Last week Hello Games invited us down to its offices in Guildford.
There, we saw No Man’s Sky in VR. We also talked about it. A lot.
Tomorrow, No Man’s Sky Beyond launches as a free update. It adds PSVR and PC VR support among other things. For many VR fans, this is something of a dream come true. Turns out the same is true for Hello Games.
We sat down with the team’s Sean Murray to talk about the creation of the VR mode. In the interview below, we discuss its history and the team’s hopes for the VR support. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so best get reading.
Upload: The first thing I wanted to talk about really was… I know how long this has been in your guy’s minds because I’ve been following VR for a long time. I remember back when before No Man’s Sky was coming out you guys were doing experiments with the [Oculus Rift] DK2. What’s the timeline been like, here? Back in those days, how much serious consideration were you giving this?
Sean Murray: Pretty serious. We’re professional developers but we’re also hobbyists. Something like DK2 gets released, obviously, we’re going to start messing about with it and trying to get little bits of the engine running. And at various points over the last few years, it’s been an ongoing thing.
Someone will do a little bit more work and a little bit more work and a little bit more work on it. And we’ll play it and there’s always been two or three people in the team here who just really, really, really deeply care about VR. And it’s been enthusiasts but also evangelists for it, saying this is what we should be doing.
And so those guys, when we got to the point on Next, there was a really strong argument there for “Okay it feels like we’ve kind of delivered on things that we really felt we needed to for the community.” Some of the big ticket items for them. In our mind, VR was maybe more of a niche thing for people. Maybe something that felt a little bit indulgent for us; now we can do this, now we can have our dessert.
Whereas before there were certain things about the game that I felt like people would almost be annoyed with us if we did VR before that. That was our take and, actually, as I was just explaining to you, we were worried that we would announce VR and people would say: “Oh but I’m not interested, what’s in it for me?”
Weirdly, it’s not gone that way. We actually are at a point where I need to remind people that it’s not just the VR update. People are really focusing on it. And people seem really excited about it.
We’ve been really surprised by that. In our heads, it was a niche thing for us. So I think it’s really exciting. I mean the stats on it were much higher than we expected. So, over a million people who own No Man’s Sky already own a headset. Which is a really big stat, especially when you consider how many headsets there are out there. It’s a really high percentage that already own No Man’s Sky. That’s much bigger than we probably expected going into this. That’s a cool moment for all of those people to get an update and to be able to turn on their headset and even try it out. And hopefully we give them a cool experience.
So it’s been there in the background for ages, but we’ve been kind of holding ourselves off. Like, trying to be good almost. And actually we probably didn’t need to wait this long because people seem really excited about it.
Upload: I thought you were going to do it ages ago.
SM: I think within the team what you’ll see is it’s grown. It started off with two or three people. We were almost trying to convince the rest of the team because it seemed like a lot of work. And we were saying: “Oh, don’t worry, it will just be quite a direct port. We’re not going to revisit this and this and this. It’ll be fine, we’re not gonna run on PSVR and it’ll be fine.”
And then as we’ve gone through it’s gone more and more exciting. More and more people as a team wanted to work on it. And that’s one of the biggest factors for us. You were saying kind of, where does it stop? When we reached the end of Next, we weren’t sure whether there would be things we would get excited about and this is one that we really got enthused about. We could see it within the team, they are becoming more and more enthusiasts and evangelists for it.
Upload: This being a port, again going back to the early days of VR was one of those golden rules was you don’t port games to VR, you make them from the ground up. Obviously, you guys, looking at it, have gone out of your way to make it feel native. I’m interested to learn if there were things in there you struggled with. A lot of people say when you port a game to VR straight away you’ll find the scale is all off in the world, for example. Were those sorts of things you encountered?
SM: Yeah, like way more than I was expecting. It’s weird. So one of the nicest things is that I felt like, this was a game I’ve worked on a lot. So many of the team say this. When you’re working on a game for that long, the thing you would kill for is to see the game with fresh eyes, as somebody new to it.
I can’t explain how removed from it you become. Like, imagine you were making a puzzle game. You already know all the puzzles so you will never find any difficulty so you can never experience what it feels like. And that’s how it is for us. Playing it in VR, suddenly, you could see the game fresh.
I remember just feeling like small things like “Oh god, this is way too difficult.” And people had been telling me it was difficult and I hadn’t been listening to them. It’s like “Oh, I can see it now! This is really frustrating or too grindy, or whatever.”
There’s something about having a headset on and feeling immersed in the game that you feel like you want things to be a bit more immediate because it’s just a more intense experience. So there’s things like that where we actually made gameplay changes because we felt like, one, we were seeing it with fresh eyes and two, VR necessitates it almost.
But the scale, oh my god. Our character does technically fit inside the ship and fits inside the vehicles, all of that kind of thing. You just play it and you think “No, in my head the ship was really big.” And it’s really fucking small! It’s mind-blowing, going through doorways and stuff. Technically the character does fit through it, but I feel like I’m going to bump my head. I feel like “Oh my god, that crate! How low down has that crate been?”
Upload: And this is happening across a billion planets.
Murray: Yeah, I mean there’s some lovely moments where you see just a normal — and we’ve had this with almost everyone who played on the team — just seeing like a tree. A lot of the trees in the game are 50, 60 foot tall. As trees are in real life in a forest. But you never take that in. And when you’re stood beside one just towering above you, there’s suddenly a real appreciate for exploring which wasn’t there before. Not the same immersion, not the same feeling of exploring.
