Inside the Artificial Universe That Creates Itself
February 18, 2016 1:59 PM   Subscribe

A team of programmers has built a self-generating cosmos, and even they don’t know what’s hiding in its vast reaches. Through the use of procedural generation, No Man’s Sky ensures that each planet will be a surprise, even to the programmers. Every creature, AI-guided alien spacecraft, or landscape is a pseudo-random product of the computer program itself. The universe is essentially as unknown to the people who made it as it is to the people who play in it—and ultimately, it is destined to remain that way. As previously mentioned here.
posted by slackdog (106 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
what, like elite? awesome!
posted by andrewcooke at 2:03 PM on February 18 [7 favorites]


I used to leave terminal velocity running for hours just flying off course. There's something about procedural generation that is so fascinating to me. I wouldn't even need a game component. Just a rocket ship and the camera from poke-snap.
posted by Think_Long at 2:12 PM on February 18 [7 favorites]


I mean, I hope it's good, but procedural generation is easy. See:

10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10

Technically, all the statements about No Man's Sky applies: the result is arbitrarily large; nobody knows what it's going to look like; it's self-generating. But it's completely boring. Minecraft is also procedurally generated, but once you've wandered about a bit you've more or less seen everything. Even if the world technically is bigger than Earth, it's not as varied- the interest comes from what people can actually do in the world. All the creatures and planets in Spore were procedurally generated, but everyone got bored of it fairly quickly.
posted by BungaDunga at 2:19 PM on February 18 [30 favorites]


If you're interested in a fairly realistic (and sadly dinosaur-free) version of this written singlehandedly by Tarn Adams's Russian equivalent, Space Engine is available right now.
posted by theodolite at 2:22 PM on February 18 [6 favorites]


Are any of these open source?
posted by I-Write-Essays at 2:25 PM on February 18


The developer, Hello Games, made two previous games called Joe Danger which were motorcycle stunt games (Joe Danger and Joe Danger 2) that were alright. They weren't particularly notable though they were fun and colourful.

No Man's Sky looks......interesting. A game that was revealed way too early. I've watched discussion for this game go from incredible levels of awe to disparaging comments over the last year or so. "So what do you do?" Is a question that keeps popping up. Comparisons to Minecraft seem to be the most apt in that you'll have to interact with the systems (piloting, exploring, combat, trading) to create your own drive.

Will it be good? Good enough to keep people interested in exploring it for such a long period of time? I hope it does. There's a good chance I'll be one of those people, game is super pretty. It also reminds me of Noby Noby Boy where I always liked hearing how far in space GIRL was even if I really didn't enjoy how the game played.
posted by Neronomius at 2:28 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Hope they used a hardware RNG. Need a lot of entropy for a universe.
posted by benzenedream at 2:30 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


This Atlantic piece is pretty much a padded out advertisement, which is unfortunate because No Man's Sky could serve as a focus point to talk about a lot of interesting stuff within the context of the history and development of procedural generation.
posted by Pyry at 2:30 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


BungaDunga and Neronomius have touched on my concerns with this game. Still optimistic but the problem with procedural content is it all starts to feel the same before long. Yes, each rock is unique. But they are still just rocks.

I think procedural content works best when it's presenting a random challenge to the player, not a random thing to explore.
posted by Flaffigan at 2:33 PM on February 18 [5 favorites]


The holy grail of procedural generation, as I've defined it in my own quest, is time travel. Being able to predict how the game would be played from point A to point B, and procedurally generating not just the world, but the replay of how it got that way, putting a player into the middle of it, and continually recalculating the procedural generation of history. This requires not just extrapolating from a seed, but being able to generate an interpolation towards fixed future events. Which is why I ask: Which of these projects are open source?
posted by I-Write-Essays at 2:33 PM on February 18 [13 favorites]


Starbound is similar to this, although in 2D. It's changed a bit since I've played it, but the main problem there was that you had a quest line of mining certain minerals up a chain, improving your gear along that chain as you were able to mine better materials, and then you basically stopped. You could build a cool looking house, and fart around in it, but that was it. Everything was procedurally generated, and you could share a world location (basically its seed number) with a friend, and they could explore the same world (although they wouldn't see you there unless you were doing multiplayer), but the randomly generated nature made everything very bland. There were also randomly generated monsters, but a lot of them were poorly 'designed' because it's just an algorithm and not a human hand.

I haven't been following development here, but this article makes No Man's Sky seem even more barren. Are there human-made settlements? Is there a larger driving force? I got a good 10 hours out of Starbound, but that was with planets that weren't generated to scale. I can't even imagine the boredom of trying to explore one of these planets to any worth, much less a galaxy or a universe.

“Well, we don't have blood in our universe. That’s pretty nice. We don’t have cities full of urban problems. We have nice beautiful landscapes more often than not.”

First of all, 'urban problems'? Second, if you have any sort of player interactivity, then you have social problems. Eve Online was nice and calm before they let the players in too.
posted by codacorolla at 2:35 PM on February 18 [7 favorites]


I can't wait for this to redefine gaming forever in a completely revolutionary way like Spore did!
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:36 PM on February 18 [13 favorites]


I think procedural content works best when it's presenting a random challenge to the player, not a random thing to explore.

Yeah, this. I played some Starbound awhile back, and while I'm not big on 2D building games, I loved that the monsters were procedurally generated. I have often wished that Minecraft had that when my friends drag me back there. A game where *every* element is something to discover, rather than just the terrain, would be completely awesome.
posted by mordax at 2:36 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Also: heh, should've previewed, codacorolla. :)
posted by mordax at 2:36 PM on February 18


I've read enough Greg Egan stories to know this won't end well
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:37 PM on February 18 [20 favorites]


I would like there to be a mode of some kind in games like this (my main experience being Minecraft) where the difficulty ramps up the more resources you own and territory you command. So if you build a giant base you're going to start getting, I dunno, like witches at your door all the time and maybe some new burrowing mod coming up through your floors. Or maybe you have to produce food to grow and feed your village. Grow the village economy. Something. The problem with Minecraft is that you are kind of invincible once you get diamond gear and going after the End, without mod help, is a drag.

I'm not sure what that would look like in space but it seems like the skeleton is there to generate a whole universe but give you good work to do in it.

Maybe you have to terraform the world, import "villagers" and see if they can survive there. I'd play the hell out of that.
posted by Tevin at 2:40 PM on February 18


Maybe you have to terraform the world, import "villagers" and see if they can survive there. I'd play the hell out of that.

I think you want Dwarf Fortress.
posted by BungaDunga at 2:44 PM on February 18 [15 favorites]


I desperately want DF but I have not the time nor the iron will to learn and play DF.
posted by Tevin at 2:47 PM on February 18 [8 favorites]


So if you build a giant base you're going to start getting, I dunno, like witches at your door all the time and maybe some new burrowing mod coming up through your floors.

Terraria does this a little bit. You build certain rooms with different combinations of items in them to attract different NPCs who all serve different functions (mainly shops). Once you reach a certain threshold of 4 or 5 NPCs, then you start getting Goblin invasions, which are able to knock down doors and attempt to kill your NPCs.
posted by codacorolla at 2:47 PM on February 18


Terraria is a good example. I really enjoyed the "PokeNPC" aspect. Unfortunately it leaned a little bit too utilitarian where I wanted my house to be EFFICIENT and didn't care about making it looks so pretty (like I do in Minecraft).

