No Man’s Sky under Threat over Superformula Patent

/ 5 years ago

No Man's Sky under Threat over Superformula Patent

The unique selling point of the hotly anticipated No Man’s Sky is its procedurally generated universe. However, mere weeks away from the game’s launch, its existence is under threat over a potential patent infringement. Professor Johan Gielis, a Belgian plant geneticist, has accused Hello Games of using his “Superformula” – a mathematical equation, developed and patented by Gielis in 2003, which can simulate natural environments – in its game, and thus needs licensing from Genicap, the geneticist’s company.

But, how does Gielis know that No Man’s Sky uses his Superformula, and not another formula created for the game? Because the game’s head developer, Sean Murray, told The New Yorker last year that his studio used it:

[Murray] began simply, creating walnut-shaped forms that floated in an infinite grid over a desert. The image resembled a nineteen-eighties album cover, but the over-all look was not the point. Whenever he refreshed the rendering, the floating shapes changed. Many were asymmetrical, marred by depressions and rivulets. Game designers refer to lines of code that require lots of processing time as “costly.” The Superformula is cheap.

“One of the hardest things for us to do is to create coherent shapes,” he told me as he worked. In order to produce varied landscapes, a formula must be able to cope with a wide range of random information without generating mathematical anomalies that cause glitches.

“This sounds ridiculous, but it is hard to find a formula that you can rely on,” he said. The Superformula appeared to be reliable. He pointed to a rocky overhang, which looked like desert geology sculpted by harsh erosion. “This is quite naturalistic,” he said. He added more noise to the formula, rotated the shapes it made, played with their scale, buried them beneath the planet surface. “This is effectively more turbulence entering the maths.”

He envisioned using the Superformula throughout the game, especially at the center of the galaxy, where landscapes would become more surreal. With only small shifts in its parameters, the equation was producing impressive variability. In one rendering, it produced rolling hills. Murray refreshed the screen: a star-shaped rock formation appeared. He seemed pleased. “It’s always a good sign when I am clicking the button, and there is that slight amount of excitement,” he said.

So, that’s Hello Games bang to rights, then. But does this patent infringement mean the end of No Man’s Sky? Not according to Jeroen Sparrow at Genicap, who revealed to Eurogamer that the company hopes to reach an agreement with Hello Games over its use of the Superformula:

“It would be great to exchange knowhow with Hello Games. We believe No Man’s Sky is the beginning of a new generation of games. What Hello games did with the formula is very impressive. Johan Gielis, the founder of Genicap and the one who discovered the superformula, is extremely proud.

If Hello Games used our technology, at some stage we will have to get to the table. We have reached out to them but understand they have been busy. We trust that we will be able to discuss this in a normal way.”

Presumably, this agreement would have a financial component, either in the form of a licencing fee or compensation package. If Hello Games fails to stump up the money, though, No Man’s Sky could be left in a state of limbo.

No Man’s Sky is due for release for PC and PlayStation 4  on 9th August.

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