Feature How Procedural Generation is Making Games More Interesting

Trading in traditional gameplay for more randomized in-game experiences increases replay value.

Adam Dawson

Published

By Adam Dawson @inspectah_daws

In the ending of last year's remarkable Bioshock Infinite, supporting character Elizabeth tells protagonist Booker Dewitt that there is "always a man, always a lighthouse, always a city." From this particularly baffling twist, we come to discover that there are an unlimited amount of alternate universes, each with a different story, leading to an unfathomable number of outcomes. Though the game was fantastic, wouldn't it have been better if we could openly explore the other universes to experience their different environments, organisms and narratives? It may be years before any studio will be able to manage something so complex, but a handful of developers have taken steps in this direction by experimenting with procedural generation.

The prospect of playing through a game multiple times and never finishing with the same experiences is enough to build hype around any title. Even more impressive is the ability to explore an infinite amount of planets, each one completely different than any before it. Procedural generation in video games refers to the creation of content algorithmically as the game runs, creating a randomized experience that typically coincides with authored content. Like any developmental innovation, it has a large potential to be revolutionary, but it more than likely can leave everybody with the same disappointed feeling they had after playing Fable for the first time.

Of course, this isn't something that is new to the video game industry. Procedural generation has been experimented with in games as far back as the early 1980s, and was even used in contemporary, popular titles like Left 4 Dead. However, it has recently started gaining momentum due to the insane popularity of Minecraft. Thanks to that blocky, sandbox phenomenon, we've seen more intriguing titles that offer compelling gameplay with boundless replay value (Spelunky, FTL and Daylight to name a few). There are many more of these to come, surrounded by a whirlwind of hype. Below are a few procedurally generated games that will hopefully deliver on their promises, and not end up as another example of misleading marketing.

No Man's Sky

Let's begin with the obvious. No Man's Sky generated some buzz when it was initially revealed last December, but it wasn't until this year's E3 that it became the hype monster it currently is. Developed by Hello Games, No Man's Sky puts a strong emphasis on exploration, setting no goals or objectives for players, though they are encouraged to travel to the center of the universe to uncover forces within it. Gamers are free to explore the many planets, star systems and galaxies to their heart's desire, each of which is procedurally generated and completely unique to the others.

Gameplay will include space and ground-based combat, allowing players to upgrade their weapons, tools and spaceships to increase their battle efficiency. The spacesuit is also upgradable, allowing users to buff up resistance to the many hazardous environments they will trek, and also increase abilities like jump distance. Penalties for dying will include losing all acquired upgrades. If killed in a dogfight, players are left without a ship until they attain another. The most impressive feature is the seamless transitions from planet surfaces to the dark depths of space.

Despite not being included with the launch, there will be multiplayer features. Aside from a "traditional" styled multiplayer the studio has yet to comment on, No Man's Sky will feature a Dark Souls-esque feature in which players can share details of planets they've visited with each other. There is no release date as of yet, but we should expect to be lost in countless hours of discovery when this title launches on the PS4 next year, with a PC release to come shortly after.

Future Unfolding

It would be a crime to stray away from the theme of discovery without mentioning this beautiful creation from the team at Spaces of Play. Like No Man's Sky, Future Unfolding dumps players into procedurally generated environments, encouraging them to freely roam the gorgeous landscapes. Instead of exploring planets and galaxies, users solely traverse through ever-changing forests and observe the beauty of nature.

Gameplay seems to be basic, but compelling nonetheless. Players have to make their way through each area by interacting with wildlife, gathering clues and solving puzzles, all while trying to avoided less friendly creatures that will gobble you up.

The most impressive aspect of this title has to be the art style. The oil paint-like animations make it seem as if you're playing an interactive rendition of a Claude Monet painting. Blue streaks from the protagonist as he sprints through an environment full of vivaciously colorful flora, resulting in one of the most artistically stunning games ever created. There is no confirmed release date, but the designers say they are pressing for a late 2015 launch on the PC.

Mew-Genics

On the quirky and off-beat side of gaming comes the latest creation of Super Meat Boy developer, Team Meat. Mew-Genics will provide players with a procedurally generated experience that is somehow sillier than its extremely clever title. Jokingly deemed as a "crazy cat lady simulator," game designer Edmund McMillen stated it's the strangest project he has ever worked on.

