Exploring the No Man's Sky modding scene

Features
October 31, 2016 by Hamish Black

Interest has fallen off dramatically, and technical blockers make it nearly impossible, but some people are still modding this game

My initial experience with No Man’s Sky was an infuriating one. Every so often I’d find glimpses of the compelling, meditative, aesthetically-pleasing experience that so drew me to the game, but these moments were short-lived. Severe technical issues combined with constant inventory management and irritating exosuit prompts effectively broke the game for me.

As the precipitous drop in the PC player count seems to indicate, I am not alone in feeling this way. However, thanks to the game’s small modding community, fixing nearly any problems the game has (on PC, at least) is now as easy as dropping a file into a folder. Low frame rates, texture and UI issues, and the irritating exosuit voice are just a few examples of problems that have been solved by the community. For me, and I believe for most people who perhaps didn’t find the experience they wanted in No Man’s Sky, these mods make the game far more enjoyable to play.

What interested me about this was that whilst these mods allow you to fundamentally customize your experience, the majority of mods are purely cosmetic in nature. The ‘Shut Up’ mod allows you to switch off audio warnings about life support systems and inventory management, yet those systems still require monitoring within the game. Even the mods I use to improve technical performance focus on turning off aesthetic features, such as shadows or post-processing.

However, it’s hard to deny just how profound an effect these mods have had on my experience. One of the most prevalent problems I had with exosuit notifications, for example, was that they would warn me of my life support systems somehow being ‘low’ at 75% - as such, I felt like I was somehow playing the game wrong by not constantly focusing on keeping that meter topped up. Now that I’ve removed these notifications, I feel like I can play the game at my own pace.

A screenshot taken with the Darker Space mod A screenshot taken with the Darker Space mod

Mods like ‘Darker Space’, for example, are able to more deeply alter the visuals of the game – this mod in particular reduces the brightness of space by approximately 90% whilst retaining the original color palette. ‘Dark Warp’ extends this idea to the animation that plays as you warp between star systems - replacing bright lights with a darker, more muted tone. If you prefer your space exploration to be more naturalistic, then these mods are for you. Add numerous HD texture upgrades and UI overhauls, and you have an experience that is at least more visually polished than the game’s initial release. 

There are also mods that focus on gameplay systems such as resource management. The ‘Carbon Mod’, for example, takes any crafting or upgrades that require carbon, and changes the price so that you only need one of that particular resource. Seeing as carbon is one of the most commonly required resources for crafting, reducing its importance completely changes the way you play the game – allowing you to craft essential progression items faster. It also frees up space in your painfully limited inventory. If you want to get rid of the need to monitor your inventory at all, however, then there’s always the colorfully titled ‘F*** Inventory Management’.

That said, the mods that allow for this level of gameplay customization are few and far between. The vast majority give you control over the look of your game, but not much else. I was curious as to why this was the case, and after talking to members of the modding community, I found out that the reason might simply be practical. Hello Games, according to the people I talked to, did not anticipate the development of mods — so creating them has not been easy.

I spoke to Damanique, creator of ‘Dark Warp’, among other mods. She’s just one of many modders reporting a lack of structural support from Hello Games.“Right now it’s very difficult to create mods that go beyond the cosmetic because the game’s core files are very difficult to access,” she tells me. “When you want to change more than audio files or textures, things become a lot more technical and, depending on the modder’s skill level, tough to nearly impossible.”

A creature from Creatures Revamped A creature from Creatures Revamped

This was a sentiment mirrored by Aristidis, also known as pamehaibi6 in the community. He created ‘Creatures Revamped’, which allows for bigger creatures with more frequent spawn rates and a greater variety of appearances. His mod can change creature behavior— but only in the sense that more of them can now be predatory towards you. Given what Aristidis tells me about the nature of the game’s code, however, even attaining this level of customization is a big achievement.

“I have seen pretty much all of the game’s data and I can say with certainty that it’s a huge mess,” he tells me. There is a sense of frustration coming from the modding community-– they want to go deeper than altering cosmetic features, but feel like the game’s code simply does not allow them to do so.

I asked about what the future of NMS modding looks like from their perspective, and the answers I got were less than optimistic. I spoke to Decky, who heads up the No Man’s Sky Total Enhancement Project’ which aims to create a bug-free version of the game. According to him, though, modding will remain limited to mainly cosmetic features until Hello Games addresses issues with the game’s code, or provides modding tools. “The code doesn’t allow us to go deeper yet. The next bunch of mods will be more HD texture replacements. Other than that, we will be severely limited by the lack of modding tools until some are made available.”

For Damanique, the future of the modding scene depends entirely on how Hello Games proceeds with No Man’s Sky’s development. “What we’re really hoping for are modding tools like the ‘Garden of Eden Creation Kit’ (the official mod tools provided by Bethesda for Fallout 3 and New Vegas) so we can start building and expanding upon the game.” Without them, she says, “NMS modding may die out. Interest for the game is already flagging and we are reaching a point where there isn’t much more we can do.”

At the time of writing, Hello Games’ official Twitter account recently reiterated that development for NMS is ongoing, with their last update promising “free updates which will improve, expand and build on the No Man’s Sky universe.” Clearly they are as concerned about the game’s longevity as the community is, and so hopefully there’s a chance that these sought-after modding tools can eventually be provided to mod creators. As it stands, though, modders feel like they are being held back from making the changes that need to be made.

Even with that in mind though, I still believe that the game’s current mods are worth exploring if you, like me, were disappointed with the game’s initial release. During the game’s presentation at E3 2015, Sean Murray stated that the NMS universe was “full of choices.” It’s only after experimenting with these mods, however, that I feel I can define my own experience.

For me, exploring the game’s universe is now more engaging. I no longer have to worry about irritating exosuit notifications, or being jolted out of my experience by frame rate drops and crashes. Even though these mods are perhaps not as deep as the creators would like them to be, they are already allowing players to feel like they can control their own destiny. It’s clear that mod creators are willing to try improving the experience – it would seem now that the onus is on Hello Games to ensure that they can.