A few weeks ago, the long-awaited No Man’s Sky arrived into the hands of many a Playstation and PC player, hyped up on Sean Murray’s promises for one of the most ambitious games of the year. Promises, it seemed, which were proven false. The game released to fairly bog-standard reviews, many critics praising it for its gorgeous aesthetic design, but also criticised its complete inability to show any kind of variation in its gameplay, claiming the game leans too much on its promise of an infinitely generated span of planets across the universe. And therein lies the problem with No Man’s Sky, and many games being released nowadays: it has an over-reliance on its procedurally generated worlds.
Now, that’s not to say procedural generation is a bad thing; far from it, in fact. There is plenty of examples of the method being used for good. For example, take Minecraft. (Gasp! Oh my goodness, hey actually admitted to liking M-M-M-Minecraft!) Okay, we all like to pretend that we no longer like Minecraft, and in some cases we never did and that’s completely fine, but those of us who fit in to that category probably still secretly like it. I know I do. While I don’t go back to it very often anymore, I do love it regardless. It was one of the first games I adored, and it introduced me to a whole new, sometimes cancerous but mostly lovely, community. However, what I really loved about the game was its seemingly infinite possibilities. You could drop into a snow biome rich in diamonds and gold in one playthrough, experience the thrill of exploring creepy underground mineshafts in another… it was simply indescribable at the time. On occasion, I like to load up that little grass block icon and explore the twisting, turning network of caves that runs under the ground, soaking in the atmosphere, living for the tension. While the environments do become a bit samey after a while, the caves themselves never truly feel the same. However, if wandering the deepest depths of Minecraft isn’t your style (somehow), then there’s resources a-plenty up on ground level, no matter which biome you’re in (excluding desert). Minecraft is designed in such a way that you can’t lose. Biomes are placed within a short walk of each other, so environmental variation isn’t difficult to achieve. Underground, random occurrences may appear (the aforementioned abandoned mineshafts, massive caverns spanning hundreds, if not thousands of blocks, huge pools of spitting lava which could set your playthrough back hours if not taken with considerable caution), keeping the game continuously varied and interesting for a very long time. Regardless, while this is one of the larger, more marketed game mechanics, Minecraft is mostly best-known for its endless complexity in building, crafting, gathering, and ust simply, playing. Imagination comes first, PCG is added on as extra candy.
Example #2: The Binding of Isaac. This just so happens to be one of my favourite games of all time, and its randomly generated environments play a part in this. The way this game utilises procedural elements is much the same way as Minecraft, but with very different gameplay. TBOI is a top-down bullet-hell tear-shooter, so the player is constantly on edge, on their toes, eager to see what awaits them, and the use of procedural generation keeps enemy encounters fresh, spontaneous and always so damn satisfying. In terms of power-ups, it’s all down to luck. Some will find all the best perks and then some, others will uncover next to nothing; it’s simply luck of the draw. However, your character is designed in such a way that you could technically complete a playthrough without picking up a single power-up. They are advantageous, but not necessary. PCG is used as a tool, not a mandatory aspect of the gameplay.
Another way PCG can be used is to add optional content to an already hand-crafted environment. Take Bloodborne, From Software’s new IP on the PS4, a game notorious for its fantastic level design and challenging gameplay. This kind of game requires a steady hand, a well thought out universe with deep lore, hidden pathways and boss battles and checkpoints in just the right places for the play to feel difficult but never unfair. However, in the hub world in Bloodborne, there is an option to explore procedurally generated dungeons and encounter new challenges and enemies. Not only does this give the player some breathing space to try something new that isn’t the main game, it allows time for training to become a better player, without the feeling of grinding. This also avoids grinding in earlier stages of the main world, which avoids that predicament entirely. It offers a new perspective on the game, and thus provides a better time for the player. And, once again, PCG is used as optional, not mandatory.
Now take No Man’s Sky, a game which also contains procedurally generated worlds, albeit in a much more literal sense of the word “worlds”. It randomly creates entire planets with their own day/night cycles, climates and materials. It sounds incredible, but its problems is that things get stale very, very fast. All there is to be done is walk, collect and occasionally save, but nothing more. It uses PCG as a crutch, its main marketing strategy. If you think of No Man’s Sky, you likely recollect upon Sean Murray stating again and again and again, ‘there’s infinite, randomly generated planets and galaxies.’ While that is indeed impressive in its own right, is it really enough to justify the game’s retail price at launch?
Fun challenge: look past that aspect of No Man’s Sky, that one huge thing, that one area that has fanboys DDOSing websites giving their precious game a bad name and ask yourself this:
Is there really anything else to it?