Wednesday 1 September 2010

Proceduralism: Part Five (Perspectives)

[You'll probably want to read the original article series that inspired this follow up, then start with parts one, two, three and four of this series.]

It is easy to conflate procedural content generation with sandbox play and emergence where these should be seen as three separate properties which often coincide in games which feature procedural content generation. If you consider an actual sandbox by way of analogy, a game without procedural content generation is like coming to a sandbox every day that has been raked over and smoothed out. With procedural content generation, you instead find the sand furloughed and heaped in piles in a way that may or may not be randomly distributed but is different every day. (Emergence in this example is having the castles you build fall over when they get too high).

In this procedural sandbox, you may choose to ignore what you find and start over, ascribe the distribution of sand to a preexisting external agency (the actions of the last kid to play in the box yesterday, an earthquake overnight) or invest in an imaginative world building exercise to justify what you find. The concept of repeated play is also important: the first time you come to the sandbox, it is not clear whether the sand is heaped just so because someone intended it that way, or from a process with no underlying intent.

It is the storytelling component of this example which highlights for me the importance of perspective in procedural content generation. When we tell stories, we do so most effectively when we put ourselves in the shoes of someone in that story, which is why games with a single avatar feel more procedural than games with multiple units. The concept of authorship could also explain the procedural uncanny effect I noted: we are building up the concept of a single author providing this story, and in the high fidelity example, anything that dispels your suspension of disbelief also damages your construction of the author behind the story.

The authorship conceit is not the only explanation for the uncanny valley effect: it may be low fidelity play engages us on a more childish level, but high fidelity play corresponds to our inner adult. It would be interesting to rerun this Neverwinter Nights scenario with a child playing the game rather than an adult and see if the reactions are similar.

But I don't think the attraction of procedural generation is solely about forcing us to make up stories. Stories also have a function which is to present a series of what-ifs. And you don't have to invest in an underlying narrative to react to what-ifs in game play. You have to engage your inner explorer.

In part six, I look at building worlds to explore.


The Mad Tinkerer said...

I came up with a premise for a roguelike the other day(which I probably will not use, other than maybe a more detailed write-up in my weblog): Lord Stoneheart's Ever-Changing Dungeon.

The opening cinematic goes something like this:

NARRATOR: Lord Stoneheart was once the terrifying Black Knight, feared by all adventurers who crossed his path. Those he suspected of being unworthy of the riches adventuring would bring, he would challenge to single combat. For decades he was rarely defeated, and eventually he retired to Stoneheart castle...

(Stoneheart castle interior)

Stoneheart: Zog, I am bored. let us go out and see the current state of the world.

(Zog is some kind of goblin/imp/minion type creature)

Zog: Yiss, masturrr.

(SH and Zog walk into a tavern, not far from the castle. A shining knight and a gnome sorceress walk in right afterwards.)

Waitress: What will it be, gentlemen?

SH: My, these prices are a bit high! 3 gilders for a goblet of mead?

Zog: I remembur when 3 gildursss could feed my famuly for a yeaurr.

Waitress: Sorry, my lord, the economy has become terribly inflated by all the treasure in circulation.

Knight: Ho! What a haul! Three thousand gilders, three legendary weapons, all nine gargoyles for the Nine-Gargoyle Quest, 200 Reputation Points, and a nice herb rack. Standard lewt split?

Sorceress: Fine with me, but who gets the extra weapon?

Knight: Well we have a sword, a scepter, and an orb. You're the only one who can use the scepter and the orb, so you can have them.

Sorceress: Let's see, this is the Everlasting Scepter of Lars Langdon, and this is the Gleaming Orb of Perpetual Beauty. Meh. I already have better stuff. Disenchant!

(the scepter and orb disintegrate into silvery dust.)

Sorceress: I think I'll have the spice rack instead.

SH: (stands up and pulls back his cloak.) How dare you!?! Lars was one of the greatest wizards of his generation! That orb was priceless!

Sorceress: Oh come on, it wasn't even +5 to comeliness. I doubt I'd get a hundred gilders for it at the auction house. Besides, grandad, disenchanting keeps the towns from being buried in junk. I can craft better stuff in my sleep!

Knight: My lord, this isn't like the old days where you were lucky to see one legendary item; these days we're tripping over them even in goblin warrens and skeleton crypts.

SH: Well I think it's time to bring the old days back, with a vengeance! (crack of thunder) Zog, to the castle!

Narrator: And so Stoneheart returned to his castle, to design the most devious dungeon ever. A dungeon that none could cheat their way through by looking at maps. A dungeon that only the worthiest could survive by their wits alone; and because it was an ever-changing dungeon, their wits would be put to the test every time. Lord Stoneheart's Ever-Changing Dungeon.

The Mad Tinkerer said...

Blogger complained about the length of my comment, so I'll just sum up the back-story in the context of the gameplay:

Stoneheart has essentially invented the roguelike for real (from his perspective) because adventuring has become too easy, and this is causing problems throughout the land. The Ever-Changing Dungeon is different for each adventurer, stingy with the lewt, and contains many overt and subtle puzzles for the adventurers to overcome. Adventurers are thrown into the dungeon with a few scraps of unflattering clothing and the bare minimum of survival gear. The dungeon is harsh and designed to weed out the unworthy, but those who are worthy will be well rewarded.

Also: permadeath. Stoneheart feels easy resurrection with no penalties is part of what has made adventuring too easy. So "rezzing" is impossible in the dungeon. Muahahaha.

Basically it's justifying all the standard roguelike tropes in one character for those who are used to WoW, Diablo, and similar games.

nfitzgerald said...

After reading this series and your previous "Death of an Level Designer", I wanted to thank you for your wonderful overview of PCG.

My latent interest in PCG was triggered recently when I was at PAX and attended a panel consisting of Richard Garfield (inventor of Magic: The Gathering) and members of Wizards of the Coast on the topic of Pen and Paper vs. Computer RPGs. They basically talked about the obvious things: the advantage of a GM-run pen and paper RPG is that the players are not constrained to pre-defined scripts as they are in a typical computer game, but can choose to do anything, bounded only by the GM's ability to react and create new content on the fly. It occurred to me that the future of computer games should really be in bringing these capabilities to the computer, through PCG. Incidentally, when I suggested this to Mr. Garfield he said "if video game designers put half as much effort into developing procedural techniques as they do into art and level design we could have something truly special."

When I went to do some research on this area, I was amazed by how hard it is to find information on PCG. There seems to be not a single book written on the subject (if you know of one I would be grateful!) This article series, and the PCG wiki have been a great resource, again thank you!

I am a senior in university studying artificial intelligence. I intend to research cognitive architectures in grad school, an area which I feel has great potential to contribute to PCG techniques. What I envision is a sort of AI Gamesmaster, which is responsible for reacting to player choices, and generating any new content which may be required.

Thanks again for your excellent articles!

Andrew Doull said...

nfitzgerald: You're welcome.

As always, please direct your obvious enthusiasm and energy to helping out with the PCG wiki...