A lot of people are chatting about No Man's Sky these days, although there's not much hard data. The general consensus seems to be "WHOA! Uh... what do you DO, exactly?"
I've played a whole lot of exploration games. No Man's Sky is hardly the first. Hell, Noctis is hardly the first. I used to explore randomized worlds built in Traveler, and even that wasn't the first!
I can safely say that No Man's Sky isn't pioneering a new genre. It's simply a very shiny example within that genre.
But here's the thing people often forget: exploration is only half a game.
Right now, virtually every exploration game is a combat-survival game, which is what No Man's Sky will be. Minecraft is like this, too. I don't much like combat-survival gameplay. Not only is it overplayed, it also damages and flattens the exploration elements. Exploration is boiled down to "what resources and enemies are in the area?"
There are a lot of things we could replace combat-survival with.
The most likely replacement is creation. I think there's a lot of room to allow players to create as they explore.
The line between creation and survival is sometimes a bit thin. I mean, isn't Minecraft about creation? And if you can build your own ship to your own specs in No Man's Sky, isn't that creation?
I draw the line on the other end of the content. It's not about how well you can create things, it's about how well you can share them. See, that feeds back into exploration: if you can uncover fragments of some other player's story, that lends a lot of power to the universe.
Most games like this have some kind of explicit sharing. Share craft files, share map files. Manually download and plug in. Even if there is no actual creation at all, exploration games can get the same kind of creative sharing by sharing specific locations that have extremely interesting features, such as when people share specific random seeds for Minecraft worlds.
Explicit sharing is clumsy. It's like scribes. It's time for the printing press. It's time for implicit sharing.
Pieces of your creations will be embedded in other people's experiences automatically.
Sharing ship layouts and bases is fine, but that's the most boring possible thing to share. Instead, these games need you to share personal stories and hooks leading to more content.
For example, I build a ship knowing it'll be shared automatically with other players. So I crash it into a planet. Now I know it'll be shared as a crashed vessel. So I do a survival run - building shelter near the ship, creating basic tools and clothes from the local wildlife, and so on. Now I know that anyone that stumbles across the vessel will also stumble across my survival attempt. This is becoming a story - someone crashed and survived. Who?
That's where the story ends if you're doing combat-survival gameplay. There's no in-game method for going any further with the shared content. But in a creation-based game, you could go so much further. Embed NPCs. Embed log files. Talk about a dangerous local disease and - bang - it exists. Talk about a plot that caused your ship to crash and - bang - it exists. Set up a plot line and watch visitor's party members get caught up in it as if it were their own. Set up a culture with new customs and traditions... they bury it under 10,000 years of sand.
This kind of creation is not something you see in modern games, because it's rather difficult to achieve. I honestly don't think it's any harder than allowing us to build our own space station. It's just that we've gotten so used to building our own space stations. We know exactly how to program that tool and polish that environment.
We don't know how to allow players to create stories. We don't know how to program that tool, and we don't know how to set up that environment to be compelling.
But... I think we will discover that. Soon.