Ego Check: Michael Peiffert, Creative Director of Out There

michael-peiffert

Michael Peiffert

The primary purpose of this article is to publish my interview with Michael Peiffert, Founder and Creative Director of Mi-Clos Studio, which released Out There in 2014. Before diving into the interview, I need to provide some background as to how I came about communicating with Mr. Peiffert in the first place. Like many others this summer, I got caught up in the hype that proceeded the release of No Man’s Sky. The game seemed to offer the promise of endless exploration and adventure, and media outlets that were allowed early access fueled the speculation:

  • IGN – “Survival really is the beating heart of this gorgeous, enigmatic beast. Only time will tell if my 20th or 200th hours with No Man’s Sky will hold a similar sense of driving purpose, but my first two most certainly did, and that’s a good start.”
  • Ars Technica – “In a world of AAA sequels and franchises, passion-driven projects like No Man’s Sky are rare gems—and as silly as it sounds, Murray made a believer out of me.”
  • Polygon – “Many game developers will earnestly tell you that their creations defy categorization, and Hello Games’ Sean Murray is no different. He stresses that although this game clearly involves space combat, exploration and resource gathering, it’s not really about any of those things individually.”

A review by The Guardian summed up the challenges of a game that reaches the heights of expectation achieved by No Man’s Sky:

Two-and-a-half years ago, the team at Hello Games presented their concept for a practically infinite procedurally generated galaxy, and since then they’ve been suffering the consequences of that pitch’s success, faced with the task of creating a real game that would somehow measure up to thousands of different imagined ones.

Once the game was released, the reviews from the same media outlets were not as kind while others praised the attempted scope of No Man’s Sky:

  • IGN – “The promise of limitless exploration ended up working against it when I lost faith that it had any more meaningful things to show me no matter how far I traveled. This ambitious game reached for the stars, but its reach exceeded its grasp by light years.”
  • Ars Technica – “Its voxel-based, procedurally generated engine is an incredible template for more systems, content, and performance tweaks. Until then, the game’s title is true: this isn’t yet a sky any man (or woman) should bother claiming.”
  • Polygon – “Hello Games has built a set of tools that is amazing and unprecedented, something that could absolutely change the way huge games are made if placed in the right hands. But these powerful universe creation algorithms have been grafted onto a game that is, beyond its initial hours, so light on imagination.”
  • Trusted Reviews – “Sean Murray and Hello Games’ vision of creating a vast universe on a scale unseen in video games has no doubt been achieved, and will certainly provide everyone who plays it with something unique.”
  • GameSpot – “However, there’s an intriguing narrative that contextualizes your in-game actions, making for a fascinating experience that ultimately trumps issues that appear early on.”
  • Game Informer – “In its finest moments, No Man’s Sky is a sublime exploration of the infinitude of space, the beauty and variation of nature, and a quiet contemplation on loneliness… However, No Man’s Sky rarely reaches beyond its vibrant world-building efforts to provide satisfying gameplay and story.”

As I started to read the reviews of No Man’s Sky, the first though that came to my mind was, “This game sounds incredibly similar to Out There.” I even tweeted about this the day the game was released:

And again after playing the game for an hour or two that first night:

out-there-inventory

Ship inventory slots are devoted to technology and minerals/elements. Just like No Man’s Sky.

I first played Out There after a dungeoneering-minded friend gifted me a copy on iOS in 2014. It was around the time I was also playing FTL so I was in a space frame of mind! He actually wrote the following, “I should apologize for that game I gave you. It is good and fun, but also frustrating!” Out There starts the player lost in space with the goal of reaching a far-off destination. The player immediately has to gather resources to survive while upgrading his or her ship and moving from planet to planet to get closer to the destination. It is a punishing game, where failure is commonplace; yet the game endeared itself to me and kept me coming back like the more recent roguelike title, Darkest Dungeon. For the record, I’ve yet to reach the final destination. I once got close after upgrading to an enormous ship – only to have something break and run out of oxygen.

Heartbreaking!

The lack of recognition Out There garnered for No Man’s Sky mirroring it so closely was simply stunning to me. No Man’s Sky was fueled by hype and speculation around simple questions like, “What do you do in this game?” And yet you would be hard-pressed even two months after the game’s release to find many articles referencing Out There while discussing No Man’s Sky. I will save you the trouble of Googling yourself:

  • PC Games Network – No Man’s Sky PC Review (Bravo to them for having it in their review!)
  • Pop Matters – The Vast Indifference of ‘No Man’s Sky’
  • Digital Trends – 8 Great Games Like No Man’s Sky
  • Kill Screen – Disappointed in No Man’s Sky? Here Are 10 Cheap Alternates

An article by Euro Gamer that discussed similar games to No Man’s Sky even left Out There off their list! Why was this connection between the games not being addressed?

