Procedurally Generated Panic

Rogue, Binding of Isaac, Minecraft, Terraria, Diablo, FTL. What do these games have in common? “They’re all incredible” I imagine Ntac saying. Well, Maybe not Diablo, he hates Activision. They all use one form of procedural level design or another. This time around, for my second ever essay, we will be talking about this “new” craze of procedural level generation. I know, big subject for round 2, that’s why I put Guile’s theme into my playlist for this. Sorry, mates. It says in the Home panel that this blog is aimed at developers. That’s how I can go from a mercurial subject like horror to such a technical subject as level design, or should I say, a specific form of level design.

Now, at the beginning of this essay you see a list of games, they are there because they are all excellent examples of procedural content generation. Yes, even Diablo, actually, especially Diablo. I plan on talking about each and every one of them before I put down my pen (keyboard?). After I’ve looked at the role of procedural generation in each of these games, I will postulate why procedural level generation is becoming so popular amongst so many developers, from indie studios to some AAA studios.

Before I start, I have a quote from myself: “Mom, do I strike you as an individual who does anything because it’s polite?” some of these things aren’t going to be nice. In fact, I can already hear Ntac going off on me in his southern twang over 1 or 2 points in this essay. My answer to him is as follows: you asked for this essay, you asked for facts and opinions, I promise no glowing accolades and I promise no foul slander, I offer only observations. So there you have it. Now, let us dive directly into the subject matter.

Lets start near the end of that list. I know few of you continued reading after I stated Diablo used procedural content. I stand by my statement. Go play Diablo 2 or 3 for an hour or so and tell me that some of the gear you drop isn’t ‘procedural’. Tell me that some of the yellow and blue enemies don’t have the fiendish twists and quirks you can only get from truly random generation. Is the rage out of your system? Okay, lets talk business. Diablo 2 introduced procedurally generated rare mobs to the equation of the average dungeon crawler. Some of these enemies were truly fiendish in design. I once fought a rare in Diablo 2 with Immune to Magic, Immune to Physical. The only way to harm this beast was to slam it with elemental damage such as Fire, Frost, Electricity and Poison. I was on my Hammerdin (that’s a paladin that has pumped ridiculous points into the Hammer spell, which is magic damage). Needless to say, that guy took me forever to kill with just the pings of fire damage on my mace. I eventually gave up because 10 minutes into the fight he was 25% down. Here, procedural content is used to make random spikes in content difficulty. Yes, there were a few dungeons in every act that appeared randomly to create the aesthetic of a living world, but the procedural aspect was wielded to it’s fullest by the monster generation. The game appealed to the explorer in me because I never knew if I was going to walk around a corner and get slammed by a Lightning-enhanced enemy (those were Hell for me, had nightmares about fighting those guys). There were complaints about how some rare mobs were just unfair to fight, but I believe in my heart that these sudden hikes in difficulty only made the loot you get in Hell difficulty worth the work.

“Dudebro, you said this was going to be about procedural content. How come I’ve only heard about random loot and monsters? Shouldn’t you be talking about Minecraft by now?” Well, reader of questionable intellect, I would love to get to Minecraft, but there is such a thing as escalation, if I jumped straight to the current pinnacles of form what would be the point of you continuing to read? Terraria, Minecraft, FTL, these are wonderful games, especially if you are a lover of procedu— that is really painful to write over and over again. How to shorten that. PLG? No, that sounds rather generic, plus, not all procedural methods refer to levels or maps. PCG, Procedural Content Generation. Good ring, but I would like something with a bit more style. ProGen, ProGen content, ProGen levels, ProGen gear. Much better. I think I hear my Aunt Pam singing Edelweiss in the background. I should get back to work.

The next game I would like to discuss here is Rogue, the first true ProGen game. I admit, I have never played Rogue, I wasn’t that savvy. That’s why I read, a lot. Rogue used progen for almost everything. Maps, progen. Monster packs, progen. The only thing that wasn’t progen was the stats of the monsters themselves. Here, Progen was used as something of a shorthand.

