Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Procedural generation and exploration

Three lines of code in BASIC writes you a program that prints out 10 randomly generated numbers between 1 and 18 quintillion. Now if you imagine thousands of people running that program and exchanging their experiences on the internet, the result is surprisingly predictable: Most numbers are about the same length (every digit shorter is 10 times less likely), all numbers have the same ten constituent parts, few people will report having seen the same number, and few numbers look really interesting like a 1 followed by only zeroes, or a recognizable sequence.

I am of course talking about No Man's Sky's 18 quintillion planets. Human minds are hardwired to pattern recognition, and the discussion of No Man's Sky has quickly resulted in a crowd-sourced pattern recognition exercise which revealed the similarities between all those planets rather than their differences. And how boring a sequence of random numbers can be. It also quickly sorted out the non-random lines of code (e.g. how to get an Atlas Pass) to create guides for the game, and even "walkthroughs", as impossible as that might seem. Like a number having only ten different possibilities for each digit, the animals were recognized to also have a limited number of possible body parts, randomly assembled like in a flip book for small children. Now some people managed to switch off their pattern recognition and just enjoyed exploring all those different worlds. But most gamers couldn't escape old habits and proceeded to try to understand how the game worked as quickly as possible, only to then get bored once they did.

I have played MMORPGs with procedurally generated worlds, like Anarchy Online, and frequently found the result not very interesting. Randomness frequently produces a certain sameness, and hand-crafted worlds like World of Warcraft end up having more truly interesting corners. Having said that, I recently watched a video with a fly-through showing off the new zones in Legion and found them boring due to the use of the same old trees and graphics elements that previous expansions had already used a lot. And who hasn't entered a cave in WoW only to remember the exactly same cave from a different zone? My greatest complaint about City of Heroes was that while the dungeons were randomly created, the number of different tiles used to build them was so limited that stuff repeated itself frequently. I have abused random quest generators by taking and abandoning quests until I found an easy quest with a good reward in games that allowed that. Random numbers and procedural generation of content doesn't always result in interesting content to explore.

On the other hand one of the most fun systems of crafting I have ever played in a MMORPG worked with procedural generation: Star Wars Galaxies had resources which changed every week. And those resources had stats, so you not only wanted to find a specific metal, but preferably one with high stats, and then find a location with high concentration for your harvester. That made for quite enjoyable exploration of different planets surveying for those resources. Much more interesting than a map of resource nodes which always pop at one of a series of always the same locations and which are all the same quality.

Maybe a good combination of hand-crafted content and randomly or procedurally generated stuff might be a good solution. I was intrigued by an announcement that in certain zones of Legion the quests and monsters would adjust to your level, so that you don't have to do them in a specific order. It is obviously too late now, but I could imagine the whole World of Warcraft remade with that approach: Hand-crafted zones with interesting locations and pre-placed quest givers telling the story lines of the zone, but the monsters and rewards being automatically adjusted to your level, wherever you are (with possibly some variation of easier content close to the main roads, and harder content hidden in some corners). That would mean that you would never outlevel a zone, nor would you ever be wondering where to go to next. You could go anywhere you wanted, skip zones you didn't like the look of, and still level all the way from 1 to 110 with whatever selection of zones you wanted. That sounds like an interesting game to me.

You can see Legions level scaling in action in the current invasions, I am leveling a warlock and there is almost no difference when fighting to a max level char. Some (very few) mob spells bug out and oneshot the little 'lock.

I too hope Blizzard reworks the whole of their creation to adjust. Cataclysms reqork introduced a lot of nice stories if you care to actually read the quest texts, but you outlevel content so fast that most players will never play a zone completely through. It would make leveling much better if I could just start where ever I want.

About No Mans Sky... I guess a lot of people got hyped into buying the game who really are not the target audience. I recently played two games tagged "walking simulator" which just showed me a story. People who can't enjoy this kind of game probably don't enjoy No Mans Sky too much either.
Actually the dungeons in CoH were handcrafted, but picked at random from a set based on your party size and limited to tilesets from your quest line.
And some were actually specifically created just for one quest/raid.

The reason was most likely to avoid completely random maps with regions nobody can reach, mobs placed in stupid places and other pitfalls etc.

But yes, the available tile sets and creation tools were a bit limited, as also the player content tool showed.
This level-scaling in Legion has me intrigued.
Blizzard is interested in using its new scaling technology in old content. One of the problems they acknowledged in an interview this year is that the leveling process, even without heirlooms and only doing a leveling dungeon once to see the content has players outleveling the content, which as most people know is unsatisfying.

