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Generation Next, Part 4: Procedural Generation's Future

What we hope for

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Mark Johnson is the developer of Ultima Ratio Regum [official site], an ANSI 4X roguelike in which the use of procedural generation extends beyond the creation of landscapes and dungeons to also dynamically create cultures, practices, social norms, rituals, beliefs, concepts, and myths. This is the final in a four part series examining what generating this kind of social detail can bring to games.

In this series so far we’ve examined the current state of procedural generation (PCG) in game design and outlined what a greater engagement with ‘qualitative’ PCG might bring to games (in Part 1), talked through in detail the process for creating a richly detailed PCG element of social life (in Part 2) and given an overview of my own work in this area (in Part 3). For this final part we will now zoom out somewhat and talk about game design and the games industry as a whole, and where we might want to position qualitative PCG more broadly, both now and in the near future. There are two core propositions I’d like to put forward: firstly, that we should regard qualitative worldbuilding detail as being integral to the future of games, instead of an intriguing aside; and secondly, that the demographics of developers and players of PCG games are going to shape the direction that procedural generation evolves in.

If you’re new to this series, I define qualitative PCG as procedural generation concerned with producing the richly detailed cultural and social elements of game worlds – such as religious practices, interpersonal norms, and aesthetic preferences – as opposed to more traditional quantitative PCG which is concerned with the creation of dungeons, landscapes and so forth.

Firstly, the somewhat grand question of the future of games. If we take a step back and consider the last few years of game development, I think a trend has begun to emerge: a focus on worldbuilding as opposed to simply narrative. We can see this in the many games that scatter notes and pieces of information about the game that don’t tell you the story, but tell you more about the world in which the story takes place. We can see this in the Souls series and its many imitators who have created worlds of unparalleled architectural, historical and thematic complexity and challenged its players to decipher them – a task many have taken up. We can see this in the rise of “walking simulators” whose entire experience rests in the appreciation of a particularly beautiful, interesting, or otherwise compelling world, and in the immediate lived experience of communing with that virtual space. In so many cases massive online communities and tens of thousands of forum threads debate and discuss such worldbuilding information and its impact and importance for both narrative and gameplay. Such phenomena make it very clear that worldbuilding is something players like and care about, and that the creation of these believable worlds are becoming increasingly central to game design practice.

Just as traditional procedural generation or worlds and spaces arose in an era relatively free of such concerns and focused instead on providing interesting virtual environments, so too, I would propose, has qualitative PCG now begun to emerge in an era where we care more and more about the worldbuilding elements of our games. As I’ve tried to argue through-out this series, these elements don’t just have to be background, but can come to the foreground as well.

Illustrative of this future potential is the observation that many PCG games only change the gameplay elements in each iteration whilst leaving the worldbuilding elements unchanged, which can lead to some strange situations. In FTL, for example, the politics and allegiances of the various species and factions remain unchanged even when the entire layout of stars and systems is jumbled up anew every time you play. One does not have to be a (space) sociologist to appreciate that perhaps this doesn’t make complete sense, and that geography and environment will naturally shape the (co-)evolution of different races, and therefore their political alignments and social behaviours.

Of course, this might just be regarded as picking fault with the smallest of things, but I choose to see it as instead the opportunity for a deeper and richer engagement with both the potential of procedural generation, and the potential for integrating worldbuilding and gameplay elements. What if the notoriously xenophobic Slugs behaved differently in some games depending on where their systems appeared and who their neighbours were, and the player could deduce (or at least take an educated guess at) this by studying the layout of the solar systems? The value of qualitative PCG starts to become apparent for massively varying play experience on both the “purely” worldbuilding level, and the gameplay level, and therefore comes with a lot of promise.

I am consequently really making two points here – firstly, that sociocultural detail in game worlds is undoubtedly increasing and bringing richer experiences with it, and secondly that generating that detail would be deeply desirable for creating new forms of gameplay that interweave the player’s actions and the game world – but the two are obviously related. I see qualitative PCG as the opportunity for integrating growing interest in detailed worldbuilding with the desire for replay value that the overwhelming majority of all games and game designers possess, in the process potentially creating new kinds of gameplay that we haven’t yet fully experienced.

However, we must position such promising reflections about the future of qualitative procedural generation within a question which will inevitably shape all the future use of PCG, qualitative or otherwise: where does PCG fit into the games industry? Which developers are using it, and what kinds of resources do they have at their disposal, what kinds of games are they making, and are they making games where they seriously care about questions of worldbuilding?

At this point in time it is hard to escape the feeling that procedural generation is still regarded as something fundamentally tethered to independent games (most famously and recently No Man’s Sky, but naturally games like The Binding of Isaac, FTL, Risk of Rain, and Darkest Dungeon fall into category) and freeware games (such as the majority of roguelikes), whilst worldbuilding in general continues to be more universally explored.

