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Initially released in 2016 for PC and PlayStation 4, No Man's Sky has been on quite the journey. An ambitious, galaxies-spanning survival epic developed by a small team at indie studio Hello Games, its pre-release trailers captured the imaginations of millions of gamers. So much so that, when the game finally launched, it couldn't possibly live up to expectations.
But its makers have worked hard to turn what was seen as being slightly underwhelming at release into a multi-faceted, much-loved, hugely immersive sci-fi universe simulator - a game of sharing, building, wandering and warfare. No Man's Sky's major update of 2018, Next, saw it get another boxed release and land on Xbox One - and as a result, millions of new players flocked to the game.
"We actually saw Next as the last big update, and we were going to leave it," says No Man's Sky's co-director, and Hello Games' managing director, Sean Murray, when I sit down with him at Brighton's Develop Conference.
It's a couple of hours after his keynote at the annual industry gathering - where he talked about how most of the critics of No Man's Sky had never actually played it, and offered advice on how other games can handle underperforming launches with effective updates and communication ("I always wanted Hello Games to be compared to the likes of Bethesda, and EA, and stuff like that," he jokes with me, "but not quite under these circumstances") - and I'm curious about what's taken the Hello team from Next to the game's forthcoming big update, Beyond.
"We genuinely thought Next was it, and from there we'd just do small updates, to keep the game running as it should be," he tells me. "We weren't going to sunset the game, exactly, but we were happy with it. But then, two things happened."
Firstly, and most importantly, "Next did very well, way better than we expected," Murray reveals. "We had a lot of new players coming in, and we felt a kind of debt to them. And also, the team was excited about what we could add to the game. Not as much planning goes into the future as we'd like, really - so while we thought we were done with Next, we weren't. And after Beyond, we don't know what we'll do."
One thing that Hello Games is doing is The Last Campfire, a project that they're comparing to a Pixar short, the kind of thing that plays before the main feature. But Murray has his sights on far bigger things. He won't say what, just yet, but he tells me how No Man's Sky hasn't truly scratched the itch he has for doing another statement game, a release that conveys the kind of emotions he wanted No Man's Sky to hit, but more so.
"I know, rationally, we've done really cool things at Hello," he says. "And I'm very proud of the team. But whatever drive is there inside me, it's still there, and I can't shut that off. Others in the team can tell me: shut up, this is incredible. But this is my own, personal baggage."
Beyond will deliver, for free, a virtual reality update for No Man's Sky which will instantly make it one of the biggest VR games out there (if not the biggest). Says Murray of this: "On the Venn diagram of people interested in VR and who already own No Man's Sky, there's a massive overlap. About one in four of the people who own a VR headset already own No Man's Sky. So we're talking about a free update for over a million people who will immediately be able to have a very cool VR game."
Murray sees VR as "a cool thing" that was on the drawing board at Hello Games for a while, but they didn't see it as a priority until a number of other updates had been implemented. We don't dwell on the game's rocky launch, but he does briefly revisit that period to tell me, "I thought we were making a niche experience, and having a lot of people interested in that is a scary thing," and that if he could do it again, he'd have "loved a few months to work on the game".
No Man's Sky Beyond doesn't yet have a release date, but the update has been rated in Australia, which suggests it'll arrive sooner rather than later. Alongside the addition of VR, Beyond also adds more multiplayer options, and will have a few other surprises up its sleeve, too. It has the look, on paper, of being the final significant update for No Man's Sky - but as the experience of Next shows us, don't bet on it.
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