Does Expired Patent of the “Superformula” Tie to Rumors of More Alien Worlds in “No Man’s Sky”?

Does Expired Patent of the “Superformula” Tie to Rumors of More Alien Worlds in “No Man’s Sky”?

[ NOTE: This post contains references to allegedly leaked information about upcoming versions of the game and, as such, should be viewed as a spoiler post. Be warned. ]

On June 5th, Hello Games updated the Steam (PC) Experimental Branch of No Man’s Sky with an update several gigabytes in size. (The Experimental Branch is a beta version of the game that Steam players can opt into in order to see the latest features and help Hello Games work out the kinks by providing feedback and bug reports.) The patch notes for this release say only:

  • Replaced networking back end.
  • Upgraded to OpenVR 1.10.30.

Upon receiving this update, Experimental Branch players began seeing little platform icons attached to players wandering around in the Anomaly (a networked area of the game). Hello Games also released this beta version of the game (or a similar version) for the Xbox One via the Xbox Insider Hub, a Microsoft service that allows users to opt into betas, akin to Steam’s beta option. Players on both platforms running these betas are seeing each other, with appropriate platform icon, in the Anomaly at the same time. This, along with a host of platform icons discovered in the beta release by data miners, clearly speaks to some level of cross-platform gameplay on the way.

Now, since May 19th we’ve known that new content of some sort was on the way, thanks to a tweet from author / scriptwriter Greg Buchanan who was behind the (great) Artemis storyline from 2017’s Atlas Rises update to No Man’s Sky. On May 29th, Hello Games posted the Beyond Development Update 11 page on their website, detailing a number of new things going on in the game, including mention of a content-related hiatus to the weekend missions.

Beginning this weekend, there will be a short pause between seasons of weekend missions. These will be returning very soon, featuring new story content we’re really enjoying from one of the writers on Atlas Rises.

(There actually was a mission this past weekend, but it appears that it may have been a test of the new networking back end / cross-play and only visible to those running beta versions on Steam and Xbox One.)

The following day, an anonymous post appeared on 4chan (let me pass the salt) entitled “No Man’s Sky summer update leaked details.” Within, the poster claims that according to his/her source, a content update is imminent and that it will tease out details of what is to come in a larger summer update. I am not going to print all of the details that were mentioned, here, but will say that what caught my particular interest is the suggestion that this coming update is “heavily focused on pro[c]gen” (procedural generation), with the indication,

…my source has told me that hello games have been working on ambitious things with their procgen and will improve terrain diversity and formations. new biomes will be introduced & more “alien” planets.

Additionally, data mining efforts of Procedural Traveller on the June 5th PC Experimental release reveal several findings that seem to backup the notion of new biomes on the way. (It is worth bearing in mind, however, that there are some items found in the data from even years past that have not come to fruition in the game.) Also, a number of mild visual / rendering changes have already been observed by myself and others in the PC Experimental version.

The reason that this struck a chord with me is the fact that just last month, the patent for the “Superformula,” created by Belgian biologist Johan Gielis, expired.

The Superformula (image: Johan Gielis / Botanical Society of America)

The Superformula is, as Gielis describes it, “A generic geometric transformation that unifies a wide range of natural and abstract shapes.” It is basically a modified take on an equation that describes a unit circle. The equation contains a number of variables and the geometric shape that it generates depends on the particular combination of values plugged into it.

Gielis was granted European (in 2005) and U.S. (in 2009) patents on the Superformula, restricting its potential uses. Those that followed the development progress of No Man’s Sky leading up to its release may recall Genicap, a Dutch company developing products and tech based on the Superformula, claiming that Hello Games was in violation of the patent with its procedural space exploration game. Forbes’ article, “Did ‘No Man’s Sky’ Steal A Scientist’s Superformula?,” dated July 27, 2016, details the claim and goes a long way towards explaining what the Superformula is.

The New Yorker article “World Without End” (May 11, 2015), takes an extraordinarily deep look at the genesis story and early development of No Man’s Sky. One of the many anecdotes within the piece describes Hello Games lead Sean Murray, early on, using the Superformula to experiment with the creation of infinite organic shapes floating over a desert. That Murray, at some point, played with the formula seems to be the “proof” Genicap held on to in order to make their patent violation claim. Murray consistently denied that the Superformula was used in the development of No Man’s Sky, and it seems the logical conclusion that Hello Games created their own procedural generation algorithms, perhaps inspired by Gielis’ formula, that were used in the game. (The Superformula, itself, being a modification of another existing formula.)

And the patents have just expired.

If the anonymous poster is correct and Hello Games is presently doing “ambitious things” with the game’s procedural generation (and “ambitious” is the only way you could describe the current game’s proc gen, so in context, that’s quite a statement), could they now be using the Superformula in conjunction with their own routines, or to extend their routines in certain ways? It’s hard to say. Perhaps HG’s routines are well beyond the Superformula, and it would be of little use to them at this point. That seems quite likely, in fact. But, one can only speculate.

And, when it comes to No Man’s Sky, my favorite area of speculation is precisely that of the procedural generation system. I have made frequent mention of my desire for No Man’s Sky to take back on a “wilder” aspect, the sort that characterized the early days of the game. (This is why I am presently playing the 2016 Foundation 1.1 version alongside the current Beyond release.) The best scenario I can picture would be a combination of the worlds we have had since the NEXT release, and a far wilder set of worlds harking back to the days of Foundation, Path Finder, and Atlas Rises — or, perhaps wilder still.

It is obviously the case that the “leaked” information, along with promises of what may actually grow out of the data mined details, need to be taken with a Faecium-sized chunk of salt. But…it seems there might just be a chance that I will get what I’ve been long hoping for. As always, time will tell.

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