I just want to colonize a planet however I choose and run a little colony, CTRL+C/CTRL+V as needed.
posted by Tevin at 2:54 PM on February 18


We're going to build a wall between this universe and the other universe. And the other universe is going to pay for it.
posted by lagomorphius at 2:55 PM on February 18 [6 favorites]


More Unpredictable Stuff (via)
posted by kliuless at 2:56 PM on February 18 [5 favorites]


hope there's not a basilisk on Planet X
posted by j_curiouser at 3:03 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I want Dwarf Fortress so, so bad, except that I don't fucking want to play anything, you know? I just want to watch a little world happen. Maybe I give it a little nudge here and there, poke some sticks at things, but really I just want it to happen. I don't want there to be stakes, as such. I don't want to be incentivized, or grandly narrated to, or timed, or watching my health bar. I just want little digital creatures and plants and clouds over mountains and stuff. Maybe I care about their wellbeing because they're really convincing simulations, but I am in general a distant and probably non-interventionist god. A passing space alien. Absent from the frame.

(If anybody knows what that thing is, I'd love to find out. I feel like I've been looking for it since like crappy DOS adventure games and the NES.)
posted by brennen at 3:06 PM on February 18 [15 favorites]


The blandness of procedural generation is something I've been thinking about combating for some time. I've written before, random map generation is not, by any means, enough. If the same things happen each game, if the choices you make are the same, if the events that happen are basically the game, then the dungeon map is just different wallpaper on the same house.

You CAN make an interesting procedural content game, but you have to think about how to make good use of the random number generation, and that's hard, especially if your game wants to be fair to all players. One thing you can do is have it permute a number of play elements that interrelate, in terms of effects and costs, to deepen the consequences of them being brought into proximity with each other. But going into more detail than that, well, I might as well write a column about it.
posted by JHarris at 3:08 PM on February 18 [9 favorites]


From the title I thought this might have been bad science journalism, but upon clicking the link, I found it is bad gaming journalism!
posted by demiurge at 3:08 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


SimEarth? Playable at the Internet Archive.
posted by BungaDunga at 3:13 PM on February 18 [7 favorites]


Which of these projects are open source?

Which of what projects? The Atlantic article is about a single video game that hasn't been released yet.

It isn't open source. And I don't think it'd be well suited to your project if it were - AFAICT they're not generating any complex or plausible histories, they're just generating stuff that looks like it might have a complex and plausible history. DF is the only procedural game I know of that really is serious about running through a bunch of simulation to make the world. But it's also not open source.
posted by aubilenon at 3:14 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


(And DF works forwards, not backwards.)
posted by aubilenon at 3:14 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


In No Man’s Sky however, every star is a place that you can go. The universe is infinite. The edges extend out into a lifeless abyss that you can plunge into forever.
I don't know how many times we're been feed this load of shit by game company CEO but it always comes out as complete bullshit by the time the game goes gold. Even if it was true, space is big and empty and the only way to make it feel full and engage is to fill it with storytelling. Until your can write a procedurally generated character develop and story arc your wasting everyone's time.

Next dev team that does this is sentenced to a full playthrough Spore and will be forced to do a dramatic reading of all of Peter Molyneux press releases.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 3:26 PM on February 18 [12 favorites]


You CAN make an interesting procedural content game, but you have to think about how to make good use of the random number generation, and that's hard, especially if your game wants to be fair to all players. One thing you can do is have it permute a number of play elements that interrelate, in terms of effects and costs, to deepen the consequences of them being brought into proximity with each other. But going into more detail than that, well, I might as well write a column about it.

It's something I think Spelunky does excellently. Here's a Spelunky generator and a little bit about how it works.

In terms of gameplay, I think Spelunky works really well because of resource limiting. Bombs help you go down. Ropes help you go up. Enemies get in the way of that. A main part of the game is getting items (ropes and bombs among them) that help you get to the bottom of the level without dying. On their own, individual enemies aren't that hard. However, having to be aware of traps, enemies, all while navigating the level combines together to create a really interesting experience that is mediated by the random level gen. It helps that the procedural generation mechanic is very well done, with an eye towards level design and not just aesthetics, which means that it's primed towards creating interesting and memorable challenges.

That's what distinguishes Spelunky from a lot of other Rogulite games, in my experience. It feels designed, even when it's random.
posted by codacorolla at 3:29 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


>>" I just want little digital creatures and plants and clouds over mountains and stuff." – Brennen

Hey Brennen, have you heard of Mountain?

According to Rock Paper Shotgun it's 'The Bestest Best Landscape Of 2014'.

Genre: Mountain Simulator, Relax em' up, Art Horror etc.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 3:34 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


What I want is Dwarf Fortress with a UI that isn't basically the drippy text green screen from The Matrix.
posted by GuyZero at 3:35 PM on February 18 [9 favorites]


If I recall correctly, the impetus to keep playing is supposed to come from competing with other players to [a] name first-explored planets (which could go horribly wrong given the typically inverse relationship between free time and maturity levels in gamers) and [b] reach the center of the galaxy/universe/whatever first.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:38 PM on February 18


I like the idea of sandbox games, but algorithmically generating a compelling narrative or characters is pretty damn hard. Which it looks like MiltonRandKalman already said.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:51 PM on February 18


What I want is Dwarf Fortress with a UI that isn't basically the drippy text green screen from The Matrix.

Me, too. Thing is, generating worlds is easier than generating convincing visuals. It's also harder to digest all the data a game like DF presents you with (which includes all the historical details that make it so fascinating) when you have all the noise of a pretty graphical world in front of you.
posted by tobascodagama at 4:01 PM on February 18


What I want is Dwarf Fortress with a UI that isn't basically the drippy text green screen from The Matrix.

good news


(you still have to learn a good deal to play it though)
posted by p3on at 4:05 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I was just discussing Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen with a co-worker who was looking for a space-trade-and-exploration game. Another coworker dropped in to note that he was spending most of his MMO time in Elite: Dangerous. I realized that there was some other game that was similar that I couldn't recall the name of at the time and eventually it came to me that No Man's Sky was the one missing from my mind. The Elite: Dangerous guy went "oh yeah" and related how excited he had been for the game when first announced, but that he did not expect to play it at all since he was time-vested in Elite: Dangerous.

Anecdata, surely. But of interest here, I think.
posted by mwhybark at 4:07 PM on February 18


Dwarf Fortress has a way of making random encounters truly random.

You see a three headed dragon. It's skin is made of diamond and it's guts are styrofoam. It breathes fire and it's saliva is delicious.

Best of all, the madlib approach to monster generation had practical consequences. Diamond skin? Put away the battle axes and bring out the war hammers!
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:11 PM on February 18 [7 favorites]


"The edges extend out into a lifeless abyss that you can plunge into forever."

Because nothing says fun like "lifeless abyss!"


"Artistic director Grant Duncan recalled roaming an alien planet once shooting at birds out of boredom."

"With our game though, you give someone a controller, they land on a planet, they see an alien creature, if it’s their first time playing, they will probably shoot it"

Especially if that's the primary way players can interact with things in this game... there are other things you can do too... right? Or can you just shoot things? Because exploration is not limited to spacial discovery. Players want to explore how their actions affect the world, too. So if you give them the ability to shoot things, they will. Especially if it's one of the only actions they can do.


