The Ups And Downs Of Procedural Generation In Games (And Why I’m Just Not Into It) by John Seminario

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The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth is a tough game to put down. What often begins as nothing more than a way to kill some down time almost always ends up spiraling into hours of crazy enemies, mysterious power ups, and one less key than needed to unlock an awesome looking door. While a lot goes into making this game so addictive, its procedurally generated dungeons are what most stick out to me, and the game has actually had me thinking a lot about level design in general.

More and more, we are beginning to see a growing trend in procedurally generated levels/worlds in games. The technology is here, and it’s finally totally plausible for a developer to make a game that “GOES ON FOREVER AND EVER!” Browsing through Steam, you would be hard pressed not to find a roguelike every few pages at most, and while games of such nature most definitely have their time and place, one cannot help wondering if such choices are always for the best. It’s easy to look at a game like The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth and see endless hours of awesome gameplay to be had because “IT’S ALWAYS A DIFFERENT GAME!”

My major problem with such games, though, is that none of the levels ever stick out. For me, playing through multiple levels that can range anywhere from uninteresting to flat out bad does not quite compare to the feeling of seeing and playing through a meticulously and thoughtfully crafted room, or dungeon, or Shadow Moses. With procedurally generated levels, nothing is ever the same, but nothing is ever great.

Some people might point out, though, that the point of Rebirth is to run the game multiple times, and they would be right. However, the procedurally generated nature of the game stretches far beyond the dungeons. Isaac, by nature, is a dice roll. The power ups you collect in-game, and even what some of those power ups actually do, change from run to run. For some, this may play as a fun gamble; a chance to either make the game easier or something that may be beyond saving. For me, this is a system that allows for very little strategy; a system where I’m not rewarded/punished for playing the game well/badly, but rather completely at random.

And while we’re on the subject of rewarding players in these games, let’s stop picking on poor little Isaac and, instead, shift our gaze to the stars. No Man’s Sky, Sony’s highly anticipated space exploration game that maybe someday will actually be released if you ask developer Sean Murray nicely enough, is a game set in an infinite procedurally generated galaxy. On its surface, the game offers limitless freedom to go wherever you want to go and to do whatever you want to do. According to the game’s website, “You can fly seamlessly from the surface of a planet to another, and every star in the sky is a sun that you can visit.”

With procedural generation, however, the player is not always guaranteed to be rewarded for their time invested. Should I choose to spend twenty minutes journeying through space to track down a specific planet, I would like to have something to show for my efforts, but there is no guarantee that the planet I have discovered will contain anything I need in-game – or anything at all.

We all like different things, though. Somebody may look at a game like The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth and genuinely enjoy the gamble of whether or not the run they attempt this time will welcome them with open arms, or a slap in the face. Somebody may look at a game like No Man’s Sky and love the prospect of venturing across the universe in search of the resources they so desperately need. For me, however, procedural generation has yet to provide the same kind of in-depth designs and mechanics that I’m looking for. I like the unspoken conversation that happens between a developer and a player when the game needs to actively find subtle ways to convey to you what you need to do, and when a game that “GOES ON FOREVER AND EVER” can do that, I’ll maybe be on board. For now, though, Rebirth has been relegated to lunch break game sessions.

 

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