You'll want to read parts one and two first)
Every so often, someone rediscovers procedural content generation and for a moment sees it as the solution to their game development worries. The latest last crisis was in the increasing cost in delivering triple A games on console platforms, and procedural generation was going to magic this cost away by making content free. Googling for 'procedural content generation' is like looking through a slightly forlorn graveyard - it's sunny and the textured head stones look beautiful in the evening light, but ultimately it's not as full an after-life as you anticipated.
Why has PCG failed to deliver on the promised hype?
Firstly, procedural content generation algorithms are hard. Not hard as in you need to get a smarter programmer. Hard as in the travelling salesman ate my NP-complete halting state hard.
You are no longer looking at simple test cases in resolving issues with PCG. The problem domain becomes a complex web of interacting cases, so that you instead need to start coding automated players to explore it. And these automated players, because they are powered with less than human intelligence are good at finding crashes and infinite loops, but less than perfect at spotting anomalous events, such as water running up hill. And there are never any guarantees in this exploration that you cover the whole problem domain, because this domain is infinite in size. You are left evaluating statistically whether you have enough coverage before releasing the game.
Consider that dynamic AI is a sub-set of PCG, and the promises of AI are consistently five years away on delivering, if not longer. But dynamic AI is starting to become an acceptable part of game development, and even if crippled, starting to feature more in major game titles such as Oblivion.
But I have suggested in parts one and two that the pieces are falling into place, albeit slowly. Even random plot generation, although handled poorly in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (see GearHead for a good example) is moving in the right direction. Outside of dynamic world generation, I don't believe anything I have shown you is a compelling argument for procedural content generation - as compared to the majority modern game titles. I'm not surprised if you disagree with my assessment that the level designer is under any kind of threat. But you're wrong.
Let me suggest where procedural content generation will move in the next five years and under what guises.
1. Traditional level design tools will adopt more and more procedural content generation functions. You will be able to paint a section of landscape and farm buildings, a village or town will pop up into existence. Similarly, more game engines will support dynamic lighting and weather, requiring less pre-rendering components.
2. Triple A titles will incorporate more PCG elements in controlled conditions (as will MMORPGs). You'll find much greater use of instancing to enhance visual appeal. Games that feature a central PCG mechanic will do much better in the marketplace - whereas Hellgate: London mostly missed the mark, Left4Dead and Borderlands will be more successful.
3. Spore will be released, possibly delayed again, and be a resounding success - cannibalizing the game playing audience much as World of Warcraft has done for PC games, but on a multi-platform basis. This will put EA 3-5 years ahead of the market, with only Sony, with LittleBigPlanet, being able to compete (Will Wright is arguably one of the world's best game designers, and he has ninjas working for him). As a result, a round of inferior Spore knock-offs will appear the following year and put back the cause of PCG by a year or two (Much like the current round of MMORPG cancellations).
4. PCG will continue to eat away at the bottom end, with various independent developers coming up with better game designs using these techniques. This will have the perverse effect of making independent development harder as the best indie games take the audience away from both other indies and 2nd tier developers.
5. At some point middle ware developers will get on board with PCG. This is already happening with dynamic AI, but I'd expect to see it with 3d level design systems and more generic 'game-in-a-box' systems. What timing this occurs around depends on whether they're able to achieve it ahead of or behind the Spore release fallout.
It's this last point that I want to expand on and suggest some ways of moving the state-of-the-art forward for procedural content generation. You may wish to stop reading at this point unless you're passionate about procedural content generation, or a venture capitalist.
Firstly, I think there's a great place in the market at the moment for a fast-moving company to deliver 3d arena like first person shooter levels using a subscription model. Call it Map of the Day or similar (that particular URL is cyber squatted, but it's the point I'm trying to make).
Users sign up for a subscription based on their favourite shooter and get a single player map every day generated by the company's random map generator. It's important that it's a single player map - multi-player maps would be a lot harder to balance and are re-usable, whereas no-one is catering well for single-player episodic gaming on a frequent enough a basis. It's not critical to start with that the map designs are exceptional - good enough is fine. Obviously you want to DRM lock the content if possible, but it's not strictly necessary. Maybe partner with Valve to deliver through Steam, although you're potentially competing with them at the same time.
Secondly is the 'game-in-a-box' middle ware model. This is targeted for companies looking to take their media intellectual property and turn it into a game, without having to pay either huge development costs or leave consumers with a badly designed game. The game in the box takes the minimum character and art assets required and uses PCG techniques to turn those elements into an entire game at a fraction of the cost of normal game development. While the game itself does not have to have PCG elements, for extensive re playability you may as well include them.
The consumers benefit because they get a well-designed game as opposed to the licensed rubbish that is often churned out at the moment. The 'game-in-a-box' company also becomes a well known brand in it's own right, so purchases would also be made on strength of the franchise in addition to the media property. The media company at least gets the moral satisfaction of having licensed a well-produced product, as opposed to having to bury it in a land-fill in the New Mexico desert.
An unlikely prospect? Well, as you've probably guessed, one company is already doing it. Chunsoft's Fushigi no Dungeon (Mysterious Dungeon) is heavily indebted to the procedural content generation techniques pioneered by Rogue, and has produced Mysterious Dungeon games under license for Pokemon, Dragon Quest and Mobile Suit Gundam as well as their own series of independently produced games.
A match made in procedural heaven. Oh, and there's a part four.
Monday, 14 January 2008
You'll want to read parts one and two first)