If I recall correctly, the impetus to keep playing is supposed to come from competing with other players...

Based on some of the wording in the article (the chance of running into another player, servers being shut down) I was wondering if it was going to be multiplayer... That certainly makes the game more interesting, though the interest comes mostly from the players interacting and not from the nature of the way the world is generated... It just worries me that so much of what I hear about this game is focused on the procedural nature of the world... There's more to it than a pretty picture generator, I hope.
posted by Flaffigan at 4:12 PM on February 18


Looking forward to reading this, although I can't help but feel like we're living in the beginning of a sci-fi story with a rather dark ending. (Probably something where the new universe either turns out to be the beginning of THIS one, or where the designer is a dick to his creation and it revolts and kills him, then at the end we pan up to find out that our universe is just a simulation in somebody else's universe, and then maybe for extra trippiness we pan out again to find that THAT universe is a simulation in somebody else's universe.)
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:21 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


(you still have to learn a good deal to play it though)

Yeah, when I say UI I mean it both ways.
posted by GuyZero at 4:23 PM on February 18


JHarris, you are right on the money. One overlooked technology that games could use is the "AI Director" from Left 4 Dead. In addition to the normal layout of the level, the game monitors the players' ongoing progress and decides whether to trigger additional challenges and rewards, to try to make every game have a good balance of tense action and relief. If the players are doing well, optional groups of enemies can be spawned, if the players start taking damage or dying, those groups of enemies may not appear, and instead a resupply point might be behind the next door. The game is still a challenge, but the director guides the players through an experience that is demanding but does not overwhelming.

Roguelikes and other procedural games could benefit from this. In a game like NetHack, at best, the RNG is going to make the game feel like a well-paced succession of challenges, rewards, and exploration. But at worst, it just spawns a soldier ant that kills you 20 minutes into a run. With a guiding hand on the RNG, the game can hopefully stay in the sweet spot of engaging without being overwhelming, while still providing a challenge to players of a wide range of skill levels.
posted by rustcrumb at 4:31 PM on February 18 [12 favorites]


Spelunky is a great example of procedural generation done right. It uses random level generation to present the player with unpredictable challenges, forcing them to develop a generalized skill set rather than a static knowledge base (traditional roguelikes) or static muscle memory (traditional platformers). It's the perfect merging of two types of games to create something new.

If playing a traditional platformer like Mario or Super Meat Boy is like playing the same piece of music over and over, then spelunky is like continually sight reading something new... Hmm that analogy maybe doesn't make it sound all that appealing, but it certainly works in spelunky's case and is a pretty unique feeling in games in general.
posted by Flaffigan at 4:32 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


But going into more detail than that, well, I might as well write a column about it.

Please do!
posted by Flaffigan at 4:37 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


If you want to play Dwarf Fortress without horrible UI, check out Rimworld - it's basically sci-fi Dwarf Fortress with a decent pass by a really solid game designer, with a choose-your-own-AI-storyteller feature.

Full disclosure: Tynan (the designer) is a former co-worker and friend. Doesn't change that the game is amazing, particularly with the science & industry mod.

And FWIW, my own (unannounced) Dwarf Fortress/SNES Zelda mashup is going pretty well. Recently finished getting the unbounded procedurally generated voxel terrain mesh generating purely async, currently prototyping combat mechanics.
posted by Ryvar at 4:38 PM on February 18 [11 favorites]


I love procedural generation. A lot of games that I really, really love use it (XCOM 2, Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, Nuclear Throne, Crypt of the Necrodancer) They're all games that can be digested in quick chunks and are quite difficult. They tend to be smaller (XCOM aside) and I think that small scope makes that work really well.

To have it work in first person, in such a large universe/galaxy/however they're defining it is where I have a lot of apprehension. Procedural generation makes that personal touch harder to see. Like, in Fallout 4 going through a building and seeing how the artists made little vignettes with skeletons and props became the driving force for me to keep playing.

I think I remember seeing a video about how if you're the first person to go to a planet or encounter a species of alien no one has ever seen before you get to name it? If so I can only imagine what sort of names people will name things. Like how in Spore everything seemed to try to make the lewdest creatures. I imagine there will also be a lot of creatures named after memes and the like.
posted by Neronomius at 4:45 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


algorithmically generating a compelling narrative or characters

Anyone know games that attempt this? The only things that comes to mind for me are (1) a little game called Noir Syndrome I heard about somehow, thought I've never played it and it sounds like maybe the stories are on the scale of like SW: Yoda Stories (nothing wrong with that) and (2) a (vaporware?) game called Storyteller that a guy named Daniel Benmergui was working on a while ago.
posted by Flaffigan at 4:57 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


As previously mentioned here.

Ahem.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:01 PM on February 18


Ah, it's Kerbal Space Program, but with more empty planets to plant a flag on!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:16 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm hitting this thread pretty hard but I was just thinking about Crusader Kings II which ends up generates some pretty interesting, if simple, emergent behavior between npcs from a pretty basic model of a person and their relationship with other npcs (the relationship modeled primarily by just a single number representing how much they like that character from -100 to 100, influenced by the various traits of each). I think it helps that the primary way characters can interact are strong verbs: kill, marry, grant a title, etc.
posted by Flaffigan at 5:18 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


Anyone know games that attempt this? The only things that comes to mind for me are (1) a little game called Noir Syndrome I heard about somehow, thought I've never played it and it sounds like maybe the stories are on the scale of like SW: Yoda Stories (nothing wrong with that) and (2) a (vaporware?) game called Storyteller that a guy named Daniel Benmergui was working on a while ago.

There are a number of narrative minded board games that rely on structured randomization (a really basic algorithmic approach). One of the ones I've played is Betrayal At House on the Hill. The game is cooperative, up to a point. Players move around a grid-based mansion, randomly flipping over room tiles that do things, often times generating events that are drawn from a random deck. The idea is that they want to become more powerful (some events and rooms give character building awards) because of phase 2. At certain intervals players will roll for a 'haunt'. These become increasingly difficult rolls to make as the game advances. If they fail their haunt roll, then they become the antagonist for the game, and control various enemies / obstacles that attack other players.

One of the main draws of the game are the emergent stories that come up: you open a closet, revealing a flaming corpse, that chases you into the mansion's gym, where you buff up and become stronger. Later, you go insane and try to summon a demon to the material plane.

It's interesting to play once or twice a year, but it has a lot of problems. One of the main problems is randomness. You can easily generate completely nonsensical mansion layouts (not a problem in a haunted mansion), but also very boring or tedious layouts. Like nothing but traps, with no way to ever improve. Or (as happened last time I played it) have the person who later becomes the end boss end up lucking into a ton of upgrades, and then have the players luck into beating them. It's really not a well designed game in many, many ways, but it is interesting to play from a procedurally generated story perspective.

