Design and No Man’s Sky

June is always a special month for the video game world. Every June thousands of game developers, publishers, press, and fans storm the Los Angeles Convention Center for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Fans eagerly anticipate announcements of new software and hardware at press conferences from the likes of Sony and Microsoft. More often than not these press conferences are filled with sequels and remakes. Games require a considerable investment to make and publishers would rather play it safe with an established franchise than test the waters with a new IP. However, every few years a new IP is announced and the game completely steals the show. 2014 was one of those years.

Soft spoken Sean Murray, founder of British game developer Hello Games (a company with only ten employees and a total of two games to their name, the second a direct sequel to the first) walked onto the stage at Sony’s Playstation Conference at E3 (think Apple’s annual WWDC Keynote but bigger and with more explosions) and proceeded to change the gaming landscape forever. Murray announced No Man’s Sky, a yet to be released first person game about space exploration. He called it, “a science fiction game, I guess inspired by the kind of sci-fi I grew up with… worlds I wanted to escape to be never could.” This was nothing new, dozens if not hundreds of games claimed the same thing. But what Murray went on to say really shocked people. “We’ve created a procedural universe, its infinite and it’s one that everyone can share. We’re gonna start every player on a different planet so no two people will have the same experience. This universe we’ve created is so vast, it’s so boundless, it’s actually infinite and we don’t even know whats out there.” In a few seconds Murray said a lot. He made some bold claims that excited and confused everyone watching. Could this be possible? Could an infinite game really exist? Murray claimed that every player would start on an entirely different planet but how could that be possible? It is not unheard of for a game to sell over 20 million units. Could Hello Games really make a universe with 20 million planets? As it turns out, the answer was yes.

A game about space exploration is expected to be big, but no one was prepared for just how big No Man’s Sky will be. Murray and his team of nine other employees had planned on using a 32-bit number to generate the planets in their game. That is 2^32, or nearly 5 billion. Hello Games was planning to make a game with 5 billion planets, and yet for some that wasn’t enough. After declaring No Man’s Sky an infinite game Murray received more than his fair share of backlash from the internet message boards, claiming that nothing could truly be infinite. The response from Hello Games was to up the ante and use a 64-bit number. Again, that is 2^64 or 1.8 followed by 19 zeros. To put that in perspective, if you were to attempt to spend just one second on every planet in No Man’s Sky, it would take you nearly five billion years, the sun would burn out before you finished. Now perhaps this too is still finite, but we can give them a pass for effort.

So, how does one go about creating an infinite game with only ten people? After all, many, much less ambitious games have teams of over 900 people working on them. The answer not only alters the world of gaming but raises fundamental questions about design as well, and it was slipped in at the beginning of Murray’s address at E3, “We’ve created a procedural universe.” Procedural generation is the process of generating things according to predefined rules and regulations. For example, a procedurally generated car could be created, not randomly, but according to a strict set of guidelines and limiting factors (it must accommodate 4 people, it must get 50 MPG, it must have power windows…etc.). As the number of guiding inputs increase, the potential outputs decrease. One could enter a few inputs and chose from all available options, or enter so many inputs that only one car remains. Eventually the car that is generated is the only car that could be generated.

Procedural generation may address the issue of creating a massive universe, but it does not explain how a game that is almost infinitely big can exist on a single blu-ray disc. The truth is, the planets are not on the disc, but the algorithms for generating them are. The inputs are in place but the outputs are not. Think of it like a math problem, 76+55 (the algorithm that governs the generation of the planets) is stored but the answer, 131 (the planet itself) is not. The game never needs to generate this answer unless the player asks it to, the player never needs to ask the game what 76+55 is until they begin to approach the planet. Once the player leaves, the planet no longer needs to exist, so it doesn’t. Every one of the potentially millions of people to play No Man’s Sky can travel to that same location, their presence will ask the exact same question of the game, and the resulting planet will always be the same. This is a level of interactivity that exists without the player even realizing it.

