Procedural Generation in Gaming

Procedural Generation in Gaming

The long-awaited release of No Man’s Sky is upon us and journalists have had their review copies for a number of days now. The game developed by British developer Hello Games has been highly anticipated ever since its debut in 2013 with the promise of an almost infinite universe to explore. In fact, if you visited each planet in No Man’s Sky for just one second it would take five billion years to fully explore. Making each planet individually would be a monumental if not impossible task so the game uses a different method of creating this vast universe: procedural generation.

Procedural generation is a method of producing data using an algorithm, a mathematical set of step-by-step operations. The advantage of procedural generation in gaming is that you can create more content with less physical data. This results in more variety, randomness and unpredictability. One particular example of procedural generation in games is to create maps in games such as Minecraft. Rather than create a vast Minecraft world manually, Mojang Studios uses the procedural generation to automatically generate varied worlds populated with many different assets that can be customized to a lesser degree by players.


A Short History of Procedural Generation in Gaming

Procedural generation is something that has been used to a lesser extent in gaming for many years. One of the earliest examples is a dungeon crawler game called Rogue developed by Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman in 1980. The game was inspired by classic text adventure games and the likes of Dungeons and Dragons. The objective of the game is to make your way through a dungeon fighting monsters and gathering treasures. Once you reach the bottom level players retrieve an amulet and ascend to the surface. Each dungeon was procedurally generated to ensure a completely random map each time you played.

Procedural Generation

Rogue became a big hit in the 1980’s particularly with computer programmers and college students and a number of ‘roguelike’ games appeared as other developers tried to imitate the success of the Unix-based hit. Nowadays, the term ‘roguelike’ has become a sub genre of RPG’s and has extended beyond the RPG genre too. Many other early games used similar systems such as Telengard would go on to influence significant games such as Diablo which also featured procedurally generated dungeons albeit in a 3D space rather than 3D.

Procedural Generation

In more modern times, procedural generation has been used in more ambitious ways. The 2008 game Spore from Maxis used it as you guided a species from microscopic life to a space-faring civilization. The developers used procedural generation to generate body parts which players use to create their species at various stages of the game. Strategy games such as Civilization V benefit from procedural generation to create random maps which adds a huge amount of replayability to their games whereas titles such as FTL: Faster Than Light use procedurally generated events to give players different challenges each time they play as they guide their spacecraft through various space sectors.


No Man’s Sky and Procedural Generation

No Man’s Sky is certainly a very ambitious game and its procedural generation is at the heart of that ambition. Procedural generation is used on a scale not previously seen before in video games as entire planets have been randomly generated. On each planet there are procedurally generated plants, animals, structures and landscapes. Players can discover and name planets and species. This is one of the reasons for such hype and excitement from the gaming community. The sheer potential of the universe Hello Games have created for gamers to explore is enormous and it will be interesting to see how the game evolves through updates over the coming years and what, if any, impact the game has on procedural generation moving forward.


The Future of Procedural Generation in Gaming

As game worlds become bigger, procedural generation may become more widespread in game development. That’s not to say that procedural generation will replace traditional game design though as artists and designers are still needed to create assets for the game regardless of if there is random generation or not. Nevertheless, this method of game design on a grand scale such as in No Man’s Sky still feels relatively new in the mainstream and the potential gameplay reward from a limitless number of places to explore and things to do is very enticing indeed.

What do you think of the use of procedural generation in games?

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