The platonic Procedural Content Generation algorithm allows you to create entire universes by pressing a button:
We're not quite there yet, because it turns out to be a tough problem, but in this article, we wanted to offer a few thoughts that might bring us one step closer.
Procedural Content Generation (PCG) -- the algorithmic creation of anything from background scenery to symphonies to storylines -- is a compelling idea, right?
Manually creating gaming worlds takes time, and storing it all takes massive gobs of space. Since the days of Starflight and Elite, developers have worked towards getting computers to the point where they can be boundlessly creative.
Broadly, developers often lean on PCG for three reasons:
It allows us to empower creators to produce content more quickly.
It allows a game to react to players in real-time in ways otherwise impossible.
It allows us to reduce the on-disk footprint of content.
We also find that there's another, hidden benefit:
It allows us to become more creative through experimentation.
In this article, we'll talk about PCG's history, problems, solutions, and methods we've discovered while using it in our 2009 title, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (Aaaaa! for short) and our upcoming 1... 2... 3... KICK IT! -- Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby (aka Ugly Baby).
Spoiler: We favor a modular, graph-based system to benefit from the upsides of PCG while mitigating some downsides. That's it in a nutshell. You are now free to either read the rest of the article or become the leader of a pack of Alaskan Malamutes.
Successes in Games
First off, there's some evidence that PCG is actually viable/useful, despite sometimes seeming like the flying car -- forever in sight, but never (yet) practical.
Rogue! It's still a great example of procedurally generated content in games. Created around 1980, the game empowered the computer, itself, to generate a fantasy world as you played, building subterranean rooms and twisty passages and populating them with (pre-created) potions, enemies, and weapons. This style of dungeon creation is successful (Hack, Moria, Larn, Nethack, Angband, Dungeon Siege, Dungeon Siege II, Diablo, Diablo II, and Diablo III, to name just a few), and relatively well-investigated, with many developers creating roguelikes and many resources for roguelike development.
We couldn't do an article on PCG without talking about Rogue, but we're using a screenshot from Temple of Apshai Trilogy for the ST instead, just to be different.
On a galactic sale, Starflight (1986) and its sequel gave us dozens of star systems and hundreds of worlds to explore. Each system contained a number of planets, and each planet was assigned a number of characteristics (surface temperature, gravity, weather, atmosphere, hydrosphere).
What was particularly amazing for the time was that you could land your planetary module on any number of these and explore winding coastlines and mountains, populated by mineral deposits (aluminum, molybdenum, and a dozen others) and living organisms (sessile and mobile), with density and type depending on elevation and planet type. The original could all fit on a double-sided 5.25" floppy. Braben/Bell's classic Elite (1984) is, perhaps, even better known for creating eight galaxies worth of planets you could fly and trade within.
Starflight 2 even included villages you could trade with.
More recently, Sporedemonstrated procedural model generation and animation. Here, players could tweak the length and girth of a creature's bones, add limbs, eyes, ears, wings, and so forth, making creativity a part of gameplay.
Creature generation in Spore.
And .kkrieger wowed the world some years back by stuffing an entire first-person shooter into less disk space than this article.
.kkrieger, which uses only 97,280 bytes on disk.
PCG's been used throughout the history of games, and is still being used today. Surely, it should be used for everything...