I could imagine that widening the level range of a zone would keep the challenge longer, and even scale your rewards based on your level like the invasions currently do. If they do this, I hope they don't widen the range too much. I still want to farm old zones on my max level character solo.
The whole issue with out-leveling content in WoW is one of the reasons I find it harder and harder to get back in. The game doesn't actually change that much, rather my expectations keep rising from other games I play.

In this particular case, the WoW ruiner was Guild Wars 2, where you're auto adjusted to an appropriate level, not just for the zone as a whole, but for each specific area of the map. But still receive loot and rewards appropriate for progress at your true level. A level 50 character can go to a level 10 are, have fun and engaging combat with enemies there, and find level 50 loot upgrades and xp. It's not perfect, you still feel noticeably more powerful when adjusted down than if you were naturally that level, but it's not like in WoW where you run around one shotting everything for crap rewards.

It's difficult to imagine going back to a game that doesn't have such a feature. I mean, doesn't WoW still have loot drama from single rewards that you have to compete with your friends to get? Shudders.
Games with scalable enemies never work out because players will still find the single most profitable location to farm at, and they will still breeze through the rest of the game because a level 100 player fighting a level 100 monster is much easier than a level 10 player fighting a level 10 monster due to having more available options, thus providing relatively more valuable rewards as well. This is all ignoring the fact that scalable enemies don't make sense from the game's perspective. Then, what happens when a lower and higher level character party up?
Blizzard has a long-standing history of having great ideas with terrible implementation. There would be great irony in them implementing a terrible idea well :p
It's not procedural generation that is the problem, it's the options for what you can do within that generated world and whether there's sufficient strategy and variety in the gameplay loops offered.

The worlds of Minecraft, Terraria, Don't Starve, Dwarf Fortress and various roguelikes are procedurally generated (with some handcrafted set pieces here and there.) There are predictable patterns and known spawn or set piece locations. They're still all very engaging games because the randomized world/map/level asks the player to engage in strategic thought and make meaningful decisions as to how to balance their time/resources/choice of gameplay loops. Ditto MMOs like A Tale in the Desert.

City of Heroes got boring after a while because it was the same combat loop -every spawn- repeated for the 15-20 spawns of a map. You never had to reconsider combat tactics once you knew the enemy type/faction on that map. Contrast something like Diablo or Path of Exile, where the mob variation is a lot more unpredictable, even if the background maps end up repeating.

No Man's Sky apparently has issues of too little variety or strategy or choice of gameplay loops within the world. From what I caught over Twitch streams, it's wander around and mine whatever resource you need next, move to a trader/market NPC/item to sell stuff for money, and keep solving some basic minigames to get a checkpoint for the next ship to loot and hopefully upgrade your stuff to higher and higher levels incrementally +1 or -1 level at a time, (Even a larger random variance of upgrade possibilities might make it more interesting.)
I suspected this would be the case when I heard about No Man's Sky, both that procedural generation would make every planet basically the same (as procedural generation tends to do), but also that people would be disappointed with it. The hype surrounding it smelled a lot like Spore to me: way too high for not much substance.

I think one of the most overlooked reasons behind the success of vanilla WoW was how varied their zones were in terms of "feel." In a game where you spend hundreds of hours doing more or less the same thing, it is pretty important that the zones at least have a different feel while you are doing it. Part of this is due to the stylized graphics, which allow for exaggerated themes.

WoW actually does use individual loot for dungeons and raids now, while guilds can choose to use the old system (the old system is more efficient if you know and trust the people you are playing with). Other than that, I agree with your point. Blizzard has been very slow to accept when another game is doing something better, which I have found is typical of developers with successful games.
The limitations of procedurally generated worlds are actually a feature in most roguelikes, really - at least those you're supposed to develop the skills to win at. To get good, you have to scope out the range of procedurally generated content, and figure out how to deal with what comes up in that range. And that's impossible unless you can be sure of seeing or at least being able to infer what the range is.

But No Man's Sky is billed more as a wild magical ride of surprises and amazement. The inevitable repetition will therefore be seen as a flaw.

This is not a criticism of the game: they may hae done a great job, for all I know Just pointing out how the limitations of procedural affect different game types differently.
No Man's Sky is mostly a wallpaper generator and it does a great job if you like watching cool postcards. The gameplay , on the other hand, is rather basic and repetive. I wouldn't mind if it was a $15 game but for $60 I pretend more.
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