Our galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars and all of them can be found in Elite: Dangerous. Well, at least the same amount of stars. Of course, David Braben and his team didn’t dot their virtual galaxy manually with all those star systems, they used procedural generation. But there’s absolutely more to it, Braben explained when we recently sat down with him in San Francisco.

“I think it is a distraction when you start describing it as ‘we generated our galaxy procedurally’. It belittles the fact that we actually put a lot of artistic work in it and gathered real data.

We have a one-to-one scale model of the milky way in our game, with all the 400 billion star systems. What we’ve done is we got real data from 160,000 star systems. That’s every single star in the night sky. About 7,000 are visible to the human eye and a lot more with a telescope. These are all in the game. And all the nebulae and things like that.

Now, beyond 30 or 40 light-years from Earth, even Hubble can’t resolve the smallest stars. So, the most common star we know about is a Class M Red-star, and beyond those 30 to 40 light-years, Hubble can’t see them. But you CAN see them as a sort of smoke, you just can’t see individual stars.

And I’m sure in our lifetime, we’ll see further and further with better telescopes. But the point is, we can populate that smoke with stars –with the right sort of mix of stars as well as the density. Because we know how much radiation is coming out of that smoke. And that’s the sort of approach we have taken.

Using procedural generation to create that smoke, in much the same way an artist uses an air brush or computer. The artists doesn’t mind where the individual dots come, what he’s doing, is getting the pattern of the smoke right, or whatever it is he’s drawing with the air brush.

And that’s what we’re doing here. So, it’s not just a bland filling it uniformly with continuous, constant planets. It’s getting the texture and beauty of the milky way. So that in the game, the night sky is actually generated from that data, including all the dust that’s in the galaxy and all the nebulae. And it does look remarkably like our night sky. In fact we had to increase the amount of dust to get it to just match.

Procedural generation is just a tool. Think of it as algorithms to help improve the graphic richness if you like. Procedural generation taken at its face value, is simply the use of computing procedures to magnify the input of an artist.”

More of David Braben on procedural generation in this TEDx Talk.