Procedural generation is becoming an increasingly popular tool in open world and sandbox games.
Ambitious upcoming games such as Star Citizen and We Happy Few, intend to make use of the emerging trend in game design. With the success of the system in Ark: Survival Evolved it could become a major part of the future of game design.
So what is procedural generation? Where did it come from? And will it be beneficial for the future of gaming?
What is it?
You’ve probably already encountered procedural generation, even though you may not know it. Put simply, it’s when game developers use a programmed algorithm to produce textures and content within games. As opposed to the traditional approach of designing levels and items, game developers design an algorithm to produce these for them.
.@MrAbelGreen The procedural generation engine is 100mb. I give to you the power of math! All assets are generated in real time. Love ya!
— DM21 Gaming (@dm21gaming) July 11, 2016
This reduces a structured layout to the game, adding a randomization factor and making each play-through unique. Levels are created as the player explores them, so the next time you encounter them they’ll be different. This can achieve active weather and destruction mechanics that shape the game as you play.
It can also be utilized in first person shooters, particularly in online multiplayer modes. With the use of procedural generation, maps differ with each playthrough, meaning cover is altered and item drops are randomly placed throughout the level.
Rather than a player grabbing their favorite power up and camping in their choice location, no one can have exact prior knowledge of a map, thus leveling the playing field.
In the Beginning
Procedural generation first appeared in games like Rogue and Elite in the early 80’s. Due to technology restraints, games would be pretty basic, the tactic was employed to add replay value to the games – producing a randomly generated pattern to gameplay rather than repeating the same experience again and again.
The idea was improved upon most notably by the Diablo series, where randomly generated dungeons would occur. As players engaged in quests, they would enter a series of ever-changing dungeons designed within specific parameters. Again adding replayability, so much so that Diablo 2 is still a popular game today some 17 years after it’s initial release.
Virtual Director and Left 4 Dead
With improving technology the scope of procedural generation was also increased, creating new capabilities. One of the most notable examples comes from the popular Left 4 Dead series, which features Valve’s AI Director.
If you’ve ever played Left 4 Dead and felt like the game has cheated, that’s because it kind of does. Normally any attempt to blame the software for your own game over screen is a desperate ploy, but there is an exception here.
The game’s AI Director is a computer algorithm that observes your play and makes decisions based on that. If the game thinks players are having too easy of a time it can ramp up the difficulty and add extra challenges.
The Director has the power to extend the route, creating greater distance between any two safe rooms. It can also throw additional horde’s or an extra Tank your way to keep players on their toes.
Modern Applications and No Man’s Sky
Modern capabilities mean developers can now create massive open worlds or even universes entirely at random. Minecraft was one of the first modern games to make use of the technique in creating an ever-changing environment.
Ambitious titles such as No Man’s Sky pushed the limitations even further attempting to create an ever-expanding universe. No Man’s Sky contains 18 quintillion planets for players to explore each will procedurally generated environments and wildlife. Meaning a player could explore the universe for the rest of their life and never have two days the same, much like real life.
— Biscuits 🍪 (@TwoMoreBiscuits) March 16, 2017
The concept was mind-blowing, unfortunately, the scale of the project resulted in some lackluster creations. Because planets weren’t specifically created with a purpose in mind, many players found a lack of things to do. The universe was vast but also empty. Something that wouldn’t be found in a painstakingly created open world like you might find in a Rockstar game.
Procedural Generation – Good or Bad?
There are positives and negatives to the use of procedural generation in gaming. On the plus side, it drastically improves replay value as players. With many story-driven games like Mirror’s Edge, once the main campaign is complete there is little to draw the player back in.
Games like Dishonoured and the Telltale Series have shown the advantages of stories that adjust to the player’s style of play. Adding a random element to a branching narrative could mean no two playthroughs are alike, creating a new experience each time you play.
— Kenny (TWDG) (@Kenny_TWD_RP) October 24, 2017
In online multiplayer, changing maps and scattered items, level the playing field a little, can indeed make the game more accessible. It’s easy for a new player to become overwhelmed by a multiplayer system like Call Of Duty.
Games like Friday The 13th and PUBG already randomly scatter items, and changing maps and realistic weather will only enhance the experience. It also creates a much smaller game file, making for easier storage and reduced download times.
On the downside, poorly crafted algorithm’s can result in stale, uninspired and low texture levels. An experience designed by developers will generally be better written and feature greater depth. Man-made open worlds can feature casts of background characters creating a seemingly living world aside for the protagonist’s story.
More interesting and unique secrets to discover are more likely to encourage the player to explore. A changing assortment of hills, plants or walls whilst technically unique offer little variety to gameplay.
So What Next?
Developers have only begun to scratch the surface of procedural generation, the applications could be incredible. It’s a tactic that once combined with good storytelling and man-made environments will be a game changer. Constructed storylines and level design combined with an ever-changing environment could shatter the conceptions of gameplay like never before.
Ark: Survival Evolved is only the beginning that could lead to a new style of gameplay for all major developers. Beyond Good and Evil 2 will possibly be the first game to finally master the balance of the two styles. Certainly, that’s what Ubisoft are hoping for, but a lot of the game is still in concept mode at the moment.
An entire universe to explore, a campaign to complete, a cast of flushed out background characters and an ever-changing environment and narrative inspired by an individual’s gameplay. It’s an exciting idea that proves procedural generation could play a huge part in the future of gaming.