Tobold's Blog
Friday, March 06, 2015
Procedurally generated worlds

Syp doesn't like procedurally generated worlds, while j3w3l is more positive about them. I'm not sure whether this is a problem of how good the algorithms are to generate those random worlds, or whether it isn't mostly a problem of the gameplay of the game in question.

In World of Warcraft since patch 6.1 you can buy treasure maps that show you where the treasures in the various zones are hidden. But you don't really need to buy those, as there are addons that show you exactly the same information. The zones are static (except for phasing) and identical for each and every one of the 10 million World of Warcraft players. You can't actually have "hidden" stuff in small, hand-generated zones that are the same for everybody.

I played games like Anarchy Online with procedurally generated worlds which were rather boring. But I think the main problem in that kind of game is that you don't interact all that much with the world. A tree tends to be just decoration, a mountain is just an obstacle. Play a game with different gameplay, like A Tale in the Desert or EQ Landmark, and the procedurally generated world suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. If you need a specific type of rare tree to get some type of wood you suddenly care a lot more about those trees. If you are building a house in that world and depend on certain geographical features either for the house or for the actions you want to do around that house, searching for the best spot becomes a huge game in itself. Now imagine a game where players create castles and walls and wage war against each other, and a mountain pass which was boring before now becomes a strategic hotspot.

Civilization would be a boring game if it only had a few small, hand-crafted maps. It is because in Civ you care about what the terrain is that makes the random worlds interesting. If we want procedurally generated worlds to work in MMORPGs, we first need to invent more ways to interact with the landscape.

I am a fan of non-procedural stuff.

Yes, it can be fun for a while... but nothing beats a hand-made environment where a team of talented artists, developers and storytellers carefully planned every singe aspect of it.

Procedural/random generatio gives the illusion of infinite opportuinities... but in the end you will be playing with the same set of textures/models over and over. Sometimes with odd results too.
I think the fact that everything in the gameworld is in the same place for every player, so that you see the same thing in 2015 that someone in Brazil saw in 2012, is one of the defining tropes of the form. For me, that consistency, that universality, was always something that made playing an MMORPG feel like being in another world, not like playing a game.

I never liked phasing and I don't like the over-use of instancing much either. I like everyone to be, as much as possible, in the same place, seeing the same thing. It's fine for map and zone designers to use procedural generation as a tool at the appropriate development stage but that's a far cry from thinking an algorithm can do the job of a creative artist or writer.
It depends on the game. Civ is a good example, and I would also point to Minecraft as a game that just wouldn't work if it wasn't procedurally generated.

For MMORPGs, a big part of the reason why "procedurally generated" seems so lackluster is that it is so often used as a budget saving choice rather than a design one. It isn't as if the resources saved from not hand crafting areas is instead going to the tile sets and textures. They take their limited budget, make a limited amount of textures, and spam them everywhere.
The one thing about Civ is that over the years the Civ team --Sid and then the team overseen by Sid-- has made the procedurally generated worlds smarter: they incorporated more real world data into how the climate should look based on the location of things such as mountain ranges, etc.

Because they do that, the Civ procedurally generated worlds have grown more interesting over time. I've occasionally wondered how well they'd work as a canvas for an RPG campaign.
In regards to Landmark's maps, I think it's important to point out that while they are procedural (meshes are generated on-the-fly), the parameters for each island have been hand picked ahead of time by Daybreak staff. The biomes that occupy these maps have also been pre-selected.

The caves on these islands are assembled from pre-selected parts modeled by actual artists.

The only thing that is truly random about these islands are the trees, plants, minerals, monsters, and treasure that spawn on them. Right now, this randomness doesn't always have very pleasing results.

I think it's important to remember that procedural does not always mean random. It can be helpful in some discussions to make a distinction between the two.
Pointing at Minecraft for a procedurally generated world which can work ... if you have the choice on which map to play on. When running a Minecraft game for (and with) friends, the first thing we do is find a good and interesting "seed" for the world (you can easily generate them at infinitum on your local system, or browse the internet for some interesting seeds), and only then choose the procedurally generated world we will play in for a while.

In the same way I could imagine MMO producers using procedural generation to speed up the process of map building and creation: part automated, part curated by human insight.

I'm curious how a game like (for example) Crowfall will handle this. Either their map generation will need to be able to generate maps that are both interesting and fair/balanced for the different sides, or there will need to be a form of human interaction.
Spot on Tobold.

Procedurally generated WoW would just be the dev being lazy and cheap. Unless there's some kind of point to it gameplay wise it's just laziness.
In the roguelike genre, procedurally generated world are almost a must, because learning exploration skills is a key part of the game. That applies to Civ too.

It's not a universal part of 4X games, though - Heroes of Might and Magic didn't use it (there was a map generator for HOMM3 eventually, but it was bland and rarely used). But again, they are different types of games, and HOMM needed much more careful balancing and map design to work.

I always wanted procedural dungeons in WoW, so the enemies would be a surprise. I think the challenge of that would turn off modern players, though.

All in all, if you want limitless vistas, and exploration being important, it's hard to avoid some sort of procedural generation. Ideally it should be dynamic, so that the current status of a remote area would stay ahead of mapmakers, even if they could fill in the major mountain ranges and rivers.

Quests can be built in to procedural maps with a bit of ingenuity. If there is going to be one world for a million players, of course the designers will do more tweaking than if (say) each shard of a few thousand players is unique.

I should say, of course, that having a unique world for each relatively small realm is a good way to inhibit internet spoilers.

I see procedurally generated content as a technology with limitless potential. Sadly it also requires a much larger investment to make it a viable alternative to hand crafted content. An investment that I don't see happening (especially considering the closure of Story Bricks).
Could Crownfall be the final answer?

Only time will tell...
I was talking about persistent worlds. I don't care if a MOBA has procedurally generated maps.
Crowfall is not a MOBA, IFF they keep to there current designs it will sit near the intersection of MMORPG, MOBA and RTS. It will most likely land closer to MMORPG than MOBA. Just the way they are doing it somewhat new. It is like taking the same characters from a D&D TT game through the various worlds where the characters are continuous while exploring different worlds.
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