Saturday, January 14, 2017

Older than it Seems

Procedurally, generated content seems to be a catch phrase that the gaming audience at large has become wary of in recent months.  It's rise to popularity in recent years was fueled by the success of Minecraft, and now it's falling into disdain due to No Man's Sky.  The thing is, procedurally generated content in video games had been around since the inception of the hobby and has popped up in various forms throughout the history of the medium.  I'm not just talking about rogue-like games either...let me show a few examples.

Hunt the Wumpus is a 1980 puzzle/exploration game in which the player enters a semi-randomized network of caves in search of the titular Wumpus.  Aside from slaying this deadly beast, players must also navigate the cavern layout while trying to avoid lethal pitfalls and disorienting bats.  I never actually played the proper version of this game, complete with crude graphics and interface.  Instead the version I experienced was a text-only knock-off with the highly original name Wumpus Hunt.  For all intents and purposes both versions of the game played the same, relying on an algorithm to create the underground topography in order to keep things fresh through multiple playthroughts.  Funny aside, many years ago my father and I started making our own variant of the game called "Mantis Hunt" in Turbo Pascal, but for various reasons we abandoned the project before it reached a playable state.

Computer games weren't the only place to find procedural generation in action.  Early home consoles also had a few notable examples of this design methodology.  Specifically, the Atari 2600 had a little know strategy game ported to it call Stellar Track.  Actually a slight variant on the first ever Star Trek video game made way back in 1971, it generated a patch of outer space and provided the region with stars, supply bases and Klingon enemy warships.  Even the victory conditions were somewhat randomized in the form of varying time limits and required kill counts.  Resource management is the central game mechanic as players take command of the Enterprise a lone spacecraft; powerful, but limited by its finite supply of energy and ordinance.  The graphics are very crude, even by Atari standards, with text menus and simple ASCII readouts being the only things to appear on-screen.  One nice touch though is the shifting background color which changes from green to red when enemies are nearby, or grey in the case of a friendly supply depot being the only thing present.

Iron Helix is much newer than the previous two examples having come out in 1993, during the early days of CD-ROM gaming.  It has a neat little instillation program featuring a man slowly being devoured by a Tyrannosaurs Rex, the instillation process is finished once the dinosaur is done eating.  It's not as cool the one for Command and Conquer but still...anyway, getting to the actual game, during a routing military exercise a malfunctioning starship A.I. targets a harmless planet full of innocent civilians for destruction.  The personnel on-board the ship have already been killed by an interior defense robot intended to repulse boarders.  The player is captain of a one-man science/exploration vessel that is (surprise!) the only ship than can intercept in time to save the threatened planet.  From here on out things turn into a game of cat-and-mouse with the player using one of three available drones (essentially three lives) at their disposal in order to board the rogue ship and gather usable DNA samples from the dead crew members while simultaneously trying to avoid the patrolling defense robot.  If the player succeeds in finding DNA of importance they can use it fool the security system into giving the player-controlled drone access to critical areas and subsystems of the ship.  There are multiple ways to destroy/cripple the ship, as well as several methods of eliminating the defense robot, although doing so only grants a brief respite since a replacement will power up after a few minutes.  The strategy used each playthrough depends largely on the semi-random placement of DNA samples across the ship.  In that sense Iron Helix is kind of unusual from a design point since it mixes procedural generation with branching paths to victory.

Overall, I think the reason to use procedurally generated content is to increase replayability.  The caveat being the gameplay loop needs to be long enough and interesting enough to entice players back through again and again.  The issue I have is, when the design feels shallow, it gets boring fast.  Take Diablo, for example, the first level is basically the same as all subsequent levels.  Sure, the monster sprites and set dressing change every four floors down, and the numbers get bigger, but the moment-to-moment gameplay is largely static throughout.  Unless a variety of a handcrafted experience can be worked into those equations and algorithms, the kind that lead to emergent gameplay, then it's really no better now than it was back in the beginning.

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