Okay, programmers, I love you guys. If it wasn’t for you we would be playing D&D and a single encounter would be an all-day affair (I’ve been in dozens of campaigns that broke up over a rules dispute, some of which were my fault). That being said, progen in games like Rogue was used because programmers make really bad level designers. Yes, we can talk all we want about proof of concept and experimentation, but be honest. Necessity is the mother of invention. Would we have come up with a way to make a computer do level design if we had any idea how to do it ourselves? I think not. There’s a reason why Pacman has 256 virtually identical levels. Progen in Rogue was used because the developers had no idea how to make a dungeon and no one to do the art.

“This guy clearly hates progen content, why are we reading this? I’m removing him from my bookmarks.” I admit, you have me. Progen is not my favorite means of game design. It is excellent for making insanely hard games and every game could benefit from some progen elements, but progen falls horribly short in some of my favorite parts of video games. To me, a game can be made or broken by it’s plot, I’ve fought through some dull as dishwater combat systems to see a really good message or story (Tales of Symphonia, OFF, I’m looking at you lot). Everyone who’s played Stanley Parable realizes that writing a coherent story gets to be really difficult if you can’t streamline the direction your players are going. This stands doubly true if you cant even streamline the direction your levels go. Imagine Mario with progen… actually that could be pretty awesome. Regardless, everyone here can likely mention 1 (if only one) game where progen content hurt the experience.

Here’s a game you might not have played, F.aster T.han L.ight. Ill wait for everyone to stop laughing. We good? Good. FTL is one of my favourite (yes, I think the word looks better English style) examples of progen content done right. FTL is a perfect example of mechanic as metaphor (that’s for another essay, everyone take a drink). In this game, progen content is implemented not only to add challenge or to add replayability, here, progen content is part of the story itself.

Here I would like to pause and go over the story. A galactic empire lead by a faceless but menacing emperor has conquered the galaxy. There is a small association of worlds that stand in open defiance of this galactic federation. You play a scout running from an incoming offensive. You must do what you must, fight, steal, flee, all in order to reach the resistance base before your father shows up with the Death Star and wipes everyone out. Wait, strike that, no Death Star, no father, but same basic principle. Here, the progen mechanic is implemented into the zones you visit. Every zone you go through could be friendly, could be hostile, could be neutral. I’ve even run into a few zones claiming to be friendly right before I got slammed with imperial drone fighters Cloud City style (I swear I’m almost done with the Star Wars jokes).

In my first essay I stated briefly that video games have a unique way of putting you in the mind of it’s characters (future essay, take a drink). This is an excellent example. If you are a smuggler, rebel, or spy you have no idea what’s in the next room 90% of the time. There is no pre-mission recon; you are the pre-mission recon, and FTL captures that perfectly. Regardless of the claims on the map select screen, you are going into each individual map completely blind. In this situation, progen content is used to create that mystery. I’ve spent far more time on the level select screen deciding the next system I would visit than was likely necessary. I’m sure many of you have too.

Now, 2 segments ago I stated that everyone can imagine 1 game that was hurt by it’s progen content. I am no exception, my game is Binding of Isaac. “What in the name of Isaac’s Mom are you talking about. That game was amazing! You are so off my bookmark tab.” Just wait a second. I’m not saying Binding of Isaac was bad. I’m not even saying I didn’t like it. The game was one of those low-budget masterpieces. If we had a Sundance Film Festival, then Binding of Isaac would definitely be a major contender. That being said. How many times have you explored Basement 1, checked the upgrade room, saw the nine lives power-up, continued to the boss room, and found a 1 heart increase power-up, then simply restarted game because you knew it was likely a doomed run? The progen power-ups in Binding made the game blisteringly hard. Not that insane difficulty can be a bad thing, in fact I will likely write an essay eventually about how difficulty can enrich or degrade a game (future essay, bottoms-up, whose wasted already?). The power ups in Binding of Isaac are one of those examples of progen content that hurt the games in which they exist.

Now that I’ve ragged on The Binding of Isaac, lets talk about all of the things that Binding did right. Since almost the entire game is progen content, lets talk about all of it. The first time I played Binding of Isaac I died on floor 1 to Duke of Flies. I then reloaded. Went about the first map and realized it was completely different. I couldn’t rely on previous memory to decide what rooms to tackle first. That was amazing! I worked my way through and found the boss room which (oddly) had Duke of Flies in it again, but this one occasionally shot out bearded flies. This is the part of Binding that really stood out as amazing. It didn’t really add anything to the story or aesthetic, unless you are the type of individual who likes every element of your game to be progen (I’m looking at you Ntacman, seriously, that dude is awesome, if you are looking for a general fixer for your next big project, get in touch, the guy is one of those wizards that doesn’t get paid enough). It served as a great proof of concept if anyone out there wants to take a swing at the pinnacle of form, the first fully randomized game (another essay seed, take a drink).