If you think taking care of one pet is a chore, then this may not be the game for you. From the get-go, players assume the responsibility of managing a household of randomly-generated, feline friends. Cats come in various shapes, sizes and colors, and are set apart from each other through unique personality traits. As time goes forward, cats begin to age and die, forcing users to mate them with others in hopes of carrying on their genes, or adopt strays lurking in the garden. Be cautious, however, some felines won't get alone, leading to conflict. Other than old age, kitties are also affected by ailments such as obesity, psychological trauma and infectious disease. If you are particularly fond of one of your furry friends, you can cryogenically preserve it using "Cryo-cubes."

There are various other activities to participate in aside from managing your household. Cats can be used in fights, beauty pageants and races in order to acquire currency (something tells me PETA is going to be really unchill with this). Money is used towards purchasing items and accessories for your pets, including vaccinations to cure their sicknesses. Mew-Genics was originally slated for a late 2014 release on iOS, Android and PC, but it has been put on hold until it is "more coherent."

Grave

It's only natural to follow such goofiness and absurdity with something terrifying. Grave is a procedurally generated survival horror title set in a barren environment that dangerously resembles Nowhere from Courage the Cowardly Dog. Players must survive through each night, making use of light to ward off frightening monsters. When the sun rises, the environment changes through procedural generation, manifesting new buildings and structures.

Gameplay will focus around the general theme of survival. During the day, players gather supplies to help them fend off monstrosities over the night. There are no guns or blunt weapons; players only have access to flashlights, flashbangs, flares and a box of matches, which are only useful if you have gasoline. Although using light to defeat enemies is obviously borrowed from Alan Wake, developer Tristan Parrish Moore of Broken Window Studios says each defensive item will be more useful in some scenarios than others. It will require you to be strategic with the items you use instead of just pointing your flashlight at baddies.

Grave
Watch your enemies burn.

What's most intriguing about Grave is how dynamic it is. Players always have more than one choice when interacting with items, creatures and locations, each of which can make the difference between life and death. For example, when night falls and the creatures lurk, users can choose to hole up in a building until dawn or test their courage by continuing their trek in the darkness. There will also be Oculus Rift support, so gamers can fully immerse themselves in one of the spookiest gaming experiences in years. It is expected to release sometime in 2015 for PC and Xbox One. There is a currently a demo available.

Grave A wraith in Grave

Fortnite

Epic Games' latest product is the first of their titles to be created using the Unreal 4 engine. It is described as a co-op sandbox survival game where players work together to defeat enemy hordes. The world of Fortnite is completely procedurally generated, but not vastly open. Instead, there are multiple themed maps that each have different objectives. Location types include urban, suburban, forest, prairie and industrial. Buildings spawn in different locations during each match, and the loot contained within them is completely randomized.

Like Grave, the basic idea is to scavenge during the day and fight at night. In daylight, it is safe to roam the map and explore its numerous structures. Almost anything can be broken down into a resource. For example, players can strip the metal from cars and chain-linked fences and use it towards making something else. Eventually, users begin to know where to find specific items. Health replenishing items are found in cupboards, cabinets and toilets of households, while forests are obvious areas to collect wood. Many buildings have secret designs, encouraging the player to get creative to find their way into them. Some may require building a contraption to access higher levels, while others simply need a little dismantling.

However, Fortnite isn't just about surviving, players are required to build fortified structures and to fend off hordes of monsters. Depending on the map, there are secondary objectives that require players to perform tasks such as closing gates to halt the enemy's progression. Like most games, the further you progress, the harder it gets. The deeper you traverse through the main map, the smarter you'll need to be with building and battle strategies. Fortnite will be free-to-play and should release sometime in 2015 for PC.

Fornite - Commando Fornite map

Conclusion

Each and every one of these games has the potential to be amazing if they deliver on everything they promise. Between the boundless potential for exploration and the prospect of a completely different experience with each playthrough, there is much fun to have and many discoveries to be made. From the sound of it, procedural generation could make the replay value of a game limitless, delivering a great return on investment to those who buy games developed in this style. However, high replay value means nothing if the game is boring, buggy or just plain awful, so hopefully these titles come through with the compelling experiences they promise. It's nice to see studios make interesting progressions with procedural generation. It'll be interesting to see where they take it in the years to come.

Images courtesy of Irrational Games, Epic Games, Spaces of Play, and Broken Window Studio.