Why It’s Best To Be Cautious Around Procedurally Generated Indie Games

No Man's Sky

Yesterday, small indie studio Hello Games unveiled No Man’s Sky, which is a multiplayer sci-fi exploration game, and the biggest boast to come out of it is that an entire universe is supplied for you to explore from a first-person perspective. If you see a distant star, you can kick in the FTL drive on your spaceship and be there in no time. You can then fly down to one of the planets and be the first ever non-native creature to set foot upon it. It all sounds and looks very impressive.

How is this possible? Procedural generation.

The most extraordinary concept to have come out of No Man’s Sky is having “every atom” procedurally generated. I don’t even know if that’s truly possible. It seems too big an idea to wrap my human mind around. What the hell does that even mean? More importantly, does it even matter? Will it change my experience if every other atom was procedurally generated? But the point is, this is “next-gen” marketing speak, and this is where we’ve been heading for a while now.


“…it exposed the underlying sameness of all the star systems, generated as they were from only a handful of varying qualities”

Some of the major game publishers have been trying to force the idea of “better graphics” and “better AI” down our throats once again with their line-up of next-gen titles for the new batch of games consoles. But the differences that the new hardware in these consoles make isn’t as impressive in those particular departments as they have been in previous years. Graphics technology isn’t making the huge leaps it once was in previous decades. And the AI in some of the launch titles is no better than it was before, either. Game marketers will say it is, though, because they want you to think that and hope that it’s enough for you to buy the game. But they’ve got it all wrong.

No Man's Sky

It’s not “better” that is impressive any more; it’s bigger, larger and has more players. What’s dropping jaws these days are the possibilities of huge virtual spaces shared by lots of players online where they can interact and play alongside one another. To their credit, developers such as Bungie have it right with Destiny, and Respawn Entertainment with Titanfall. This is what next-gen gaming means now, or at least it certainly will be.

Marketing Elite

It’s not a new thing. Procedural generation has been around for years, with 1984′s space trading RPG Elite being one of the most notable earlier examples of it being used in video games. In fact, the original plan that the developers of Elite had was to provide the player with 282 trillion galaxies to explore. That number was reduced by the game’s launch, but not because the technology couldn’t keep up; it was because publisher Acornsoft said that a number that large “would rub the player’s nose in the artificiality of what they were enjoying.”

Francis Spufford continues to explain Acornsoft’s reasoning in his article:

“A number that gigantic made it inescapably clear that some sort of mathematical concoction was involved. And it exposed the underlying sameness of all the star systems, generated as they were from only a handful of varying qualities.”

Bear in mind what Acornsoft said as we consider that procedural generation is something that has become increasingly popular with indie game developers in recent years. Games such as Cube World, 3079 and Cloudberry Kingdom offer infinite replayability, but at the cost of heavy repetition.

Adversely, games like Spelunky, Cargo Commander and FTL: Faster Than Light use procedurally generated content to create an arguably more compelling experience. It’s a mix of good and bad, depending on how the procedural generation is integrated with the gameplay, and it has taken off among indie games in the way it has, most likely because of the tremendous success of Minecraft. But then, every trend in indie games since 2010 seems to be traceable back to Minecraft.

Minecraft

And what is the appeal of Minecraft? It’s definitely not the graphics. It’s the open-world survival elements at first, but people stay for the huge online, fully customizable game world that lets them build things together inside. Note that the players fill the game with their own hand-crafted content. That’s what’s compelling, and not necessarily the procedurally generated landscapes. My worry is that procedural generation sounds good and makes lots of exciting promises, but the results are far from what we imagine. It’s a numbers game. It’s usually quantity over quality. It’s a custom-made car versus Ford’s production lines.

Some indie developers have realized that having big numbers and ridiculous promises of vast game worlds makes for good games marketing and is very good bait for hopeful players. I’m not saying they’re deliberately trying to deceive people, just that they end up promising a lot more to people than they can possibly deliver. Call it Molyneux Syndrome if you want.


“…there’s only a small handful of planet types and biomes, and then it starts getting repetitive.”