“Fully randomized game? What in blazes is that supposed to mean?” Well, as I said before, that is a seed for an entirely new essay. In fact, one could probably write 2 or 3 essays off of making a “truly progen” game (ref. masochist behind the keyboard). You will have to wait until then. Until then, however, chew on the following: what if you were playing Binding, and you had no idea if you were going to get Isaac, Lilith, or something all together different and Cave 2 could have a boss room with 1 of the Larry Jr. and 1 member of the Gemini pair. You could likely come up with a better idea with an evening and a notebook, that is just my 5 minute idea. The randomized power-ups might even be your thing there. Think I hear Aunt Pam singing, so I’ll move on.

On to one of the current pinnacles of form. Minecraft. I was planning on giving this slot to Teraria but I haven’t played it yet. Don’t worry, it’s on my list. Problem is I’m poor in wallet in poorly connected. Minecraft’s modding community makes it clearly superior anyways.

“Pinnacle of form? Aren’t you journalist types supposed to be objective?” whoever told you that journalists or bloggers were an objective lot clearly doesn’t read much, and while my statement claiming MC to be a ‘pinnacle of form’ is colored by the robust modding community, (seriously, I’ve seen an accurate remake of LoZ: Link to the Past in MC, complete with the inability to jump off of anything but predetermined cliffs) the game itself is solid on it’s own. Even with the standard texture pack I can strike out and have a good time just seeing what kind of world I find myself in. I can make an archipelago nation, a castle on the cliff side. Hell, Ntac once even tried making an underwater base! Think Rapture in MC. Likely would have worked too if not for a series of ‘accidents’ leading to the flooding of his oceanic home (sorry, mate). Hold on, all this talk of building and exploring has got me hot and bothered. Need to pop on over to Wicked World for a few… decades.

I want to cover one more game before I get to the wrap up. It’s not really a progen game, though it does have progen content. The game is called Papers, Please. If you haven’t played it yet, stop reading right now and go download it at It’s free and you only need about 20 minutes to have an informed discussion on the topic. Have you downloaded it yet? Good. Let us continue.

Earlier in this essay I mentioned the power of procedurally generated content as a means of conveying they sensation of uncertainty. I’m not going to go into detail about how well Papers, Please encapsulates this aesthetic, (though knowing me, I will someday) I just want to talk about the gameplay.

I will admit, I only got through an hour of this game before it got me so depressed that I spent the rest of the day eating popcorn and playing Diablo 3. You play a border patrol agent tasked with checking people’s IDs. All of the information at the beginning is a bit overwhelming, and the people coming through your booth are procedurally generated, so that doesn’t help. At the beginning of your second day you will get your first fake ID. I didn’t catch it and got docked a few points of currency. I was shocked a bit, so from there forth I started checking IDs with more scrutiny. I successfully turned away a few fakers, turned away a legit person or 2 by accident and was docked accordingly. Then one person came through. Their ID photo looked slightly different than the person in front of the booth, but everything else checked out perfectly. The expiration date was legitimate, region of residency, gender, everything was spot on except the hair on the picture. I figured that the game sometimes threw some small details off to account for the fact that people age, so I let her through. I managed to get 2 or 3 passports checked through, mostly because I was in a hurry after spending 5 minutes on the lady with the weird hair and didn’t want to have to choose medicine or food for my kids, before I heard an explosion and the day ended.

One could argue that weird hair doesn’t make for a progen game. That isn’t the point. The point is that I was certain at first, check ID, accept or decline. Progen content is excellent for creating the aesthetic of uncertainty. I was on day 2 of my job when suddenly a spike in challenge hit and I was found lacking. I guarantee that next time I play that game Ill take as long as I need to scrutinize every single element of every single ID.