Probably the most important triple-A game to seriously use procedural content generation in recent years was From Software’s superlative gothic horror Bloodborne. The “core” game is entirely handmade, in keeping with the studio’s now-famous dedication to intricately hand-crafted worlds, but the game is also replete with what it calls “Chalice Dungeons”. These are optional dungeons which are, for the most part, procedurally generated each time the player steps within them. Although they contain a range of loot that cannot be acquired in the main game, and there are elements of the game’s famously inscrutable lore that can only be picked up by exploring one of these dungeons, they are undeniably optional and only a small and easily skippable part of the overall experience. The few other triple-A titles that use PCG tend to limit it to creating a small subset of dungeons, or populating areas with plants, or simply varying simplistic questlines and quest rewards.

In independent games, however, procedural generation is a dominant force – but why should this be the case? Part of this, I think, comes down to the oft-repeated dictum – which has some truth to it in some cases, but less truth overall than people think – that PCG makes it “easier” to produce a game with a lot of rich content, and is therefore better suited to small development teams than a hand-made game. This is undeniably sometimes the case, but this concept tends to overlook the amount of effort (effort of a different sort, no doubt, but still effort) that goes into creating a compelling PCG system rather than a compelling handmade game segment. Simply chucking in a bunch of random elements does not an exciting PCG system make, which is not to mention the often substantially higher testing requirements of PCG systems, and the increased difficulty of bug-hunting and bug-fixing. Another part of it comes from treating PCG as a way to generate replay value in games that perhaps cannot afford to create a full twenty-hour experience, but can create a range of tremendously varied two-hour experiences; and part of it might also come from the increasingly strong emphasis upon narrative in triple-A games, and the fallacious belief that PCG and strong directed narratives are natural enemies (which games like Caves of Qud, Tales of Maj’Eyal, and I hope my own, will disprove). A final part also no doubt comes from the general willingness of independent developers to try new things, and there are few things currently getting as much interest or generating as much discussion in the world of critical games commentary and discussion as PCG.

We therefore find ourselves in a situation where all game developers are increasingly interested in worldbuilding, but – and we are talking in broad strokes here, but I think the evidence supports this assertion – independent game developers dominate the field when it comes to the use of procedural content generation. This might not be a problem, were it not for the fact that when weighing up the “average” independent game and the “average” triple-A game, one cannot help but feel that their divide is growing ever wider. This is not as a result of a “genuine” gap that is in any way contingent upon the labour processes, production methods or distribution systems of triple-A and indie games, but rather the feeling in both camps that they have a particular kind of product that must be protected and refined, and a kind of product that is fundamentally anathema to the other camp. How many successful indie FPS games have you seen? Not many. How many successful triple-A pixel-art adventure games have you seen? Not many. Naturally this is not because either form of production is somehow inherently or intrinsically better suited to either “genre”, but rather because of the increasing ossification of our expectations of what a triple-A game “is” and what an indie game “is”.

These expectations are going to have substantial effects on the uptake of traditionally “indie” game development techniques, such as PCG, in wider contexts, and also to pushing the boundaries of the practice. There is no doubt that a triple-A developer, devoting full resources to the problem, would be able to move substantially beyond what has been done in qualitative PCG to date. I’m not saying this to downplay my own efforts or the efforts of my colleagues, of course, but I’m simply being realistic: what I’ve achieved in qualitative PCG in my own work, for example, I’ve done as one person over five years whilst doing a PhD, writing an academic monograph, and being in full-time employment on a notoriously time-demanding career path. Similarly, Dwarf Fortress, the closest point of comparison, has been in development for a decade and a half by two people, albeit working full-time on the project. None of these even come close to the person-years that could be committed by a major developer. Of course artistic intent and talent count for a lot as well as the resources thrown at the problem, which goes without saying. Nevertheless, unless procedural generation more broadly breaks into the triple-A industry, all the development and play of the experiences PCG offers will be demographically limited, despite – as I have hopefully argued at the start of this piece – their potential wide relevance to all kinds of games.

To summarise, it is clear that there is interest from (and value to) multiple sources in qualitative PCG – from games with heavy worldbuilding elements, to games that implement any procedural components, and obviously the small number of developers specifically working in this area (myself included). These cut across technical and artistic domains, as well as across the triple-A and independent sub-industries, which we can easily see by comparing two games with similar worldbuilding goals, but that currently approach these goals in different ways. The world of Dishonored, Arkane Studios and Bethseda Softworks’ 2012 stealth adventure game, contains pieces of poetry, fragments of prose and theatrical plays. Some of the concerns of my own work on Ultima Ratio Regum, such as generating stories with cultural relevance, could have been readily used as the foundation for the procedural generation of the kinds of worldbuilding elements Dishonored has been noted for. In turn, the presence of these in Dishonored clearly demonstrates a concern with detailed worldbuilding – but not, at present, worldbuilding that can be discovered anew on each playthrough. There is therefore no crucial divide present here: merely one constructed from our existing expectations of what PCG is, what games made by large and small teams are supposed to look like, and the kinds of experiences players want to have.

If these barriers can be broken down – and I hope the attention on my own work and the comparable work of others will help in some small way – I believe that qualitative PCG can lead to something of a small revolution in game design, integrating worldbuilding and gameplay in fascinating new ways. Without doubt we’re only at the very start of that process now, but I’m sure we all know the saying about the journey of a thousand miles – and quite a few steps have already been taken.

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Who am I?

Mark Johnson

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PhD student, roguelike developer, ex-professional poker player.

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