But, we’ve actually ended up scaling up all the vehicles, all the ships, adding in loads more detail. Putting interiors into the cockpits, adding loads and loads of detail. And it’s made us make the non-VR version a lot better. You just have more of a sense of scale. You see it in, like in the video, those ships are about twice the size they are normally. It doesn’t look weird at all to you, it looks fine.
Now I go back to the old world and I’m like “What were we thinking?” These worlds weren’t cohesive or they weren’t as impressive as they should be. It just puts things into really sharp focus that you don’t see when you’re working on something day-in, day-out.
But yeah, we have changed the scale of so many things in the game. Even rocks and trees and little shrubs that it turns out where rocks and trees and little things that were way too big.
Upload: And then, presumably the way they deform when you start mining them.
SM: And loads of those things change. They improve both versions of the game but they have a massive impact on VR. I think VR now, if you play it, feels about the same level of difficulty as the base game. I think, when people play they’re like “Yeah, this feels like No Man’s Sky in VR.” but actually, we’ve done so much refinement. And when we first ported it and first played it, it felt so arduous to play.
Like, it was unbelievable. Just the length of time that you would be mining something for, or meleeing something. When you’re doing that in VR and you have a controller in your hand, there’s a certain intensity to the experience that you want things to be immediate. You want them to be real.
Upload: It’s such a hard balance because, like you’re saying you want realism and then you want instant gratification when it comes to VR. And it’s a pick and choose thing. When you’re in the cockpit for example in the trailer you’re pulling all these levers and stuff and that feels great but at the same time doing the same to mine a rock is exhausting.
SM: Right, exactly. We’ve gone back and forth. We’ve had things in the cockpits of the ships where you’ve had lots of buttons to press to go into pulse drive, to do various things. We thought that would feel cool but actually it’s off-putting because you’re doing that constantly and it’s repetitive and you feel like “No, I’ve got a controller in my hand, I’ve got some buttons.”
But, certain other things where it’s nice to have a 3D controller, like the joystick, like the gun to place things in the world or to do terrain manipulation. that really benefits. But where you go too overboard, it can feel really repetitive. You can feel almost tired in your arms. There’s a real balance. We’ve generally been doing usability sessions and things like that with it where we’ll have 10 people playing at once that just go through and then we get another 10 people and another 10 people in. And generally we’re doing eight hour days with people.
I don’t expect people to play eight hours a day. But we want to stress test it in that way and see how people feel about it after that.
Upload: People absolutely will do that, though. They did it for Skyrim.
SM: Yeah, Skyrim has really long playtimes from what I’ve heard.
Upload: Obviously when this game started out it was about discovery, this whole universe was undiscovered basically for people to go off into. If you’re allowed to talk about it, how much of a percentage of that universe has been discovered now?
SM: It’s funny, so as of Next, I can talk about that. There have been a quarter of a billion hours played of our game. Which is a big old number. As AAA games go, that’s still a lot of hours. This was pre-Next. Of the first galaxy, and there are many galaxies but of the first galaxy, there was less than 1% of the galaxy discovered. I don’t think we’ve broken that 1% yet. I know that the number of hours has gone up a great deal.
But yeah it really is vast. I could get really boring about it. There’s a ring around the outside where everyone starts. And when you plot it on graphs that we see, there is a good amount of that around the edge, and then there’s just huge swathes where no one has been. It’s like there’s kind of a white circle around the edge and then all the rest is just like a mess of little dots.
Upload: So you’re pretty confident first-time VR players are going to come in and have a new game to play. Because I’m one of those 25 hour players that played the game at the start and want to go back and start again and have that new experience.
SM: I hope you will. Also a lot of what we’ve done. There are updates that came out after Next like Visions and Abyss which expanded underwater and Visions expanded biomes to create a lot more variety. Those things are there and most people haven’t yet seen them or played them or whatever.
SM: Yeah. I’ve been playing it a lot, actually, and it’s lovely.
Upload: It’s the best. But…
SM: Yeah. There is a future there, right, for that kind of device, right? People tend to think of, when you release a game, and it’s the thing I always want to hammer home to people, when you release a game that ‘that’s it’. Obviously we want to release good content that we are proud of and have a lot of people play on day one and they get a good experience.
But our community really likes that we keep updating, we keep embellishing. And this might be version 2.0 for the game, but it’s version 1.0 for VR. There’s a lot that I expect people will want, and we’re going to see a lot of new players playing a lot of different ways. And we don’t know if they’ll end up really migrating to base building in VR which is cool, or if they’ll want to socially and they’ll want to play in the social space and it will be a bit more like VRChat or whatever where you’re just kind of messing about with your friends. Or whether people are playing online.
It’s really hard to predict but we’ll follow that. Whether it’s people wanting much more controller options, much more headset options or whatever. We’ll see. Because it’s very much a hobbyist space, especially on PC. There are so many things that are potential ways for us to go.
Upload: And now that you’re integrating the two user-bases too. There’s going to be behavior patterns to follow. Are you going to have friends that are in VR and not in VR that like doing different things?
SM: Yeah. We’ve already seen in playtests. Whether this will happen in real life we don’t know but in playtests you’ve got the guy who’s in VR playing with other people who are not, and they’re saying to him “You’re the one who builds the base. We’ll go off and collect the resources.” Which feels really nice, like you’re empowered in different ways.