Procedural Generation: Where can it go from here?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...