Indie developers don’t have the time, resources or enough people to create the huge worlds that the big studios can. Procedural generation does allow that, though. Sort of. It’s a shortcut. They don’t have to hand-craft every inch of their game world, like Bethesda pretty much did with Skyrim. They can write some code that constantly creates ground for the player to walk over, churning out items and enemies at them to collect and fight. But, in my experience, it often lacks the heart that comes with hand-crafting these details, and quite often, it becomes repetitive and bland within just a few hours of play, if even that long.

Facts And Figures

It’s funny, because when No Man’s Sky was revealed, I had actually just come out of playing Starbound for a few hours. Starbound is basically what No Man’s Sky is apparently going to be in terms of scope, except it’s 2D and side-scrolling. Starbound is an overwhelming game when you realize that you have thousands of planets to explore inside a whole universe, and they’re all “unique.”

In the game’s star map, you can ask your navigation system to find a random solar system for you, or you can scroll across them all yourself and pick whatever takes your fancy. Something that the community has started doing is “The Planet Project,” which is an effort to try to record all of the planets in Starbound’s persistent and procedurally generated universe and jotting down the co-ordinates and details of them all so other players can explore the ones they want to with ease if they wish.

Starbound

Starbound is unbelievable at first because “LOOK AT ALL OF THESE PLANETS I CAN EXPLORE!” But then, once you’ve been to a few of these planets, you start to realize that, actually, there’s only a small handful of planet types and biomes, and then it starts getting repetitive. The planets may be unique in that their formations aren’t all the same, but they hold all the same contents in different quantities and variations. The procedurally generated customization in Starbound produces thousands, if not millions, of unique results, too. But it could be as much as an armor chest piece that is a slightly different shade of purple to your other one. The result isn’t as exciting as the number-based marketing spiel would have you hope.

Luckily, Starbound has non-procedurally generated questlines to keep you busy for a while, so there’s more to keep you exploring than just visiting the same planets over and over with just a slight variation each time. The other thing it has is the online community, who will continuously make the game interesting for themselves, as has happened with Minecraft.


“…they’re about what these details evoke. They’re dense, affecting experiences.”

Hopefully, No Man’s Sky will have this hand-made design in part, as well as a multiplayer that will allow for players to turn the procedurally generated content into something interesting. I should make it clear that by no means am I trying to write No Man’s Sky off. It’s impossible to make any judgement of it yet. We don’t even know how the procedural generation in the game will work; perhaps it’s a game-changer, so to speak. But I doubt it, and I will continue to restrain myself from going nuts over it until I’ve put a few hours into the game for myself.

What’s strange, and I suppose great, is that we’ve just come off the back of a year that saw the likes of Gone Home and The Stanley Parable enter our computers. Both games are highly tailored experiences, and because of that, they’re quite short in the grand scheme of things. If you consider the size of these huge (sometimes infinite) RPGs and put them at the top-end of a scale that measures game length, Gone Home and The Stanley Parable weigh in at the lower end. They’re short experiences, but highly detailed, with every object having meaning in Gone Home’s house, and almost every action the player performs causing a result through narration in The Stanley Parable.

Gone Home

You could play the numbers game with these games too, saying that they have an X number of interactions or an X number of lines of narration. It makes you realize how ridiculous and empty these hype-marketing boasts can be. But that’s not what these games are about. They’re about what these details evoke. They’re dense, affecting experiences. whereas these huge procedurally generated indie games often sit on the other side of the room, churning out large numbers, stretching details and meaning thin.

But don’t consider these different approaches to game creation at odds. We don’t need more sides to be taken and wars created between both fans of games and game developers. Just bear in mind that how a game is marketed can tell you a lot about what to expect, especially when you read between the lines. Sometimes, false promises are made, or simply the ideas that are being sold aren’t actually anywhere near as good as they might make you imagine.

No Man’s Sky could be as great as it sounds, and if it is, then blimey, what a fucking game that will be. It’s a good idea to remain skeptical until we’ve heard more about how the technology behind the game works. The rule goes that if something sounds unbelievable, then it probably is. My experience with procedurally generated worlds isn’t the best, and I dare say yours might be the same. But I’m eager for that to change, and if the “next-gen” (whatever that means) is going to be about being bigger AND more detailed with it, perhaps that will happen.

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