I haven't played it, but another narrative generation board game is Tales of the Arabian Nights. Sort of like Betrayal, I've heard this suffers from a conflict between the game part and the narrative part.
posted by codacorolla at 5:45 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


kill, marry, grant a title

oh hey my friends and I used to play that game at sleepovers
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:09 PM on February 18 [9 favorites]


On the storytelling: I think developer-driven narrative tends to suck in different ways unless put on rails so that game mechanics, level design, and story all feed into each other. So in Bastion and Transistor, each new weapon or ability you discover helps to develop your understanding of how the world went wrong. The "open-world" Bethesda games are probably best viewed as a collection of short stories or flash fic, but most of them become the same old mechanics after a few of them. A big problem with sidequests from a ludic perspective is that you want to reward exploration with progression, but the protagonist can outlevel the design of the main event so to speak.

Of course the alternative is to give the player a blank slate or just a prompt. The Sims is all about poking the procedural behaviour of your Sims to generate story as an emergent dialogue between player and mechanics. It's a wonderful chaotic system, and how much you play, I think, depends a lot on how much you enjoy poking those mechanics.

People like all sorts of games. I like truck sims as along as I have new road to drive. I really liked exploration in Eve Online, but I don't play well with others and there's a monthly fee. This game? If I think I'll get 50-odd hours of fun out of it, sure.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:13 PM on February 18 [4 favorites]


Oh, man, is this ever up my alley.

Random thoughts ensue:

Yeah, randomly generated stuff is ... nice, but it's just the environment. What makes a game is the verbs: the stuff you can do. Have enough interesting stuff to do and to react against, and you have a fun game. Even a game with an entirely static environment can be fun if the verbs interact well enough to keep you thinking (prime example being a fighting game like Street Fighter, where blocking, the different types of attack, movement and distances create rather a large meregent gamespace).

No Man's Sky reminds me of Spore and even more so of Subversion, that city simulator/hacking game some english blokes were working on: amazing visuals, really cool idea ... but not much game! Especially Subversion was heartbreaking, because as much promise as it showed, those guys somehow couldn't understand that they needed a game layer on top of their simulation. Things to do, factions, interaction. They realised their concept looked cool, but wasn't much fun. But they didn't realise that that was because there was no player investment resulting from what the player can do.

This is dear to my heart. I too am working on a procedural game. But I think I do understand that the world is merely the backdrop. It is not enough that I can randomly generate a seamlessly tiling world, generated using layered fractal 4d Simplex noise, which you can scroll and which wraps around left-to-right and top-to-bottom (think a Civilisation map, but you can also scroll over thee top/bottom poles). I have this working quite smoothly on android. Check spiralcode.wordpress.com for some old pics.

But that is merely the start! An empty canvas! To have fun, you have to give the player something to do, something which is fun to do! Things which interact ... systems which create emergent gameplay.

The real problem is creating a motivation for the player to do stuff. In my case I'm now working on randomly distributed faction in the cities you can travel to. You will perform mission for them based on the 8 conflicts and the 36 dramatic situations. And these mission will not just impact you, they will impact your standing with the factions, the power dynamic between factions and thus the composition of the cities. Relationship graphs, the logicaly resulting attitudes and misions ... choosing a faction based on connection to their philosophy and then actually seeing real results. That provides motivation to the player.

But that is not enough. The environment is mere window dressing, because just as important is enjoying the actions, the verbs, the things you do, the decisions you make. A fun game must have fun actions and decisions. Controlling your avatar, deciding on trades and upgrades, combat.

You can base a good game on any one of these: Mirror's Edge has a gorgeous environment and cool gameplay. Civ has great gameplay and motivation. Great games intertwine all three: environment (looks), motivation (feels) and actions (verbs) give you a reason to do things you enjoy doing in a place you like doing it in. Done right, the environment feeds into what you can do and provides an impetus to your motivation (through lore/setting) and your actions can strenghten your motivation.

And I feel No Man's Sky only has the environment. And maybe a bit of the actions, but nowhere near enough to remain compelling. Which will be such a shame.
posted by MacD at 6:14 PM on February 18 [7 favorites]


Minecraft is also procedurally generated, but once you've wandered about a bit you've more or less seen everything.

I guess this is pretty subjective, but to me one of the triumphs of Minecraft was that Notch somehow came up with a system for proceedurally generating landscapes and caverns that were interesting and beautiful (and scary) to explore. Minecraft's generated worlds kept my interest a whole lot longer than the hand-crafted world of Skyrim.
posted by straight at 6:23 PM on February 18 [5 favorites]


Supposedly the "goal" of No Man's Sky is going to be to travel to the center of the galaxy. If you want a goal.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:27 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


When we fly through the galactic map, we see all the stars, each of which will have planets around them, and life, and ecology—and the vast, vast, vast majority will never be visited. At some point the servers will be shut down. It will all be turned off, and it will be us who pull the plug.

So the procedural generation is on the server side? Or is this just talking about multiplayer and a dramatic finish to the article? I've read that it can actually be played offline, which mean it will still be playable in three years.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:30 PM on February 18


Tales of the Arabian Nights has the problem that the game aspect isn't very well developed, in that you really can't actually control or predict what the outcome of your actions will be. Generally selecting the "good" options like helping or offering comfort will result in more positive outcomes, but it can just as easily end up with you being Cursed, Grief-Stricken, and Mad, roaming randomly around the map without a chance of getting out of it. Basically, unless you memorize the encounter book, you can't really become "better" at Tales or even really attempt to win it. You just kind of let it happen to you.

Which can be fine and fun, I suppose, but which doesn't appeal much to me.

I was super excited for No Man's Sky because I really really want a game where I just have my spaceship and fly around and do stuff, but as time has gone on it has looked more and more like there just won't be much to actually DO, and that disappoints me. I really want to be able to build things and make my own fun. I remembered reading about the Fuel Rats in Elite: Dangerous; THAT is the sort of thing that I want to be able to do in a game. (I just don't have anything like the kind of computer needed to play E:D nor the free time to properly settle into it.)
posted by Scattercat at 6:31 PM on February 18


Elite Dangerous is a prime example of the dangers of over-reliance on procedural generation. There's as much space as there is in actual space, but it's just so boring. There's no personality to any of it. Even the human-constructed bits of it are boring - you never get any feeling to what any of the spaceports are like. The culture is basically homogeneous.

You'd think I'd like the exploration, given that I'm interested in space science and do amateur astronomy, but even that was boring. The planets seem so totally interchangeable with each other.

The way to use procedural generation is to make the wilderness between the interesting parts of the game. Starflight and Star Control 2 did this, and it worked great. You do, however, have to actually make the interesting parts of the game, and that's what Elite: Dangerous didn't do. Probably because it wanted to be a pseudo-MMO.
posted by Mitrovarr at 6:33 PM on February 18 [5 favorites]


Notch somehow came up with a system for proceedurally generating landscapes and caverns that were interesting and beautiful (and scary) to explore.

Haven't had much call to complain about biome generation in a while. But here, I will do it again: whatever his faults as a dev, or as a designer, or as a person generally, Notch killed it when it came to procedurally generated 3d low-res Yes album covers. Post 1.8 biome terrain generation is totally boring to me.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 6:33 PM on February 18 [5 favorites]


If that procedural generation can handle things like planetary nebulas, compact-star jets, close binaries, nebulas sculpted by radiation, protostars, supernova remnants, along with superearths, hot jupiters, ring systems, and rogue planets, I'm in.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:45 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


algorithmically generating a compelling narrative or characters

Anyone know games that attempt this?