I first assumed this oversight was because a member of the development team from Out There was involved in No Man’s Sky in some capacity. Not being able to discover if their was a link between the development team of the two games, I started to research the development of Out There. I contacted the creator of Out There, Michael Peiffert. He continues to operate Mi-Clos Studio, which is based in France.

What follows is an interview that took place over the course of several weeks as Mr. Peiffert was busy traveling across the world to gaming conventions. He shared his candid thoughts on the numerous similarities No Man’s Sky shares with his game, Out There, and his frustration with the press for failing to cover the topic, “If indie developers start to rip themselves off and the press thinks it’s OK, then our industry is doomed.” Please take a moment to read the interview with Michael Peiffert and consider the possible ramifications and following questions.

  • What does it mean if the creative team behind No Man’s Sky knowingly borrowed/plagiarized multiple gameplay elements from Out There – and profited heavily from it?
  • Were traditional media outlets that preview and review games oblivious to the similarities to Out There – or did they choose to ignore them? Which of those alternatives is worse?
  • How much responsibility do gaming journalists have for cutting through the hype of a game like No Man’s Sky to give players an accurate sense of what a game is – and is not?
  • Games copy features all the time, though where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism?
  • Why were the creators of No Man’s Sky in hiding until a recent patch update?

I contacted Sean Murray and Hello Games numerous time for comment while writing this article and conducting the interview with Mr. Peiffert. I contacted them both through Twitter and email on multiple occasions, and have yet to receive a reply. I remain willing to communicate with them for an interview to discuss these issues. I am genuinely curious about these questions. If no one else is going to inquire about how Out There influenced No Man’s Sky, then I will continue with my efforts. Until I get a response, here is the full interview with Mr. Peiffert.

You’ve been conceptualizing the game since 2012 and previously disclosed that inspiration for Out There came from sources like Star Trek, Flash Gordon, Dune, and Oregon Trail. Now in 2016, what is it like to have Out There out there for players to digest and enjoy?

With FibreTigre (game designer/writer) we started working on prototypes in 2012. We first posted a mood trailer in December 2012:

It got a lot of attention from press and gamers so we moved forward into full-time development. Our initial pitch was to make a game about loneliness in space. So we started adding mechanics around this concept, and we took inspiration from classic and less-classic video games and board games such as the ones you mentioned. Those games offer simple game mechanics that are very fast to prototype, and they helped to carry our narrative.

I think Out There has been successful because of its universal thematic. Each element is here for a reason, not to check a feature box. It’s minimalism drives the player to use his imagination and make his own stories and experience. The game generally ends up with you dead to remind us that we are less than nothing compared to the universe.

Out There certainly strives to make the player consider existential themes about life, death, and discovery. The mechanics boil down to keeping the proper balance of resources to stay alive. Oxygen is needed to breath, a fuel source is needed to travel, and iron is needed to repair the ship and the technologies onboard. I’ve died in a number of interesting ways, but it basically revolves around running out of one of these three key elements. How does this reliance on natural resources mirror our relationship to the environment in the real world? And how did you decide on the difficulty level of the game? As you mentioned, the most likely outcome in Out There is a lonely death!

I think the reliance on limited resources and the difficulty were mirrored from our own situation at the time of development. We were both broke and everyday was a fight in and of itself. Our personal lives were a rogue-like adventure, in the sense where our adventure could stop at any moment if we couldn’t find the resources to fill our basic needs. We did a few freelance jobs but we were so focused on the game that we stopped responding to job offers.

The extra money we could get was used to travel to conventions. At one point, I had my computer stolen at Gamescom, which had the last game’s source code version. I only had a very old back-up at home. I was devastated because I had lost four months of development.

That could have been the end of the story.

Luckily, we managed to find a hacker that decompiled the Android demo we were showcasing so we could retrieve the source code. So just like in Out There, sometimes you think you are in a hopeless situation, and BAM!, you find a gas planet full of fuel and you’re ready to fly further in the galaxy to encounter more dangerous situations.

And if you die, well, you accept it because that’s how life is. You don’t win every time. Something that most modern games are trying to make us forget.

That all sounds harrowing! I’m glad you persevered through the setbacks and completed Out There.

One reason your game has been on my mind lately is the release of No Man’s Sky. The game received a great deal of hype and speculation. When I read a review on August 9th, my first reaction was, “That sounds an awful lot like Out There.” After I played for a few hours, it REALLY seemed like Out There. My first thought was maybe the same people were involved in the development of both games since they share so much. What type of contact or communication have you had with the development team for No Man’s Sky

We’ve never had any involvement in the development of No Man’s Sky, nor any contact with Hello Games’ team.

