No Man’s Sky is a limitless game filled with bizarre and beautiful planets, mysterious life forms, and varied quests. Six years after its release, the game continues to grow and change. While it has become synonymous with the concept of a development redemption arc, the truth is that No Man’s Sky has outgrown that tired narrative.
Hello Games’ commitment to constantly revisiting and revising old systems means that the galaxy of No Man’s Sky is one of the most cohesive and consistent experiences in all of online gaming — and this process could continue forever, as long as everyone keeps showing up to see how it turns out. It’s no longer a comeback; No Man’s Sky has secured its spot as a fantastic space simulator.
No Man’s Sky is heading to Nintendo Switch, and the upcoming update includes a host of changes to core systems and quality-of-life updates. Polygon spoke to Sean Murray, founder and managing director of Hello Games, about the game’s current success and if it can keep updating forever.
Updates upon updates
In the years since No Man’s Sky was released, developers at Hello Games have gained a reputation for excellent updates to the game. They pull inspiration from a gamut of sources — including fan discussions and feedback.
“When we make an update, we have these tools at our disposal, these paint brushes. What we do in an update is take these big paint brushes, and we create new parts of the picture with big, broad brushstrokes,” says Murray. “Then, we go back in every update, we go in with fine detail and shade it a little more, add a little more detail because we’ve seen how players interact with it or we need a little more nuance there.”
These ideas for updates come from different places. Mostly, they’re passion projects started by specific developers on the team. Other times, it’s an answer to fan requests. “We’re not talking to the community loads, but we’re listening a hell of a lot,” says Murray. “It’s normally coming from some members of the team being excited about something and working on it. Like, with Switch, that doesn’t start with me coming into the office and being like, ‘All right guys, I need a Switch version for Thursday.’ In all honesty, I’m more likely to be the voice in the room saying ‘I don’t know, this seems quite hard. Are we sure we want to do this?’”
Once a project is out, Hello Games goes through fan feedback. Murray notes that every morning he goes through his notifications and emails, reading through the accounts of different players. This is a complex task, as people play No Man’s Sky differently: A shutterbug wandering around planets peacefully is going to have a very different point of view than someone exploring abandoned frigates or gunning down Sentinels.
“The buzz from releasing updates and seeing that reaction — sometimes good, sometimes bad — is motivational. Good is like, Great, I’m loving this! and you can be motivated by that. But sometimes it’s negative feedback and that’s motivating because you come in and you’re like — What are we going to do? We’ve got to sort this out somehow — and that’s exciting.”
An end to No Man’s Sky?
“I’ve worked [on No Man’s Sky] for 11 years — I really care about the game in a very genuine way. I don’t think that’s surprising. But the way we’re set up, it only works if people want to work on it, and we have players and they’re enjoying it,” says Murray. “If either of those two things stop, I don’t think it would be right for us to continue updating it. And I’m constantly thinking as that skeptical voice — Surely by next year, everyone will have stopped playing it. Surely by next year, the team won’t want to work on it anymore. Now, I’ve been wrong about that for six years in a row… but at some point, I think that will be true.”
For now, though, it seems like there’s plenty of gas in the tank. The relatively recent Expeditions feature has been a great onboarding tool for players, according to Murray. Hello Games tracks player activity across platforms. “The real stat I care about, the one that gets me up in the morning, is how long people are playing for,” says Murray.
“Day one, when No Man’s Sky launched, people played the game for a long time. It might not sound that long, but the average player was 20 to 25 hours. That’s about right for most AAA games,” adds Murray. “Now, six years in, if you pick up a copy of No Man’s Sky it’s going to be three-plus times that amount. Our global lifetime average for the length that people play went up 10 hours in the last year. So it’s not just people playing it, on average, for 10 hours more, but it’s people playing it for so long that it brings the average up by 10 hours.”
Murray says it’s fascinating to see not just interest in the game grow, but players finding different ways to occupy themselves. “The thing I love about it in particular is that they won’t agree on anything,” he says. “But we change something to the UI, some tiny little thing, and the whole Reddit will be like, Finally! We’ve added a ton of new content, and they’re like, No, but there’s one little sub item on a menu, that’s what we can all agree on. I love that.”