It's not out yet, but Moon Hunters is aspiring to it, after a fashion. The narrative has a fixed beginning (the Moon is stolen) and ending (beat the jerk who stole the Moon), but the troubles you encounter along the way are random -- with the twist that the game tracks your previous actions, decides the attributes of your mythical hero based on those actions, and then adjusts the options available to you in a given encounter based on those attributes.

Tanya Short is one of the developers on Moon Hunters, and she's both written a lot of thoughtful pieces and given a lot of thoughtful talks on the benefits and limits of procedural generation. Here's one I could find quickly.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:02 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


Thank you to a number of folks in this thread for mentioning some stuff that might be of interest for someone with my special snowflake simulated special snowflake world needs.
posted by brennen at 7:05 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I constructed that sentence deliberately and it is not a typo.
posted by brennen at 7:06 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


I have played a few rounds of TOTAN and it is kind of hit or miss but I really love it.

We have had the best luck with the game when: the rules and score are fudged and you try to roleplay a character as much as possible. It's WAY more fun when the game is you trying to figure out what YOUR character would do and not what you think will win you the most points (which are horribly implemented anyway). The fun is seeing how fickle fate can be and living a life of mis/fortune.

I don't like recommending games with that kind of caveat but I would tell anyone to try it in a heartbeat.
posted by Tevin at 7:23 PM on February 18


Seriously, if procedural generation can produce objects equivalent to the Orion Nebula, shaddup and take my money because fucking Orion Nebula!

And I'd buzz around to find the most photogenic screenshots because fucking Orion Nebula!

And we'd all subscribe to each other's tumblrs and squee over screenshots because fucking Orion Nebula! (I had a sims livejournal, one of the best gaming communities ever from uglies to fashion models.)

Just give me the fucking Orion Nebula, then give me what's behind the Orion Nebula, and give me more beyond that. That's all I want in a space sim.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:39 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


I notice that Cities: Skylines is free this weekend on Steam for anyone that just wants to play around in a pretty sandbox.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:41 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


And has a computer powerful enough to run it.
posted by JHarris at 8:02 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


Wake me when they make self-generating martinis.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:33 PM on February 18


CBrachyrhynchos: Seriously, if procedural generation can produce objects equivalent to the Orion Nebula, shaddup and take my money because fucking Orion Nebula!

And I'd buzz around to find the most photogenic screenshots because fucking Orion Nebula!

And we'd all subscribe to each other's tumblrs and squee over screenshots because fucking Orion Nebula! (I had a sims livejournal, one of the best gaming communities ever from uglies to fashion models.)

Just give me the fucking Orion Nebula, then give me what's behind the Orion Nebula, and give me more beyond that. That's all I want in a space sim.


I think Elite: Dangerous might do that? I know that nebulas represent real places within the game and you can go there; one early exploration mission some people undertake is to the coalsack, which isn't that far away. I think you actually can go over to the Orion nebula if you want. I think it might be a long, long way, though.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:43 PM on February 18


Mitrovarr appears to be correct.
posted by mwhybark at 10:32 PM on February 18


One thing I've been thinking about is whether there is a game where the fun and the point is in traveling. Exploring and finding new, interesting and exotic things, the same kick you'd get from visiting a foreign country, wandering through an unknown city, and so on. Can just exploration on its own be interesting enough for a game? Some of what you guys are saying above is that it isn't, there needs to be a story and some goals. But then what's the kick that I'm getting when I do go traveling? When I plan a vacation, I don't need a specific goal. I could just decide to spend a day wandering the old town, or biking through the countryside. And that would be very fulfilling to me, at least.

Maybe the reason why traveling in the real world has a sense of fulfilment is that besides for the natural wonder and beauty you might see, you also get to see a different culture and way of life. So every sight you see is grounded in a sense of history and lived experiences of people in the past and present. Is that what's missing from traveling through procedural worlds? Perhaps you need the history to be present and tangible, like the villagers will talk about the great earthquake which created a new mountain ridge, and you can go see the mountain ridge later on. I believe DF has something like that. i.e. its not just about creating a story for the player, but a history for the entire world.

Or maybe its not something you can really capture in a game, because ultimately you know that you're looking at something that is a simulacrum and is ultimately hollow?
posted by destrius at 11:37 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


If that procedural generation can handle things like planetary nebulas, compact-star jets, close binaries, nebulas sculpted by radiation, protostars, supernova remnants, along with superearths, hot jupiters, ring systems, and rogue planets, I'm in.

"Elite: Dangerous" has all of those things. All in motion too with the correct physics. (Except for FTL. Lots of FTL so you can get places :) )


I don't really agree with some of the broader criticisms about procedural generation, but in the case of No Mans Sky and Elite, an issue isn't so much the procedural generation, but the size of the resulting universe.
These simulations are so vast that they can't be generated once then stored (like minecraft does), so instead they have to be generated each time someone visits.
The inability to generate once then store the universe means that the game can't allow meaningful alterations to the environment with any permanence, because there isn't a stored version to alter, and trying to edit the rules of generation will break the rest of the universe. So any changes only last until the next visit when everything gets generated fresh again.
The inability for the environment to be changed restricts what kinds of gameplay it can support (contrast with minecraft where users can generate their own content by changing the environment. Much of the gameplay comes from making changes and from experiencing other people's changes).
A database of user-created names for things they have discovered works well enough for an environment so vast that it can't be stored (you only need to store the names, which are limited in scale with the userbase), and points of interest can similarly be overlaid (moon bases added to non-editable moons), but it gets tricky to make gameplay that makes players feel like they really inhabit the world, because for the most part their supposed presence can't leave any trace. (That's realistic at star-system scale, but less so once you're on the surface of a planet)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:13 AM on February 19


Can just exploration on its own be interesting enough for a game?

Definitely. Exploring procedurally-generated worlds is interesting for as long as the procedural generation rules can create things that surprise you, intrigue you, appeal to you, have value to you, etc. People say procedural is boring, but what they usually mean is "It got boring once I'd seen enough of the sights that new sights didn't feel unique any more... and it took me many hours of sight-seeing to get to that point".

That's kind of a running joke with Elite - there are a lot of Steam reviews for it that read pretty much like:

"DON'T BUY THIS GAME - IT'S EMPTY AND BORING AND DUMB!"
[Time that this user spent playing this game: 177 hours]


Or in the case of Borderlands, the game has a procedural system for generating weapons. Finding a better weapon gives a real advantage, so players were checking out weapons (often with interest and anticipation) for the entire length of the game. (The unending appeal was kind of ruined in Borderlands2 by adding a "golden key" promo codes (obtained outside the game) to the system. The publisher gave value to their promo codes by making them generate powerful weapons, but codes were plentiful enough that there was no shortage, so regular-strength weapons everywhere else in the game ceased to be worth looking at)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:31 AM on February 19 [6 favorites]


I'd imagine the problem of making modifications to a procedural world could be handled by something similar to a copy-on-write scheme (any parts that get changed become stored as non-procedural information), or some delta mapped onto the original. But that does mean that the more people change things, the more data you would have to store.

Definitely. Exploring procedurally-generated worlds is interesting for as long as the procedural generation rules can create things that surprise you, intrigue you, appeal to you, have value to you, etc. People say procedural is boring, but what they usually mean is "It got boring once I'd seen enough of the sights that new sights didn't feel unique any more... and it took me many hours of sight-seeing to get to that point".

