It could all become a procedural nightmare…

The zombie revolution of the last decade spawned standout titles like’ Left 4 Dead’; but also has left us mobbed by a hoard of poor imitations,  mediocre zombie shooters and situations such like the WarZ/DayZ debacle where the former shamelessly cashed in on the latter. In short popularity breeds mediocrity and maybe you can have too much of a good thing.

The increasing number of kickstarter funded titles using the phrase “Procedural Generation” is maybe a stark warning that we could be headed for another genre ‘flood’…

So, why have game designers grabbed hold of procedural generation? 

It’s pretty straightforward in principle,  procedural generation is nothing new –  Tetris could be considered procedurally generated; each new tile is randomly selected from a pool of available options so no two games should be the same… And that’s the pull,  procedural generation adds all important replay value without needing to create individual levels.  Effectively you instruct the game how to make its own content and give it the right building blocks.

It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, ‘Sir!  You are being hunted’  generates entire islands; this involves height maps,  assigning terrain,  producing roads,  placing buildings even down to naming the villages in an appropriately inappropriate rural English manner. Likewise,  many of us have been down the ‘Spelunky’  rabbit hole of masochistic cave exploration,  and generating viable platforming levels from a selection of tiles and items is not a matter of throwing them at the screen and seeing what sticks.

The designers responsible for putting together the dreamlike slice of americana that is “The Flame in the Flood” (recently released on early access Steam)  have used closed backer beta, and now the steam early access feature, to tackle balance issues within the game,  tweaking resource distribution and rafting mechanics based on anonymous player data –  a shrewd move as balance issues are often the biggest complaints levelled against procedurally generated content.

The inevitable rising number of sloppy imitators not willing to take the time to refine the procedural model is disconcerting,  but not unexpected. It is a symptom of any trend that shows some success and is a testament to the great procedurally generated games out there (many more than those mentioned); after all,  ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’. The real danger is the gradual slip into mediocrity as more and more developers turn to procedural generation as the surefire way to prolong gameplay.

My mind keeps getting drawn back to Doom 2, specifically a level called ‘Tricks and Traps’. Whilst considered a ‘classic’,  Doom 2’s world (due to the technological limits of the time) consists mainly of low-res green,  brown and grey textures a handful of memorable sprite based enemies and maps restricted to a 2D footprint.  What it excels in however is level design. ‘Tricks and Traps’ starts the player in  hub room,  unremarkable except for the doors lining the walls,  behind which lie chambers,  each with a trap-like element. The player must choose which to explore to find the keys necessary to complete the level. Doom 2’s level designers should be proud that after so many years this level (and many others in the game)  are so distinctly memorable, regardless of the lack of texture/visual variety within the game.

… Skip forward 20+ years and the six person strong powerhouse that was the Doom Dev team would now constitute a small indie studio. Surveying the landscape of gaming today,  I think it’s fair to say that the possibility of making Doom procedurally generated is achievable,  but maybe not desirable.  Could we imagine a procedural routine that could replicate the tension and pacing of classic Doom? would the maps be as varied? would difficulty curves rely on anything more than upping the enemies and dropping the health kits? In short would “Procedural Doom” be great  or descend into a mediocre slog through the armies of hell?

Maybe all that’s needed is awareness; on playing a game with procedurally generated content I’ve started to question that decision. It’s not a matter of developer talent,  as I’ve already pointed out that procedural generation isn’t easy,  but take a well crafted game such as ‘Sunless Sea’.  This is a game that almost emits a salty spray it’s so atmospheric and delivers that with only functional graphics but gloriously detailed text. Regardless of the talent required,  does the procedurally generated aspect add to the game? In this specific case I think I’d argue ‘no’,  and even that it detracts. The island placement is ‘semi-random’ with the same ports always in the same region,  but not always quite the same order. With each subsequent seafarer,  the player is more often left burning fuel,  neither knowing exactly where to go,  nor feeling truly like an explorer on a frontier; they are indeed a lost sailor stranded in this world of vague familiarity.

Gaming is more varied now than ever; procedural generation is just a single vista – we can soak it up and it will always have a place, but let’s not let it sprawl to the horizon.

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