals have an affinity for some objects over others which is part of giving them personality and individual style. They have friends and best friends too. It’s just a label on a bit of code—but another creature of the same type nearby is potentially their friend. They ask their friends telepathically where they’re going so they can coordinate.”
Understandably, there is often quite a lot of attention paid to eye candy, rather than actual game mechanics in the entertainment sector. Nevertheless, the vast scale of No Man’s Sky and its cleverly implemented algorithms has piqued industry interests, with the game inspiring Tesla’s Elon Musk to ask chief architect Sean Murray: “‘What are the chances that we’re living in a simulation?’”
Commenting on the importance of algorithms in No Man’s Sky and other technology such as smart sensors, Rambus Fellow Dr. David G. Stork noted that Stephen Wolfram, pioneer computer scientist and physicist and developer of the computer language Mathematica, released an ambitious tome titled ‘A New Kind of Science’ in 2002.
Image Credit: Wikipedia (via holycookie)
“One of the premises addressed by the book was that science’s pre-occupation with the language of mathematics was, in a sense, a result of the historical ‘accident’ that mathematics arose before computers and the science of computing,” said Stork. “If the ancient Greeks and the pioneer physicists, chemists, and other scientists such as Isaac Newton and Antoine Lavoisier and innumerable others had had computers, the language they would have used to describe the natural world might have derived instead from computer science. That language is expressed in algorithms.”
As Stork explains, an algorithm is simply the abstract set of rules or procedures applied to solving some problem.
“Algorithms can address problems as simple as sorting or alphabetizing a list of names, or serving the most appropriate web page in a web search or even (in online dating sites) finding an appropriate mate. The same algorithm can be expressed in different computer languages,” he continued. “Both mathematics and algorithmics are universally expressive, in that they can describe any physical or other phenomenon, but some phenomena are more naturally described in one language than in another.”
For example, says Stork, it is much simpler to describe the shape of a cloud with an algorithm than by some extraordinarily complex mathematical equation. Conversely, it is more natural to describe the position of a swinging pendulum with mathematics than by a traditional algorithm.
“Enter No Man’s Sky, a massive online game consisting of myriad planets with flora and fauna expressed algorithmically. Algorithmics is the natural language to represent objects and their motions in a ‘computer world,’ such as an online game,” he added. “If designers are clever about the choice of algorithms, a small number of minor variations to the algorithms can lead to a wide range of shapes and behaviors. Aristid Lindenmayer has explored what are now called L-systems that produce plant shapes – ferns, trees and grasses – by simple, often iterative, algorithms. That, apparently, is the approach taken, and extended, by the designers of No Man’s Sky.”
Meanwhile, Patrick Gill, a Principal Research Scientist at Rambus, emphasized that DNA is actually a recipe, rather than a blueprint. To be sure, deoxyribonucleic acid is defined as a molecule that carries most of the genetic instructions used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms and numerous viruses.
“Life forms build themselves by following procedural rules, so you could expect No Man’s Sky, with its procedurally generated fictional life forms, to have a certain ineffable plausibility to their alienness. Moreover, once you have the right generating algorithms sorted out, creating a new world is literally as easy as supplying your algorithms with a new random seed,” he explained. “Will most players explore worlds endlessly? Will the central plot and objectives become so secondary to ogling the beauty of each freshly created world, or will the novelty of novelty itself wear off quickly? Also, will supplying biologically plausible procedurally generated species become an interesting or viable service?”
On a more philosophical note, says Gill, there may be an unintended side effect of such a detailed procedurally generated entertainment.
“Imagine [future] games capable of evolving their procedural rules to become ever more captivating. If the games require minimal human effort to create, yet give users most of the sensation of true discovery, this means that there’s potentially a dangerous trap we could get ourselves into. What reasons will we have to explore the real world if there’s a more enticing alternative?” he asked.
“No Man’s Sky is about interstellar space exploration. I would only be half-joking to propose that a potential explanation of the Fermi Paradox (if the galaxy is so capable of producing many races of life which evolve intelligence and technology, why hasn’t any of it visited Earth yet?) is that it’s much more compelling for advanced civilizations to build virtual worlds like this one than to go out and explore the real world, with its inherent limitations such as the speed of light.”
One of Fermi’s Great Filters, says Gill, could be the creation of video games that are ultimately “too good” and therefore capable of supplanting curiosity in the physical world.
“On the other hand, why privilege nature’s algorithms and procedures that govern our physical world over those that can be tailored to make a more compelling virtual experience?” he added. “Should we insist our imaginations prefer the physics and biology that made us, or should this just be our starting point? Will games like No Man’s Sky and its successors prove ultimately to be as rich and inherently worthy as any world true to its own rules, our own physical reality included? [Despite the unknown], it will be interesting to observe the critical reception for No Man’s Sky.”