For me, the obsession with procedural generation started back in 2011 with the release of Skyrim. One of the most touted features of the game was how it had virtually ‘unlimited quests,’ due to it’s new Radiant Story artificial intelligence system. It was the first of it’s kind! And maybe that’s why it sounded so terrific to everyone. I personally had nothing but time and a desire to explore and murder monsters with battleaxes – after all, 2011 was five years ago and things were different for us all back then. Now I much prefer ranged attacks or magic.
If you had asked me for my favorite type of game then, I would have responded “ones with huge open worlds and tons of quests,” and it’s funny to think about that now, because I can’t imagine a game sounding less appetizing in modern day. Of course, trends in gaming tend to change like the tides, both in personal taste and industry focus. But this article is more a focus on procedural generation – something the game industry seems to have an obsession with in these huge open worlds.
Fast forward to today, and the tornado named No Man’s Sky has been dragged through the coals for weeks. Review scores are abysmal, and they are currently being investigated for false advertising due to inaccuracies on their Steam page. Let’s forget all of that though and focus on the lesson that we can’t ignore here – people went nuts for the idea of this game based on the sheer scale of the galaxy. It amassed what could only be called an almost cult following, following it’s announcement. Now, basking in the bloody remains that are the reviews for this game, perhaps we can surmise that there’s more to a game than the size of the galaxy.
Let me be clear that when it comes to procedural generation, sometimes it is unavoidable. In regards to games with randomly generated ‘infinite maps,’ it’s a necessity. The best example of this is Minecraft, or one of my personal favorites, 7 Days to Die. The cases where I’m focused are RPGs and adventure games.
It comes down to a simple question: does the procedural generation actually improve the player experience, or does it artificially inflate the gameplay time? Does running through the same dungeon with a few slightly different mobs and corridors really add to the experience? Are 50 randomly generated dungeons more fun than 15-20 handmade ones?
I’d like to see a return to environments made by people, and not machines. Think of the earlier Grand Theft Auto games, The Legend of Zelda (Twilight Princess stands out for me), The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. These are all handcrafted worlds from the ground up, and damn were they a pleasure to explore. Dark Cloud 2 became one of my favorite games of all time this year, and it used procedural generation for the dungeon floors, but the overworld was just absolutely rewarding for every minute you spent wandering around.
In the past few years we’ve just seen an explosion of procedural generation and I think the players are starting to realize just how un-special these massive worlds can feel. Miles to walk but nothing to do. I’m hoping the trend we’re about to see is a focus on smaller, hand-crafted worlds. After all, the next time some game develop promises “18.4 Quintillion Unique [somethings],” the first thing everyone will think of is the train wreck that was No Man’s Sky.
Of course, attention to detail and the removal of procedural generation directly correlates to longer development time and loads more money. So as a direct result, I think the masses are starting to realize that massive worlds generated by machines are just dull, and some would rather enjoy a smaller world where we can explore every nook and cranny.
As a side note, I think we’re just now finally seeing a falloff in open-world survival zombie games. So that’s probably a step in the right direction.
What do you think about this trend towards games that brag about scale? Is procedural generation being over-used or is it necessary to save on development costs? Let me know in the comments!