Right... so what are the things that need to be generated in order to generate surprise, appeal and value? I've spent a lot of time wandering around in Minecraft, but eventually the thing that made me bored wasn't so much that the visuals started to look the same, but that the world eventually felt a bit empty and hollow; not enough signs of life. Granted this was before they added villages and who knows what else. And if you do add procedurally generated life, how do you actually make it interesting, as opposed to "ok another NPC who is doing X, just like the one in the previous city". I'm guessing it has to do with history; your don't just generate spatially, but temporally.
posted by destrius at 12:40 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


I'd imagine the problem of making modifications to a procedural world could be handled by something similar to a copy-on-write scheme (any parts that get changed become stored as non-procedural information), or some delta mapped onto the original. But that does mean that the more people change things, the more data you would have to store.

Beyond a certain level of world generation algorithmic complexity it becomes imperative strictly from a performance perspective to load from disk where possible. This is even more true if your world data involves a lot of cross-Region lookups (standard procedural voxel nomenclature, post-Minecraft: Chunk = rendering primitive, Region = filesystem primitive). Minecraft didn't have this problem, but if you're trying to do any primitive more complicated than totally uniform, totally discrete hulls it's worth taking the time to go in early on a pure async Region data i/o threadpool.

It can also help to maintain what amounts to a glorified heightmap storing the highest Z containing non-empty cells for that entire XY "column" of Regions. That way you can skip storage/generation/most viscalc above that Z.

I'm guessing it has to do with history; your don't just generate spatially, but temporally.

Not just the temporal in terms of structure/mise en scene, but also in terms of relationships and history your AIs have with each other, regardless of whether you were there to witness it. One of the better things Rimworld does is maintain a record of certain noteworthy events (defined as...check the XML for the game, it's all spelled out pretty explicitly how this works), and bring them up whenever AIs are painting or sculpting for the art descriptions. Ie a sculpture of Frida writhing in torment when that bastard surgeon sloppily installed a bionic arm.

Also, while I don't know of anybody really attempting this it *should* in theory be possible to codify rulesets for facades and styles of common architectural elements, to mix and match, or slowly transition between one set and another as one travels from the capital of one empire to a different, culturally distinct empire. Pascal Mueller's early CGA Shape grammar work here that eventually became CityEngine suggests a ton of possibilities in this direction.
posted by Ryvar at 1:33 AM on February 19 [4 favorites]


This reminds me of two things; first, Noctis, a beautifully lo-fi "game" with a procedurally generated universe of star to explore, stars have planets you can land on, different planets have different ecosystems (and strange procedurally generated monuments). Incredibly beautiful, but ultimately it all gets a bit samey.

Secondly, talking of Minecraft, notch's own now dead follow-up 0x10c. Again, procedurally generated universe, stars, planets to explore, again. Except he just couldn't make exploring that kind of universe as interesting and compelling as exploring a Minecraft world, and so wasted his time designing the virtual 8-bit computer your ship would run on.

I disagree with sentiments expressed above about Minecraft worlds getting boring. I've been playing since Alpha, and I still wander around a ridge and see a sunset over a mountain with lakes and fields and grazing sheep on the edge of a savannah and am awestruck by it. But, quite frankly, dots in space are so abstract and I don't think a space game like this can be truly compelling unless each planet is essentially a Minecraft world in itself to explore. Different Minecraft worlds. Ice-planet ones. Gas giant ones. Rocky moon ones. Just creating a galaxy and peppering it with some boring planets ain't going to cut it.
posted by Jimbob at 2:22 AM on February 19 [4 favorites]


I've spent a lot of time wandering around in Minecraft, but eventually the thing that made me bored wasn't so much that the visuals started to look the same, but that the world eventually felt a bit empty and hollow

Which is kind of an ironic comment since the thing that distinguishes Minecraft landscapes from those in most games is that they aren't hollow. When you wander around in Skyrim, Fallout, Just Cause, GTA, Far Cry, or the Witcher, the mountains you see are mostly hollow frames with pretty pictures painted on them (unless a developer happened to specifically put a cave or something inside).

In Minecraft, every mountain is built solid out of cubes representing various kinds of dirt, rock, minerals, lava, etc., and if it doesn't already have a cave inside, you can dig one out. (The individual cubes are hollow frames with pictures painted on them, though).
posted by straight at 2:23 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


"Elite: Dangerous" has all of those things. All in motion too with the correct physics. (Except for FTL. Lots of FTL so you can get places :) )

It has no jets, protostars aren't that much different from normal stars, and there's no rogue planets. Close binaries show no sort of Roche lobe distortion or overflow either, and it's arguable how much you get 'nebulas sculpted by radiation'. There's a few other things it is missing - accretion disks and comets particularly spring to mind.

I do love it though.
posted by edd at 2:53 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


In No Man’s Sky however, every star is a place that you can go. The universe is infinite. The edges extend out into a lifeless abyss that you can plunge into forever.

That phrase is a wild ride. YAYYY I LOVE... ohhh kill me please end it.
posted by odinsdream at 6:20 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]


What I want is Dwarf Fortress with a UI that isn't basically the drippy text green screen from The Matrix.

Gnomoria, yo.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:58 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty excited for No Man's Sky, though that's dependent on getting a good computer for it. There does seem to be some gentle mining and crafting to do, but just exploring is enough for me really. It's like poking around a fractal generator.

It would be really interesting to see some of this world and galaxy sized procedural generation concentrated down into a Kowloon Walled City sort of situation though. A million rooms instead of a million planets, crammed into a cubic kilometre that you can clamber around.
posted by lucidium at 7:06 AM on February 19 [5 favorites]


There does seem to be some gentle mining and crafting to do, but just exploring is enough for me really.

My biggest fear with this game, to be totally honest, is that they'll have spent too much time trying to gamify it, at which points it becomes just another Capitalism... In... SPAAAAAAAACE!!!! experience.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:19 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]


It's an audacious concept for a game, to be sure. So far, at least, they seem to be focusing on procedural generation as the main principle around which the game is designed. Not a play mechanic, not a narrative—but a world gen algorithm.

That's is probably out of necessity—they're reaching for ambitious, uncharted territory, and doing the never-before-done is necessarily going to consume a lot of their resources and focus.

Will it be enough to make the game fun? We won't know until we play it. It's a grand and expensive experiment. Sophisticated procedural generation is probably going to be a big part of the future of gaming. No Man's Sky will hopefully show us the extent to which today's technology is ready for it.

It might not be a perfect game from a gameplay perspective, but it's already a hella interesting game, and I'll buy it just to see what these crazy people were able to do, success or failure.

I do hope it's not a pure sandbox—most of my favorite games are heavily sandboxy, but even when sandbox games don't provide explicit goals, they need to provide implicit ones. Take Minecraft: the game doesn't tell you to do any particular thing, and doesn't really acknowledge when you do things—but the game design does provide an awesome variety of tasks that you can choose as goals for yourself. Find your first iron, then find your first diamond, then get enough diamonds to make a full suit of armor; make it into the Nether; find all the different types of seeds and get a self-sustaining farm going; domesticate the various animals; collect twelve Ender Pearls, find the End Portal, and kill the dragon; etc.

