Procedural Generation: Where can it go from here?

procedural generation no mans sky

Creating and crafting massive interactive worlds for gamers to unleash themselves upon has become a core pillar of modern gaming. The saturation of open-world games or sandbox environments for us to play in is a reflection of a staple that’s now firmly embedded within video games. “How big is the map?” is a question that’s often asked when the latest AAA open world title is announced. This need for bigger worlds has dragged procedural generation firmly into the gaming lexicon.

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Minecraft. an example of craftable procedurally generated worlds.

Procedural generation, for those who don’t know, is an algorithmic technique of creating data. What does this mean for gaming? Basically, it allows developers to automatically generate whatever they want within their game worlds, they can create challenging puzzles, diverse locations and vast universes all without having to manually create each asset and its behaviour.

No Man’s Sky is arguably the most prominent example of procedural generation, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a new technology that Sean Murray dreamed up on a breezy Sunday afternoon dancing round the maypole at Hello Games HQ. Procedural generation has been used in gaming since the 80’s, with titles like Elite and Rogue being the true pioneers of the form. In the 90’s we had the Diablo series, and more recently we’ve seen games like Spelunky and Minecraft making use of procedural generation. It’s not just limited to world building – procedural generation is used within game design itself, using it to make weapons, loot and enemy spawns.

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The Original Elite Game a pioneer for procedural generation

But where’s it all going? No Man’s Sky is an example of both the potential and the risk of procedural generation. The technology and the concept of No Man’s Sky (and arguably the marketing platform it was given) was fantastic. Unfortunately, how this translated into a workable and enjoyable gaming experience wasn’t as simple as many naïve hopefuls thought it would be. It’s all well and good creating a vast universe but if you don’t give players meaningful experiences within them, how can you expect people to keep playing it?

Now I’m not for a moment suggesting that all games that feature procedural generation are bad, there have been plenty of games that have used it to great success and I’ve already named a few in this article. However, as a consumer I’m feeling remarkably underwhelmed by procedural generation and the promises they’ve made versus what I’m buying at the end of it all. It’s all really impressive; we’re getting large, technically remarkable worlds that are marred by less gameplay diversity than most early access titles.

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Spelunky features procedurally generated levels

I’m still waiting for ‘that game’, I don’t know what ‘that game’ is and whether we’ll ever get it. The crowdfunded juggernaut Star Citizen (that may never be finished ever) is doing something interesting by manually crafting experiences for their players within a world that has been procedurally generated. For me personally, whether or not Star Citizen will be ‘that game’ that manages to crack the formula, that’s the direction that procedural generation needs to move to.

We still suspend our disbelief in games, we still accept that Assassin’s Creed version of Jerusalem & Damascus are only a 5 minute horse ride away from each other. Wouldn’t it be great to get that gaming experience where distances were more relative? A superhero game, for example, where you can fly from city to city at blazing speeds on a procedurally generated planet with larger cities and key locations that have been fleshed out and main missions at these crafted spaces to ensure the player eventually visits these locations.

procedural generation star citizen
Star Citizen shows promise… (if it ever comes out!)

Ultimately, I’m not a game developer, things that may seem simple to me may not even be technically possible with the tools that are currently out there. But I see a reoccurring theme with these procedurally created game spaces of the lack of depth it can ultimately offer when handled in isolation. I truly believe no game should be 100% procedurally generated, as you lose the larger chunk of what the game needs, something to actually do in all the many places that have been created.

What do you think the future of procedural generation is? If you could make games, how would you like to see it used? Or do you think it’s best left out of games completely?

Rob Beckett28 Posts

Volunteer writer, poor mans excuse for a grown up, and certified panther rider... I'm told I have far too many consoles that i'm convinced come to life and have endless series comedy capers when the house is empty. Sort of like Toy Story, but really poorly written and every character is voiced by Jai Courtney... a bit like that...

3 Comments

  • vangus (@realvangus) Reply

    08/08/2017 at 15:50

    Procedural games have a great future. The concept behind No Man’s Sky is amazing. It is the first game of it’s kind, you just need to build on that formula. I think the only real problem with NMS is that the discoveries aren’t interesting enough. It’s a game for explorers and if you explore new planets you should find incredible things every now and then. In No Man’s Sky it’s all too similar and bland. Imagine a NMS-like game with worlds looking as good as an Uncharted 4 level and you can find creatures as big as Godzilla or planets with mile high waves like in Interstellar. The Worlds have to be more believable and more impressive. Better graphics and more unique things to share are necessary. Too many gameplay mechanics aren’t necessary, because it’s alright if the focus is just on exploring. But yes, developers can add to the formula as many things they want, sky is the limit.
    We probably just need a procedural generated AAA-Game, but it’s a shame that it’s too risky for publishers…
    I would be satisfied with a game where you explore only one planet. A story like: Mankind found a new planet to live. We land on the planet and do, would people would do on a new planet. Could be even a multiplayer game, explore the planet together…

    So i think procedural generation has a bright future, though it won’t eliminate games with hand-crafted worlds, everything will coexist and thats totally fine, more diversity is always a good thing.

  • benjaminturpin Reply

    20/07/2017 at 19:10

    I’m interested in seeing more procedural narrative generation in games, like the nemesis system in Shadow of Mordor.

    • Rob Beckett Reply

      20/07/2017 at 19:36

      Yeah that’s a great point, really excited to see what they do with that in Shadow of War. Just wished more triple A titles tried to see what they can do with it in creative ways.

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