Tell Us Dammit: Procedural Generation

Here's a question: do you prefer to explore worlds that are traditionally designed, or do you prefer to play around in a world that has been procedurally generated?

I had this thought after watching the trailer for No Man's Sky.

My first instinct was to say, 'easy question you dolt, I like designed worlds'. Mainly because I like to feel as though my gaming experience has been authored. But then I had this revelation: sometimes the worlds that haven't been strictly 'designed' feel like the ones more worthy of exploration. These are worlds that create iterations that no designer could possibly imagine. These are the worlds that literally no-one has seen before. When you explore these worlds you are truly an explorer.

Just a thought.

What do you prefer?


    I like the precision of something designed by an artists hand. I find procedurally generated stuff tends to feel a bit empty and soulless.

      Pretty much my answer. Procedurally generated only works when the game is something like Minecraft where it doesn't really matter what they put there because you're just going to dig it up and put something else there anyway.

      I both agree and disagree. What makes it feel 'empty' and 'soulless' is a lack of things to do, interesting stuff to encounter or reason to explore. Those are surmountable problems.

      Diablo for example is a procedural game - the dungeons are randomly generated. There are certain 'set piece' areas which are designed, and the game will pick some of them and put them down in random places, then randomly generate the rest of the game around those.

      Other games have used procedural generation for some of their systems to great effect. All the guns in Borderlands are procedural, for example. There's been many games that generate randomized quests for you to do during a game. Just about every AAA developer uses SpeedTree to generate foliage to populate their games, and that's procedural.

      Procedural stuff is just a means to an end. There's a heck of a lot of art that goes into designing good algorithms to generate pleasing or interesting content and I utterly reject the assertion that those aren't of value because they weren't created by an 'artist'. In nature, extreme complexity can and is defined and controlled by simple rules. That's how our universe works - everything is emergent from a series of rules and constraints. Most artists will use some procedural techniques to save time as well. Even simple things like generating perlin noise to add random variation to a texture is by definition a procedural technique.

      Additionally, for a lot of developers, procedural generation is literally the only way they can create enough content for the game. No Man's Sky for example is 3 programmers and 1 artist. Four people is small even for an indie team, especially given the scope of that game.

      I don't disagree that Procedural content can often be uninteresting or sterile, but I'd argue that that suggests that there is more work that needs to be done to try and address those problems, not that this means it must be that way.

      Agreed. It works in games like Fallout though where I assume a chunk of it is procedurally generated?

      Was there procedurally generated games you didnt like specifically? I think the only one I played was Minecraft, and while I'd agree at face value, thinking on that game I'd say I really enjoyed exploring every world I started

        Every time I've encountered that stuff in any game I haven't liked it. Pikmin 2 subterranean sections come to mind. But any time, really. Level designs tend to not feel intuitive in the slightest.

        Last edited 12/12/13 1:37 pm

          Diablo did it well from memory. Pretty sure 1 and 2 were procedurally generated. Probably 3 too. A mix of set levels and randomly generated dungeons.

          Also is that pic above from No Man's Sky?

            I think it is.

            Torchlight even. The sense of exploring those dungeons meant little to me because it was all just random. No purpose or story reason for any thing.

              What is up D.C. buddy, old pal. I haven't heard from you in ages. (Mainly my fault for being absent here and on Twitter).

                Things are decent, Tarno. Things are decent. You continue to have an awesome last name, btw. Congrats! How things with you? What'd you playing at the moment?

                  Hehe, thanks. Decent seems like they're just OK. Why not awesome?

                  I'm just toiling around on the X1. Finished DR3 and now on to RYSE. Leaving ACIV for last.


                  @miketarno: Just finished Super Mario 3D World and AC4 on PS4 and think I'll take a gaming break until the next ep of The Walking Dead. *decisive nod*

                  @dc Really looking forward to ACIV. I left what I think will be the best for last. Should be nice over Christmas. I'm going to avoid all spoilers for TWD and wait till all episodes come out. The cliffhangers would be a killer for me!

                  @miketarno: I can understand that, but the months of paranoia trying to avoid spoilers would break me I think. XD

          It's way better when all the dungeons are pre designed. Like in Dragon Age 2.


            But Dragon Age 2's dungeons even though they were hand designed had many of the staples I hate about procedurally generated stuff. Things looking out of place. Pathways that go no where, recycled elements, etc. Crap design is still crap design in the wrong artist's hand. XD

            Also, stop baiting me, Freeze. :P

            Last edited 12/12/13 2:18 pm

          I think that comes down to the system and how well it's built, how many options there are to play with in any given circumstance, how many different types of terrain, how many NPCs, how many quests etc. If it's built thoroughly enough, so that there are very strict rules that it adheres to, but at the same time plenty of open ended-ness, it could be amazing.

          Ohhh yeah, forgot about Pikmin 2. Blergh. It seems like its too broad of a topic to slap under good or bad really

            True enough! Voice of reason! :D

    I think it depends on the game.

    For games to exude a rich history and lore, where places in the game are named and may once have staged massive battles or where heros and fought and died - for instance, games like the Elder Scrolls - then traditional hand-crafting will always give the artistic attention to detail to really bring the world together.

    For games like Minecraft (just as a popular game), where you are free to make your own world, then the unknown of randomly generated worlds allows you that new, fresh experience every time. Roguelikes - traditional ones like Nethack, or modern ones like SPAZ - greatly benefit from random generation, allowing fresh looks at things every time.

    As a point in the middle, Dwarf Fortress randomly generates a world with history, creating historical figures and battles while generating anywhere between about 50 and a few hundred years of world generation.