This brings me to the major point of this essay. Why do we love progen games? They’re hard and they defy every common held belief as to why we love video games. They aren’t power fantasies, they aren’t easy. In some cases they aren’t even fun (games vs. fun, take a swig ladies and gents). So why do we love them? Why do we keep coming back to these unfair and often spiteful seeming titles? Why in the name of Odin’s 6 legged horse do we keep making them?

Here is one angle. I once heard an argument that the world may be a simulation. If so, this craze for progen games might be supporting evidence. Life is procedurally generated. There is no guide, there is no definite solution. There is no cheat code. You get what you get. When you wipe, (while the religions of the world will argue what happens next until Quetzoqoatl’s shining army descends to wash away the world that the Brilliant Serpent has grown weary of) you wipe. Titles like Rogue, Rogue Legacy, FTL, and Binding of Isaac are strong arguments for this point. In fact, one could argue that the entire Rogue-like genre is popular for this reason. By the by, can we find a better name than Rogue-like? We don’t call shooters Wolfenstein-likes, we don’t call western RPGs D&D-likes or eastern RPGs FF-likes (genre designations, another essay seed, I really need to come up with a graphic for this).

Here’s theory number 2 as to why we love progen games. They’re cheaper to make. You don’t have to pay a level designer (see FTL, the maps are all screenshots of spaceporn or something that looks like spaceporn). You don’t have to pay an artist full time if all you need is 50 or so assets that cycle randomly (see Binding of Isaac, half of the mobs are recolors of old mobs, every single one of the rooms on the map is actually the same room with doors and obstacles pasted in). You don’t even have you hire anyone to tool out encounters (see Diablo, the only set fights are the act bosses and sub-bosses). Grab your favourite algorithm and go. Your computer will do all the rest of the work for you.

Preemptive on the comments section. As a regular webizen I know that every chatroom is a Barrens Chat time-bomb. I’m not calling designers or programmers lazy or parsimonious (especially not programmers, artists maybe, but programmers. No. Okay. Not even artists). I’m just saying that making a game costs money. A lot of it. Game development will never be cheap. Even in the near future when anyone who has a story to tell and a computer to test on can make a game, games will never be cheap to make. Hell, this blog exists partially as a hope to someday finance a dev. studio.

As for a final theory, because 3 is my favourite number, I posit the following: we are reaching a ceiling. What ceiling? The ceiling of graphical fidelity. Anybody who paid even marginal attention to the console war saw the graphical comparisons between the Xbox One and the Playstation 4. If you saw the comparison, you also saw the doctored resolution on whatever system didn’t make ransom to your magazine or blog of choice. We are reaching a level of graphical fidelity so great that our human eyes are incapable of recognizing sharper images. Our AAA studios have gotten to the point where they have to pay the press to make their games look better than other games. Where can we go from here? How can you possibly say that Battlefield 15 is better than Call of Duty Ghost Dogs 5 if by the capabilities of our own eyes the 2 are identical? You could work on innovative mechanics or experiment with storytelling that doesn’t revolve around macho-man power fantasies. You could focus on integrating your one-off multiplayer games into an arching narrative (it worked with Chromehounds).

You hear that? That’s the sound of dozens of AAA studios applying duct tape to their Alt-F4 keys. Now that we’ve determined that innovation in the AAA industry is about as viable as Samus Aran in high-heels, (remember when they tried that? I’m still shaking my head at the wonder that Other M could have been, female perspective in video games, queue graphic) let us talk about the only remaining solution. The easiest way through the graphical singularity is through making your content pregen. The Indie industry has already determined that we gamers like randomization, and making more stuff random would mean paying your art guys less.

So there you go. My thoughts on procedurally generated content. Ntac is happy (or mad, I haven’t had him look yet), and I’ve been given a good excuse to let my brain run rampant on an academically fascinating subject. If you have any ideas as to future essays I could write, see Need Additional Pylons. If you were inspired by my essay I implore you to extrapolate in the comments. If you feel I was misinformed please inform me. I’m going on vacation to Florida in a week or two, you will see no interruption in my weekly essays but by the time you read this I will likely already have another 2 or 3 essays written. You won’t see your essay suggestions come out until I get back in January as I won’t have a computer to write on at my mother’s place (I blew that computer up, laughs all around). I hope you enjoyed my work and I will see all of you next week.


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