It would seem like a missed opportunity in an article about video games and architecture to not acknowledge interactivity. Video games have always been interactive mediums, it is what separates them from films, but it has often been a relatively simple feedback loop (shoot someone in the head, get points, get the most points and win). What No Man’s Sky does, and what is exciting about it is how it engages with the player and responds to their needs without them ever knowing it. It is almost cliche at this point to reference Cedric Price’s Fun Palace as an example of interactive architecture but the comparison is useful here. Architecture requires interactivity, it requires engagement but what if it did not need to adhere to specific programmatic requirements? The Fun Palace was intended to be not only programmatically flexible, but responsive. User input could dictate how the space should be best utilized, and the space could adapt. Automatic building adaptation already exists to a certain extent, but what if a home could sense when a party was taking place and adjust to create more floor space? What if a multi-use room could adapt its function based on time of day? These are not new ideas by any means but that implementation of them in No Man’s Sky brings this level of interactivity and adaptation a little closer to our consciousness.

Procedural generation is not unheard of in video games, nor even in architecture. The implementation of it in No Man’s Sky is however, unprecedented. Hello Games claims everything in the game is procedurally generated. This allows ten people to generate an entire universe while 900 people spend years handcrafting revolutionary Paris by hand for Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Nothing in No Man’s Sky is handcrafted, everything is generated in reaction to everything around it. For example, let’s say that a certain planet has two suns of varying distance from it. Those suns will influence not only the temperature of the planet but the elements that compose the atmosphere, that atmosphere will dictate the color of the sky and the visible light spectrum on the ground. The temperature will dictate what flora and fauna can survive on the planet and so on. Every generated aspect not only abides by its own set of regulating forces, but actually acts as a regulating force or other aspects as well.

You may be asking yourself, how is this different from parametric modeling? Parametric modeling consists of interdependent parts so that one change creates a rippling effect. This is the same in procedural generation. The difference is that parametric modeling still relies heavily on the architect. Ultimately the project is still designed by the architect, based on his/her stylistic choices. Procedural generation opens up the possibility of generating a project that is not subjectively created. An architect designing a home can freely and easily make changes based on personal preference, with procedural generation, the home that is generated can be the only home that could ever have been generated.

The implications procedural generation has on architecture are potentially threatening. The idea of a Do-It-Yourself home has been around for decades. Sites like floorplanner.com and plygem.com allow users to design spaces without the help of an architect. Even free and readily available software like SketchUp allow non-architects to flex their design muscles when partaking in a D.I.Y. project. Once the users get over the initial learning curve, the design choices are all theirs to make, they can abandon the architect and rely on the software. Yet, the aesthetic decisions are still subjective, the designer isn’t eliminated, the user simply becomes the designer. Procedural generation can operate outside of aesthetics. A couple building their own home could simply identify the experiential traits they want in a home (climate, lighting, circulation, number of bedrooms, closet space…etc.) input them into a procedurally generating system and have a predefined home generated for them. Again, the more constraints put in place the fewer options generated, and again, at a certain point the number of constraints will allow for the generation of one and only one building.

The role of the architect isn’t eliminated, but the conventional manner in which the architect works could be. With conventional methods of design, an architect designs a home, with procedural generation, an architect designs constraints. These constraints could guide the generation of a building through experiential means, (sunlight in the morning), functional means, (the kitchen must be 300 square feet) or even aesthetic means, (marble countertops). Some constraints may prevent others, some may necessitate a change in others. If only a few constraints are needed then a single definitive building may not be produced but perhaps a hundred homes could be generated, allowing for a choice between all designs that adhere to the guiding constraints. Procedural generation would allow one to design rules and regulations based off the traits of a desired building without need to worry about the placement of windows and shear walls.

No Man’s Sky is the first attempt at an entirely procedurally generated space. At the time of the writing of this piece the game has yet to even announce a release date; who knows how successful a procedural universe will be, but it does not change the implications it has on conventional design practices. Is procedural generation truly a threat to the architect? Who knows, but questioning the necessity of the profession is crucial to it’s advancement. Perhaps the profession will one day be looked at in the same vein as the stylist or personal trainer. Will you get better results than if you were to try it yourself? Probably. Is it essential? No. Will the architect ever become extinct? Unlikely. I would bet that the day we stop needing architects is the day we stop needing artists and musicians.

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