      Pretty much this. Half of my favourite games of all time are procedurally generated. And the other half are not.

      As a point in the middle, Dwarf Fortress randomly generates a world with history, creating historical figures and battles while generating anywhere between about 50 and a few hundred years of world generation.

      That sounds cool, and also stands as a testament as to how well built the system is. Including more things like history and lore help to add depth to something that could be seen as generic and sterile. These things can easily be generated if the original architect of the system puts the effort in to include a way to draw upon rigorously set up frameworks, utilising artists and writers to create a system that could infinitely create new scenarios by combining/altering history and lore.

        The history created in an individual Dwarf Fortress world is so complex, that you can literally read through the thousands of events that occurred throughout the years. Books about events are created years later to be read and passed down. People die and are brought back to life by necromancers, entire kingdoms rise and fall...and then your game starts. o_O

    I think it depends on how well it's been generated.

    Depends on the game.

    Spelunky is the game it is largely BECAUSE of the procedural generation, and is a vastly better game for it. But for something like, say, Uncharted? No, I like the way they've paid obsessive attention to detail in the way they create and polish every inch of those games, I wouldn't want something just getting thrown out by some random generator.

      good answer, definately depends on the game,

    I loved Rescue on Fractalus.

    That's all I'm sayin'

    In terms of exploration I'm always way, WAY more engaged in a procedural world because you're somewhat literally the first person to have ever been in each area.

    The only procedurally generated worlds I can think of having experienced are Minecraft's, and they're amazing. I guess it just depends on how well-made the algorithms behind them are, because you could still end up with something quite bad.

    Question: was the original "Elite" procedurally generated?

    Pro' Gen' fo' sho'... :)

    Minecraft was the game that made me realise this. Way back in Alpha days I had no idea what this game was about and didn't really get the concept.. then I was randomly digging for something (you are always digging for something) and then i found a cave. As I started to explore, I seriously got the feeling of a pioneer exploring some vast cave system for the first time. I like the surprises, the feeling of the unexpected or unplanned.

    If I find a cool place in GTA V I get the feeling that the developer that spent hours on this one little patch of turf did a good job and I give him silent thanks.. when i find something unexpected in a procedurally generated world, I feel like reaching out to the developer and saying "Hey, did you know your game could do this!" I guess the potential of this is that you can discover, truly discover and then share this 'new' world with others and because it doesn't have to be custom built, you will be surprised all the time.

    Im keen for this game now.

    EDIT: Also agree with above comments, depends on the algorithm and also the style of gameplay.

    Last edited 12/12/13 1:39 pm

    *Insert Porqueda las Dos? Old El Paso gif here* Why not both? I'm currently playing Starbound at the moment and some of the things I find as a result of the random terrain generation are fantastic and exciting. Last night I found an outhouse sitting on top of a secret passage. Where does it lead? I'm trying to find it again to go exploring. I'm also playing XCOM: Enemy Within and knowing the maps, their vantage points and layout is vital for my strategy planning.

    Designed levels are like exploring a town. People put things there for a reason because it makes sense and serves a purpose. Procedurally generated levels are like an untamed jungle. It's not always going to be easy to get around, can change from one visit to the next and may have unpleasant surprises but the excitement of not being able to predict what you will find makes it all worthwhile.

    I really like the idea of procedurally generated because it means you can never really get sick of it. There are plenty of games that I've played to death but really want to keep playing (The Skate games mainly, and some of the GTA games) but it's so boring once you've gone over every nook and cranny, but the game mechanics are fun so there is still a draw there.

    If a game is procedurally generated and done WELL it would be amazing. Add to that the ability to constantly update the algorithms to be add in new types of terrain, obstacles, events, npcs etc it would be ever evolving, much like the real world, which is pretty exciting (so I've heard).

    Having said that I would go apeshit for a procedurally generated Skate game, that way I could keep going back to it, but always find new spots, instead of hitting the same spots over and over again. Kind of like how Skate3 allowed for user created parks, there would always be new stuff to check out, however with something like that isn't regulated by people or a procedurally generated system the level of quality quickly drops off. If a system was designed thoroughly and well enough it could have content forever.... oh shit i have to make this happen...

    Procedural seems like it would give much more variety but often just gives many slight variations on the same basic thing, and generally lack all the frills of a designed world.
    On the other hand designed worlds are much more polished but often tend to be limited in scope and high in cost. Also way too many "cinematic", linear worlds/games lately.

    I reckon right now designed, open worlds are the best but if devs can improve procedural generation tech then it is definitely the future.

    The only problem I have with procedural generation is when there's too much of it.

    One of the beauties of the world - and part of what gives meaning to the act of exploration - is that it is finite. When you discover and explore, you are solving a piece of a solvable puzzle, acquiring a piece of finite knowledge, which has significance relative to the other pieces.

    If the world is infinite, you're just sight-seeing an endless fractal output, which has all the depth and meaning of watching a lava lamp or seeing shapes in clouds.

    A designed world can be bad and a procedural world can be bad, or a designed world can be good and a procedural world can be good. It depends on the game. I love love loved Beyond Good & Evil's world. I honestly find Minecraft's worlds boring. I've been enjoying exploring Starbound. I couldn't tell you whether I would prefer exploring Destiny or No Man's Sky's universes more. I want both!

    Bioshock Infinite's world could probably not be procedurally generated, it needs to be authored and precisely made. I think there a advantages and disadvantages to both. I don't really care to choose a favourite between the two. I won't lie that No Man's Sky's procedural aspect makes it more appealing. As you say in the article, if a world is procedurally generated, it comes with the sense that anything can happen, that what you're engaging with is unique to you and no-one else, and you really do feel like an explorer.

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