There's trouble brewing in the world of No Man's Sky, or potential calamity at the very least. It's all to do with a patented mathematical 'superformula' that might have found its way into Hello Games' space exploration sim - and, if it has, fans' fears that any resulting legal action may further delay the release of the game.
Picking through the details of the story is a challenge in itself, partly due to the complexity of the superformula and its practical uses, partly due to the speculative nature of No Man's Sky's utilisation of the formula, and partly due to the vague statements released by Dutch research company Genicap, the formula's patent holder, concerning the matter.
Eurogamer has an excellent and thorough breakdown of the story if you want the full details, but the abbreviated, easily digestible version looks something like this.
Let's start with the superformula itself; it's a mathematical formula, developed in 2003 by scientist Johan Gielis, that can be used to describe complex shapes and curves found in nature. In other words, it's precisely the kind of thing that would be invaluable when programming a game that needs to procedurally generate a near-infinite number of organic planets, such as No Man's Sky.
And, in fact, according to a No Man's Sky feature published in The New Yorker in May 2015, the superformula did, at one point, appear to have been deployed within the game's code to generate more naturalistic environmental shapes. There's a lot of reference to the formula within the article, but here's the pertinent bit:
Even a feature as simple as the Superformula - a hundred and twenty lines of code - created complications when it was written into the terrain-generation system. When I asked [Sean] Murray how it was working, he told me, "It's cool, though it currently plays hell with creature A.I."
This, of course, is where the first degree of uncertainty creeps into the story. Right now, only Hello Games knows for sure if the superformula is, in fact, currently used within No Man's Sky's code. Assuming it is, however, the next question becomes what, if anything, will Genicap, the formula's patent holder, want to do about it?
It's worth noting at this point that Genicap was founded by Johan Gielis, the man who developed the superformula, so it has an actual, vested, and seemingly perfectly reasonable, interest in protecting its patent - which, in this case, appears to apply to the superformula's use in the creation of computer graphics. But what does it have to say about the superformula and No Man's Sky?
In its response to Eurogamer's inquiries, Genicap stated that "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".
Notably, the company also revealed that its "working on a project to create revolutionary software based on the superformula that can be used likewise by indies and the major game studios". In other words, it sounds like it's looking to license its superformula for use in the creation of games.
So then, there's no immediate, obvious threat of legal action, or of Genicap attempting to block the release of the No Man's Sky; particularly as the company also amicably stated, "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".
So what can be gleaned from the information available at present? Well, truthfully, not very much at all.
Hello Games might have used the superformula within No Man's Sky's code, and if it has, it's inevitable that a discussion – of some undetermined nature – between the developer and Genicap will need to occur prior to the game's launch.
Will this result in legal action, some kind of settlement, or is this whole palaver merely Genicap's way of drawing attention to its fledging games licensing business? The only thing to do right now is watch as the whole thing unfolds.