Over the past few days, my constant No Man’s Sky ramblings on Twitter have led to a number of interviews from domestic and international press about the game. One thing that really caught me off-guard was just how hard it is to pitch No Man’s Sky. I decided to spend some time today looking at Hello Games’ pitch for No Man’s Sky, and came away rather impressed at the care and effort that must’ve gone into iterating the high-level concept pitch. This isn’t specifically about the expectation management, or the details or minutae of the game, but how the core of No Man’s Sky was communicated – the cumulative exploration of a procedural universe.

So here are the things you would probably try, that I’ve found to be ineffective:

  • Mentioning space exploration as a thematic, or referring to other space exploration themed media doesn’t work.
  • Explaining that the game is practically infinite, and allows for infinite exploration doesn’t work.
  • Comparing it to other media, say a movie, or a performer or musician, doesn’t work.
  • Explaining the disproportionate amount of content for its download size doesn’t work.
  • Explaining that thanks to the procedural generation, everything you see or encounter is unique to your game experience doesn’t work.

The main objections you should consider for each of these is ‘is there a context’ and ‘does anyone care?’. So one by one:

  • Mentioning a genre is not a powerful pitch, nor does it emphasize the strengths of the game. Comparing it to other media doesn’t work, because the general audience tends to assume games can be photorealistic, infinite, and capable of simulating reality rather well.
  • The general audience does not care that the universe is infinite, because many assume all games are infinite. I’ve mentioned this before, but most non-gaming people don’t directly assume Grand Theft Auto isn’t an infinite world beyond the city borders, and don’t realize a Call of Duty game takes place in a map rather than a country. The question of game world size doesn’t occur, because that’s an abstract idea that requires an understanding of game boundaries, and a context of game worlds.
  • To most people, games are not movies, music or any other such form of art. Comparing a digital piece of software to something where they see people perform will never work. A board-game or other physical game is the closest metaphor people would accept and understand – and those are woefully inappropriate to explain No Man’s Sky’s experience.
  • Apple famously stopped using Gb/Tb to discuss their storage space, and now uses a made-up statistic of ‘how many photos, songs or movies will fit on this device’. The average person does not understand data storage, data requirements and data limits. They just know when a device is full, and then generally assume it’s the devices fault.
  • Procedural generation is not something you can explain easily to someone without a basic understanding of deterministic mathematical models, or without an existing context for what it leads to, like seeding in other games.

So what remains? Well, it turns out Hello Games figured out a pretty impressive way of communicating the game’s core.

  • They properly identified that communicating the astronomical size of the game in terms of our own universe works. No Man’s Sky is a game in which there are 18 quintillion planets (wow, a number that sounds bigger than a trillion!). Even if a planet was discovered every second by a player, our own actual sun -not the one in the game!- would die before every player in the world combined would have seen them all (wow science). Not that they specifically avoided the term infinite, because infinite sounds videogame-y and doesn’t actually sound all that special. 18 quintillion sounds specific, and scientific.
  • They properly identified that emphasizing that even the developers of the game are shocked to see what can exist in the universe is evocative. In fact, they’ll mention, the developers haven’t seen all that’s available in the game – and they’re commonly excited to land on a planet to see something new (if even the creators are, it must be true). The developers didn’t create the planets, or the creatures on it, they instead programmed the laws of evolution and physics into the computer and let it simulate a universe (impressive!).
  • They properly identified that a top-down approach works really well in words, but bottom up works really well in visual. Their pitch starts with talking about the universe, and then goes down through planets and creatures, down to the elements (so much detail!). Their videos tend to start with the periodic makeup of a place, then a creature, then a planet, eventually zooming out to the universe. A universe isn’t a scale or mental model most people can grasp, but it is a thing that’s easy and impressive to show (so much scale!).

Note if you shuffle this around into three recognizable focus points, you also start seeing how these communicated back at the normal gaming demographic.

  • The ‘science’ in ‘science fiction’ and making it sound as scientific as possible: the game has its own periodic table, there are specifically 18 quintillion planets. Science fiction is clearly something the Hello Games’ crew is naturally excited about, and thus a great primary talking point. Also note the appeal to traditional gaming demographics’ geekdom here.
  • Scale in relation to our own universe, explained using the Apple method: it is statistically improbable for two people to reach the same planet, if a planet was discovered every second our own sun would die before we’d have seen them all. Note the ‘completion time’ wink at the normal game demographics here.
  • Uniqueness of the experience: even the developers themselves are surprised at what they find on new planets, and it is statistically improbable for two people to find the same planet. Note the implicit challenge to traditional gaming demographics here.

Looking at the challenges they faced in communicating the game to this many people of varying understanding, Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky core pitch is a little masterclass in explaining an abstract concept to the largest possible audience.

I also promise that there’s only one more No Man’s Sky post in my queue for now.