• Procedurally Ruined: Part 1

    by  • April 24, 2014 • Bad Ideas, The Video Game Industry • 2 Comments

    Why not poke a little fun at clickbait before the complaining begins?

    Procedurally-generated. I swear, if I’d heard the term even one more time while talking to devs about their games at PAX East 2014, I was going to scream. It’s the new buzz word of the day, one that promises infinite replayability as the game constructs level after level of unique content. Why am I so upset, anyway? What’s wrong with games that can build their own levels from scratch, ensuring a new experience for me every time I play? Who wouldn’t want that?

    Well, I wouldn’t, and I’ll use good old Resident Evil 4 to explain why. Now, I’ve played this game a few dozen times, and no matter how many times I boot it up, I still hold my head in my hands every time I’m about to run into a hard part. “God, I hate this room.” I’d say every time one of those areas came up. I actually paid attention to myself the last time I played through it, noting that I uttered that phrase on every single area except the very first one in the game. There are no easy rooms in Resident Evil 4; no cakewalks meant to give you a break from the unrelenting assault of los ganados.

    This challenge comes from the game’s ironclad level design. Each and every area in Resident Evil 4 has been carefully constructed to maximize challenge and use each enemy to the best of their abilities. There are no rooms where the enemies are just tossed together or the layout is random crap. There’s no easy room filled with softball enemies to help you build your ammo stockpile up. You’re tossed into hard rooms all the time, and will be pushed to the breaking point in every level in the game. They have been designed to push you, after all, with smart enemy placement, relentless foes, and cruel trap setups. There are no accidents of design here – just purposeful setups gleefully built by men and women who want you to die.

    This is not what happens in a game that procedurally generates it levels. It literally cannot happen by virtue of how the game is put together. In a procedurally generated game, the level is cobbled together by a program, pulling bits and pieces or chunks of whole levels together at random to create a functional level. Poorly-made ones might not even be able to perform the latter, but for the most part, this is what these games do to construct their play spaces. It’s in the best interest of variety to keep this process as random as possible, as putting together levels in chunks means that there are fewer variations the game can make while creating its stages. So, the best possible outcome that gives the game the most variety is one that puts the level together almost completely at random.

    This is a complete movement away from level design. Yes, you can create parts of the level that are well-made and have the program pull from those, but does it know the best order to pull them in? Does it know not to stick certain encounters together or that some work better in tandem than others? If it does know that, how much of your randomness is going out the window, and how much closer are you getting to carefully designing your levels? The closer a game gets to the spirit of procedural generation, of achieving a ton of variants to provide endless replay, the further it moves from careful level design. The more you plan a stage or even parts of a stage, the further you get from the goal you set out to achieve with procedural generation.

    It’s not a bad goal to aim for, really. It’s very rare for people to play through a game more than once, and most devs seem to think that’s because the game isn’t any different the second time through. Why would someone want to go through the same experience twice? So, to keep the disc in the tray and have players continue to engage with their games, it only makes sense to head in the direction of procedural generation. With a game pulling content together to provide an endless variety of maps, players are bound to keep playing the game. It’s only the lack of variety that’s keeping people from continuing to play.

    As I’ve said, I’ve played Resident Evil 4 about a dozen times, and that game literally never changes. Sure, I unlocked a couple of new weapons after playing through it a few times, but overall, the enemy layout has not changed one bit, nor has the level design. It’s the same thing, over and over again. It makes me wonder if I’m just the type of boring person who can go through the same thing ad nauseam, but I don’t think the answer is that simple. I think that in a tight, well designed level, there can be variance and challenge enough to keep the game new every single time.

    Need proof? I’ll show you why on Tuesday!

    Image courtesy of Impactnottingham.com.

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