< published August 19, 2013

Procedural Generation Is Not A Silver Bullet

There are some folks out yonder who believe procedural generation of video game content increases replayability unconditionally, and thus somehow always adds to the fun factor, which is simply not true.

Procedural generation, specifically when applied to game level design, is the concept and process of letting algorithms generate your levels, where humans would normally take over. This applies not only to levels, but to character stats, loot, quests, et cetera.

I will meagerly try to convince you that procedural generation is not the end-all-be-all of game design, which most of you should already know.

Myths about Procedural Generation

I defer to my next point.

It's hard for procedural generation to generate well-crafted, memorable levels by itself. It usually needs some sort of human intervention, which isn't possible in purely randomly generated games.

Memorable levels serve as a sort of memory landmark when you recall the game. Do you remember levels from your favorite games? From Doom? Super Mario World? Alright, what about Nethack? You might remember specific instances you had, but without the seed used to generate that world, you might never see it again.

Unless your game is centered around purely randomly-generated levels, procedural generation is useful in combination with human editing. Take for example Bethesda - their The Elder Scrolls series uses procedural generation to generate the initial terrain and dungeons, and then human designers go in, smooth it out, and add memorable landmarks. There are even procedural quests, with objectives that are seemingly chosen from a finite list.

Certainly, It Can Work

It's not all bad, though! Games which are inherently founded upon randomness, such as roguelikes or even some "die-and-retry" shooters, can benefit greatly from random levels.

Games whose levels or gameplay are based upon input provided from the user, such as audio files in the case of Audiosurf, are right up the procedurally generated alley. These games usually focus on rigid and fun gameplay rather than tweaking their procedural algorithms forever, though.

It can be used to a great degree in small components of the game, such as random loot generation, or randomized stats (the Borderlands series is an example of both.)

Procedural generation isn't a silver bullet, but it is an extremely useful tool in your game design toolbox.