When did you first become aware of the similarities between Out There and No Man’s Sky?

And I wasn’t aware of the similarities until people on Twitter told me about them when the game was released on Playstation.

I’m surprised to learn there was no communication between you and the No Man’s Sky team. It’s quite the coincidence. Reviewers have struggled to define No Man’s Sky even after it was released, not to mention all the hype beforehand. In my mind, an easy way to describe No Man’s Sky is to say, “Someone turned Out There into a first-person shooter.” What are your thoughts and emotions about the similarities between your creation and No Man’s Sky?

I think it might be exaggerated to acknowledge that. No Man’s Sky is much more than a simple Out There clone. What’s not cool is that Hello Games has borrowed a few of Out There’s signature features.

Inventory management and alien encounters have exactly the same mechanics as in Out There. I’m not against getting inspiration from other games but the way Hello Games did it feels lazy. As game creators, this attitude is hurting us. It is not what we expect from an “indie developer.”

Fortunately, worldwide gamers and developers did notice the similarities and reached out through social media. This resulted in a 100% increase in daily sales of Out There since No Man’s Sky released. This compensation makes me feel somewhat cool about the whole situation.

But hearing what Hello Games have to say about it would be a relief.

I reached out to Hello Games through multiple streams over the past month without a response. I am hoping to have the opportunity to learn about the similarities from their perspective.

You highlighted the alien encounters. One of the more jarring examples of content that appears in both Out There and No Man’s Sky is learning a single word of an alien language after encountering a member of that species or one of their artifacts. Out There features the same system for learning a new word when the player interacts with an alien or a device from that species. The first time this happened in No Man’s Sky, the word I learned was “interloper.” That word is rarely used in everyday conversation, yet it’s used in Out There quite often in the same scenario. Having played both games, it seems like they copied your alien encounter system and included it in No Man’s Sky without giving any kind of credit throughout the many interviews with press outlets about the game. What was your goal when your team developed the alien encounters for Out There?

out-there-language

Language is a barrier when dealing with aliens. Just like No Man’s Sky.

In most space games, you are never faced with language barrier when you encounter alien species. They are just regular non-playable characters (NPCs) you can trade with. For Out There, we invented a universal primitive language. The meaning behind that is that any living species have communication skills whether with language, sounds, face expressions or body language.

For example, a human can communicate with animals even if he can’t talk with them. When you travel to a foreign country you don’t speak the language, in case of emergency, you always try to find a way to make people understand what you say. Sometimes it just gets lost in translation and you’re left by yourself without the help you need.

Exactly like in Out There.

The other similarity you mentioned was the inventory management system. Out There starts the player off with a small spacecraft and the inventory space is limited. Inventory slots are taken up by technology for the ship and resources such as iron, oxygen, and helium. The goal is to find a bigger ship with a bigger inventory to increase the likelihood of traveling the galaxy without dying because you run out of one of the key resources for survival. No Man’s Sky has the exact same system; screenshots from the games even look alike. It sounds like the increase in sales for Out There has eased some of the frustration with Hello Games. I wonder how would you have preferred for them to handle the situation?

I feel sorry for them.

It feels like they came up with this promising engine a few years ago and tried very hard to make an actual game off it. Maybe that explain why No Man’s Sky is a mess. I don’t expect them to acknowledge that they got heavy inspiration from Out There. It is so obvious it would be shameful for them.

I’m also very surprised that very few journalist had the balls to point the similarity with Out There, let alone speak out about it publicly. If indie developers start to rip themselves off and the press thinks it’s OK, then our industry is doomed.

How many journalists have contacted you about these similarities between Out There and No Man’s Sky? With the countless articles that have been written about No Man’s Sky, it seems a vast oversight by the mainstream press if I’m the first person to contact you with these questions.

Only three journalists have contacted me (you included). There is actually one talented YouTuber that pinpointed the similarity in a very interesting review of No Man’s Sky:

Before this video, I was thinking maybe people claiming No Man’s Sky had ripped off Out There were exaggerating. But when I watched it, it just opened my eyes on the whole situation.

I think games borrow from other games quite a bit; it seems to be an accepted part of the business. Where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism?

Inspiration is what has made art evolve since mankind started to exist. Inspiration is using someone’s creative work foundations to build something new atop of it.  In Out There, you can find a lot of inspirations from games, books, movies and whatnot from different eras.

Let’s talk about the alien language, for example. For this particular mechanic, we were inspired by a 1980’s French game called Captain Blood:

In this game, you can talk to aliens with symbols that you place in order to build a sentence. We thought the idea was brilliant but we have completely changed the mechanics to fit into the overall design of Out There.