These are the "verbs" that MacD mentions. Sure, Minecraft is noted for its world gen algorithm, and that's a big part of its success. But the endless variety of things to do in the game is just crucial. Just wandering around looking at pretty things gets old eventually, no matter how pretty they are.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:46 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


When NMS is released, if anyone finds something fun to do in it, please post about it. I was excited about it right up 'til I saw the 'gameplay' trailers that didn't feature a game to play. I would so love to be wrong, though. It's gorgeous.
posted by Kreiger at 10:35 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]


Lots of wonderful insight in this thread, thank you everyone. And thanks for all the game suggestions, I'm still looking through most of them.

There are a number of narrative minded board games that rely on structured randomization...

Yes! So glad you brought up those games, I've played them both and they are great examples of attempts at random narrative... and the pitfalls of it (the criticisms you mention of both are spot on). I don't think I really have a mental model yet of where narrative and gameplay fit in relation to each other... part of me wonders if they are essential opposed. But I'm curious to explore how randomly generated stories, characters, relationships, can be used. Procedurally generated environments are so common these days (it's almost a rite of passage) that sometimes it seems like it's the only way we can generate content... but I hope it's more like just the tip of the iceberg.

"It got boring once I'd seen enough of the sights that new sights didn't feel unique any more... and it took me many hours of sight-seeing to get to that point"

Yes this is a spot on expansion of my earlier concerns. I love minecraft and got as much out of it as anyone. So maybe some of what I think of as "pitfalls" of procedural generation are perhaps better thought of as "eventual limits" of it. I love exploration, it's one of my favorite parts/rewards/experiences in games...

Right... so what are the things that need to be generated in order to generate surprise, appeal and value?

Great question, I wish I knew. I feel like I need to muse for a bit on the nature of exploration and try to put together a definition in my own mind of just what it is exactly. But I think the concept of, like, entropy (for lack of a better word) might apply. The idea of novelty. Of new.

And another question is, does what's out there matter as much as like what it's like to look for it? I think it does, to some extent. Although, I'm not sure... because I've gotten as much joy from finally reaching the top of a building in Thief or HL2 and being rewarded with an untextured roof as I have with uncovering, for example, a hidden puzzle in Braid, or a new quest in Morrowind. But if I wasn't looking for secrets, would I have attempted to scale those buildings? Maybe, but only because mountains call out to be climbed. But at that point is that still exploration? Or just a challenge for its own sake?

And if you do add procedurally generated life, how do you actually make it interesting, as opposed to "ok another NPC who is doing X, just like the one in the previous city".

My theory on this is what level of interaction you, as a player, can have on that world. How much can you affect it? Minecraft is wonderful, and part of why it was so revolutionary (I contend) is because you have so much control over the actual physical shape of the world. But you have markedly less ability to affect the fate of the villages you encounter (except to change how they look, and how many villagers live there).
posted by Flaffigan at 11:58 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]


Elite Dangerous is a prime example of the dangers of over-reliance on procedural generation. There's as much space as there is in actual space, but it's just so boring. There's no personality to any of it. Even the human-constructed bits of it are boring - you never get any feeling to what any of the spaceports are like. The culture is basically homogeneous.

Yeah, and this is my fear with NMS. When they're wetting themselves over physics as in:

We have people that will fly down from a space station onto a planet and when they fly back up, the station isn't there anymore; the planet has rotated. People have filed that as a bug

All I can think is "oh great, I can't wait to spend an hour trying to find the proper orbit to catch up to the space station."

Like, I already live in a universe where physics keeps me from doing a lot of fun things. I want games to remove that constraint, not add to it.
posted by lumpenprole at 12:25 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]


The expectations people have about how long a game should keep them interested and entertained seem weird and idiosyncratic to me. People will praise a narrative game that lasted 5 or 6 hours and then complain that they eventually got tired of Minecraft after a couple years.

How long would No Man's Sky have to keep you engaged to be worthwhile? I was happy wandering around in Proteus for a couple hours. I had a great time exploring the universe of Noctis off and on for a few days. I've got so many great games I haven't played, I think I'll be happy to explore the No Man's Sky galaxy for a while and then move on to something else.
posted by straight at 12:36 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]


No one's mentioned the pirates, and no one's mentioned the mystery that's further in to the centre of the galaxy. Jimbob mentioned Noctis!!
I liked Noctis, when I had a system old enough to play it. It was quiet, meditative. Go to a planet, look at the stats, make a guess as to atmosphere/gravity, land and see what was there. Put on some Jean Michel Jarre or Delerium or Orbital and it was all pretty and mellow.
I want to play No Mans Sky to get back to that. Land on a planet no one's seen, walk and look at things. The element of danger with the pirates / factions and the Sentinels means that all this exploration can have consequences (see the wiki page) beyond the fact that you're exploring an alien world and you're vulnerable so that you can lose your ship or your life (see the No Man's Sky site).
There's no "plot" in Kerbal Space Program either, just missions to build and explore, but the build and explore IS the plot, the reason you're in the game. The first time I put a Kerbal in orbit, I just sat there watching the planet turn beneath me and THAT was worth the $20 admission to the game. Flying to and landing on the Mun, Minmas, etc. are all added bonuses. I can't think of a plot that would lend itself to an entire galaxy of "...over 18 quintillion (1.8×1019) planets" (Wiki), so exploration, upgrades, the occasional fight, and vistas that are straight out of the Terran Trade Authority Handbooks are damned fine with me.
posted by Zack_Replica at 12:55 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]


I think it's useful to think of procedural generation techniques as existing along a spectrum where one end is simulation and the other end is mimicry. Simulation is concerned with creating rules that model a process, whereas mimicry is concerned with coming with a set of rules that approximates the end result. For example, reaction diffusion textures [pdf] are a simulation oriented approach, whereas Perlin noise is a mimicry oriented one.

Mimicry is faster since it directly produces the end result without having to simulate its evolution over time, and it's easier for artists to work with and tweak since it's much more predictable than a simulation. While mimicry can work very well as an artistic tool, if left unsupervised it tends to produce predictable and boring results: once you've seen one randomly generated Perlin noise landscape you've pretty much seen them all.

So one reason I am skeptical of No Man's Sky is that in order to scale up to its MAX_INT64 planets it pretty much has to go all in on unsupervised mimicry, and while its carefully selected screenshots are indeed beautiful, the risk is that all the planets will be superficial variations of each other with no real surprises. Elite Dangerous suffers from this issue: it has some very beautiful planets, once you've seen four or five systems you've pretty much seen everything it is capable of producing.
posted by Pyry at 3:18 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]


I hope I don't seem like I'm being too negative, I'm very hopeful about NMS and think it's the kind of game I would make if I could.

I'm very interested in game design in general, and a lot of my comments are from the perspective of looking for ways to design better games myself.

For me it's not about being disappointed in the time spent in a game, but looking for ways for a game to be the most it can be.
posted by Flaffigan at 3:24 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


I disagree with sentiments expressed above about Minecraft worlds getting boring. I've been playing since Alpha, and I still wander around a ridge and see a sunset over a mountain with lakes and fields and grazing sheep on the edge of a savannah and am awestruck by it.

I do still feel the same in Minecraft, when I witness some really spectacular landscape, but to me it's a different kind of boring... like some kind of depressing ennui and loneliness, that you are alone in a vast universe. I kind of like the melancholy for a while, but eventually it starts to eat at me and I need to go find somebody to hug or something. (For some reason I feel that when I played Civ 2 as well. Maybe I'm just weird.)

Multiplayer would probably solve a lot of these problems, in that you would get to see the handiwork of past players in the landscape (old huts, random sculptures, etc.), but player-created stuff isn't procedurally generated. Can you algorithmically generate the same thing without needing actual humans to do the creating?
posted by destrius at 8:05 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


I think Spore had the solution. Make a creature / object creator which is not only easy to use but fun, and its use is integrated into the game. And then pass those creations to thousands / millions of other players. While most Spore players weren't great artists, their creations still had a sense of personality and being "purpose-built" in a way which procedural can't match. It's a pity Spore wasn't much of a game and its influence was muted.

But I would love to see that sort of thing made widely available in other games. Or a cross-pollination. For example: a sandbox's saved game becomes the level in a completely different game. I'm currently dividing my gameplay time between Cities: Skylines and Euro Truck Simulator. I've started to wish the two studios would form an unlikely partnership and allow my cities to become the world map in the truck sim, and I'd have to plot best routes on the labyrinth of highways and no-truck neighborhoods I threw together on the fly. It would make my city feel more real, and I can imagine other players building great challenges. Make a delivery in 5 minutes across a city designed to maximize gridlock.

Having the fortress you built in DF become a ruined dungeon in adventure mode is also a great example of this. I can imagine a future implementation of Dungeon Keeper where the user-built dungeons are repurposed as levels in some roguelikes. And then player deaths in those levels give gold / rewards to the DK sandbox player.
posted by honestcoyote at 8:52 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


If anybody knows what that thing is, I'd love to find out. I feel like I've been looking for it since like crappy DOS adventure games and the NES.

When I was a kid, we called that thing "going outside".
posted by flabdablet at 10:19 PM on February 19


at this point I've been treating NMS with the same sadness/disregard I have for HL3 - I will absolutely fall in love with it when it happens, but I'm at the stage where I don't care anymore and have zero expectations left.

I used to actively participate in their FB group, but it rapidly devolved into most of us making jokes about release date, and tangents into semi-related nerd scifi gamer nonsense, and it became wearying. nowadays I mostly have to tell FB "no, I do not want to see this."

/wanders off to play Fallout4 and/or Destiny.
posted by dorian at 7:52 AM on February 20


I'm currently dividing my gameplay time between Cities: Skylines and Euro Truck Simulator. I've started to wish the two studios would form an unlikely partnership and allow my cities to become the world map in the truck sim, and I'd have to plot best routes on the labyrinth of highways and no-truck neighborhoods I threw together on the fly.

This was one of the many great things about SimCity 2000, namely that you could import your cities into SimCopter and fly around them doing missions. So you may be interested to know that C:S has a copter mod on Steam Workshop! No missions, though, and it doesn't seem to be supported any longer (though I have heard that it still worked as of the last pre-Snowfall patch).

at this point I've been treating NMS with the same sadness/disregard I have for HL3 - I will absolutely fall in love with it when it happens, but I'm at the stage where I don't care anymore and have zero expectations left.

Unlike HL3, NMS does have a release date, though. It's supposed to be out this June.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:59 AM on February 20


While most Spore players weren't great artists, their creations still had a sense of personality and being "purpose-built" in a way which procedural can't match.

"If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that the Creator has an inordinate fondness for dongs."
posted by straight at 11:24 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


Also, I think honestcoyote has just hit upon the "Most Animals Don't Look Like Giant Dongs" refutation of the hypothesis that we live inside a computer simulation that is our universe.
posted by straight at 11:28 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]


Also, I think honestcoyote has just hit upon the "Most Animals Don't Look Like Giant Dongs" refutation of the hypothesis that we live inside a computer simulation that is our universe.

Maybe most animals do look like giant alien dongs! Why would you think the simulation's programmers would have the same shape genitalia as us?
posted by aubilenon at 11:55 AM on February 20


When I was a kid, we called that thing "going outside".

It's funny, because I've been thinking about this a little bit throughout the thread. Hiking in a video game probably isn't fun. You press forward. There's no real challenge. You're just looking at stuff, and if it's procedurally generated then it's maybe not even necessarily interesting (or, who knows, maybe it is).

A hike in real life is strenuous. You have challenges. And, importantly, a hike is designed. Someone cut a trail through somewhere, and they probably did it for some reason. Nature took care of the rest, like growing the trees or eroding the rocks, but someone cut a path through the interesting shit. In fact, a lot of our experiences in nature are designed. A cornfield is sort of procedurally generated: you put seeds down in a row and you see what happens. However, a cornfield isn't interesting to explore: it's flat, it's samey, and unless you're really into corn, then there's not much to get out of it (well, maybe playing hide and seek in it).

I guess that one question you can ask about whether a specific procedurally generated experience is successful: is it a hike, or is it a cornfield?
posted by codacorolla at 6:34 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Hiking in a video game probably isn't fun.

On a particularly slow day at a student job over spring break I circumnavigated the island in Morrowind for no reason other than I had nothing better to do. I'm not sure every minute was exactly fun, but the experience overall was, probably. Ish.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:09 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]


"From the title I thought this might have been bad science journalism, but upon clicking the link, I found it is bad gaming journalism!"

It's both!
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:34 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]


re: 'going outside' in the larger sense of the wor(l)d :P
-A Conversation with the Inventor of Spark[*]
-Meet Improbable, The Startup Building The World's Most Powerful Simulations
-Rethinking how we predict where the economy is going
“The basic idea in complex systems is that the whole is greater than sum parts and that, in particular, it can be dramatically different than the sum of its parts,” said Doyne Farmer, one of the paper’s authors and the director of Complexity Economics at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School...

He said economic models should better reflect that complexity and interconnectivity. He points to a model he’s working on of the housing market in the United Kingdom, which simulates the actions of 5,000 to 10,000 households that reflect the country’s age and income demographics.

“We try to capture the decision making of each individual household about their savings, and consumption, and in particular about how they house themselves,” he said, building rules into the model that would even predict whether the individuals would qualify for loans.

The collective behavior of those individuals then give a sense of the broader housing market.

Farmer proposes economists create similar models for the rest of the economy, including the banking and financial services industry, as well households and firms.
procedurally generating agents NPCs?

just (v.loosely) connecting some dots!
posted by kliuless at 1:23 PM on February 21 [1 favorite]


I actually played Spore more than it deserved. Terrible game but the procedurally generated landscapes mixed with the player-created creatures was really beautiful. Played it long enough to get several hundred (or thousand) creatures downloaded. Very, very few dongs in the group. Either Maxis had a moderation team working to keep them out, or, more likely, people didn't find them very interesting to make. I know the game has the stereotype for a reason, but not all that true in actual play.

Hiking in a game is actually fun. No reason why it has to be dreary. Sometimes, when I can't sleep, I'll fire up Minecraft on my ipad, turn off monsters, generate a new world and just explore for a while. Makes for a great walking simulation. Skyrim, with Frostfall and a handful of different survival mods, is also great fun. Buy supplies, stock up on everything you need, take the long route through the mountains, huddle up in a tent in the midst of a massive blizzard, and eventually make your way to a warm pub on the other end. Something very satisfying about that.
posted by honestcoyote at 7:38 AM on February 22 [3 favorites]




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