Hello Games just copied and pasted our dialogue mechanics without even changing a thing.

Have you attempted to communicate with Hello Games since you became aware of the similarities?

Knowing that Sean Murray’s Twitter account is dead since the release of No Man’s Sky, I assume he might be busy. I’m quite busy as well, and I don’t want to create a double-negative vortex here.

What projects are you currently working on?

Well, I’m working on several projects of different sizes. We released Out There Chronicles on iOS and Android in July; it’s a visual novel based on the Out There universe. We have used our alien language mechanic there as well. So it’s fun because you can call an alien a pervert. The second episode is currently being written.

We’re continuing the development of Sigma Theory, which we started two years ago. It’s a spying and diplomacy strategy game set during a futuristic, global cold war. We had the luxury to take our time and pause the development several times for this game. For long development cycle games like this one, I think it’s vital to step back at some point. This will not be simply a game but a picture of what our world will be in a 100 years and how governments deal with it. We want the gameplay and the narrative to reflect that.

It’s interesting how the first prototypes were very complex. Slowly but surely, we are in the process of keeping and refining only what’s essential. Minimalism is what makes our games unique, but it’s not the easiest thing to do.

In parallel of developing my games, I’m also publishing indie games from people I appreciate. Episode 2 of cyberpunk point n’ click Void & Meddler will release on Steam very soon. Also, I’ve just signed a deal with Dungeon Rushers (already on Steam) by Goblinz Studio to bring it on mobiles.

Thank you for this interview!

Final Thoughts

I am thankful to Mr. Peiffert for sharing his time with me and responding to my questions. The lack of coverage of the similarities between No Man’s Sky and Out There remains surprising, especially since No Man’s Sky was accused this summer of stealing a patented equation from a Dutch company. To be clear, I am not on a witch hunt. I have played No Man’s Sky here and there since buying it on the first day and have enjoyed the game in bursts. Either the team at Hello Games copied several mechanics from Out There without assigning credit, or it is an uncanny coincidence. There is no third option. I would like to know the answer to that question.

The thing I am most curious about is how this topic has not been covered by many members of the mainstream gaming media. They are either unaware of the similarities between No Man’s Sky and Out There, or they are aware and do not find it newsworthy. It’s unclear to me which option is more troubling. Media reviews – whether it be movies, games, or technology products – are a business. Much of that business is driven by the same type of hype that carried No Man’s Sky to record sales.

Previews and reviews for games often rely on clickbait articles and misleading titles to generate interest. Outlets that cover movies are notorious for this type of clickbait, and it fuels discussion and speculation without providing much relevant information. When I promote this article on social media, I have a few options. I could take one quote from Mr. Peiffert that is quite candid and blast that out with a clickbait headline like, “Indie Developer Feels Sorry for Hello Games, Calls Them Lazy.” I would not be surprised if other gaming outlets pick up this interview and do that very thing.

Please, do not do that.

I am not doing that.

I am not trying to be a martyr; I just believe it does a disservice to the interview, and I do not think it captures the spirit of the discussion with Mr. Peiffert above. However, I do hope that traditional gaming outlets see the interview and think about the way they cover games going forward. This is not the first time a developer overpromised the features of a game, and it will not be the last. This being an election year in the United States, it’s tough to avoid the comparisons of what happens to media outlets (regardless of the topic they cover) when they become more focused on entertainment than journalism. The same frustration applies to sports media as ESPN is mostly unwatchable these days because it’s mostly two or three guys arguing with each other.

out-there-death

Get accustomed to seeing screens like this when playing Out There.

That said, I would enjoy communicating with a member from the Hello Games team – or someone from a mainstream gaming review site – to discuss these issues. I imagine Hello Games jumped on the hype train that was willfully provided by traditional media outlets and it got away from them. I have an interview podcast(two episodes recorded and releasing next month), and they are all welcome to be a guest.

 

To close, I encourage you to play Out There if you were intrigued by No Man’s Sky in any way and are one of the many that stopped playing. However, I will offer the same advice my friend gave to me, “I should apologize for that game I gave you. It is good and fun, but also frustrating!”

Expect to die lonely out there. Often!

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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3 Responses to Ego Check: Michael Peiffert, Creative Director of Out There

  1. Angelleo says:

    Major difference between this two games: “Out there” was a great game and the dev didn’t lie about is content.

    • The Id DM says:

      It’s interesting that No Man’s Sky continues to evolve. I haven’t played it since the new update hit; been too busy with the Hearthstone expansion. Thank you for coming by to read the article. I’ve tried multiple times to contact the team at Happy Games for comment, and never did get a response.

  2. Pingback: Inspiration, plagiarism and coincidence in the video game industry. – Momo's Blog

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