Monday, November 12, 2012

Procedurally generated content and Kickstarter

Ever since Daggerfall, I've been enthused at the promise of procedurally generated content in computer games. The idea, as Wikipedia explains, is to generate content algorithmically, rather than manually.

This means that you don't need an artist to design every bit of your gameworld individually (though some parts can still be hand-made). Rather, much of the world can be created by the computer, often in real-time. Thus, every installation - even every play of the game - can be different.

Keep in mind that much of our real world is procedurally generated. I mean, our houses are generally built with the same kinds of parts, and there are certain basic requirements essential to all of them, but that still results in an almost unlimited variety of homes.

And it's not just landscape and buildings that can be procedurally generated, not necessarily. All human beings have similar requirements - including food, shelter, clothing, families, social activities, etc. - which imply certain behaviors. Yet, despite our similarities, we're still individuals, because the possible variations are nearly unlimited.

Yet mainstream developers ended up taking a different path. Continually improving computer hardware allowed for better graphics and spoken sound support, which have been very popular with consumers - and understandably so. Mainstream developers have generally competed on fancier and fancier graphics and with ever more lines spoken by expensive voice actors.

(Note, too, that those features also had other implications, other downsides, making destructible terrain more difficult to include in a game and requiring developers to predict player actions, right down to making sure a player couldn't do anything too unexpected. There are downsides to nearly everything.)

It was left to independent game developers, who couldn't afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on fancy graphics and voice actors, to continue working on algorithms for procedurally generated content. Most of these efforts, like Dwarf Fortress, were very popular within a relatively small fan base, though a game like Minecraft tends to make everyone take notice.

Still, these were just independent game developers. Both of those games were products of one person, pretty much, rather than the hundreds working on blockbuster mainstream games. But the internet has really opened up independent game development (if also creating fierce competition among them). And now, along comes Kickstarter.

If you're not familiar with Kickstarter, you can check out my post here. For now, just note that it's a way for new projects - computer games, but not just computer games - to get funding through crowdsourcing (crowdfunding, actually).

Anyway, to (finally) get to the point, I've been very pleased to see procedurally generated content showing up in Kickstarter projects. For example, here are three current projects which sound appealing:

Sui Generis has been getting a lot of attention lately, though not as much funding. Partly, that might be because the funding request is in English pounds, not dollars. But it was also that, as much as this technology wowed gamers, there wasn't much information about what kind of game they'd create with it.

They've been remedying that with recent updates, and they're almost one-third of the way to their £150,000 goal, with 17 days yet to go. Now, if you're truly a graphics whore, you might not be impressed with this, or with any indie game. Personally, I'm more concerned about whether I'll be able to play the game, as bad as I am at 'real-time' combat.

But I'm really impressed with their technology, and I'll probably end up supporting them. After all, I do want to see more procedurally generated games. And this is how we'll get such things, by supporting games like this.

This next game, Sir, You Are Being Hunted, has already reached its Kickstarter goal, with 19 days yet to go. Admittedly, their goal was less than a third what Sui Generis is asking for. (And note the stretch goals. The more money pledged to the game, the more content they plan to include.)

But it's pretty easy to see why this one has been successful on Kickstarter, don't you think? How could it get any better than being hunted across the British countryside by aristocratic robots?

My only problem with this game is similar to my problem with Sui Generis: I'm just not sure I'll be capable enough to play it. (I really am pretty bad at this stuff.) But I love the imagination here, and I'm really happy to see what they've managed to accomplish with procedurally generated graphics. That's certainly worth a £10 bet, I'd think.

And finally (at least, of the games I've seen recently), there's Maia:

According to that video clip, Maia is a "space colony management simulator," with a clear nod to Dwarf Fortress. That sounds right up my alley. Unfortunately, there's almost nothing about the actual gameplay, especially for someone who hasn't played Dungeon Keeper or Theme Hospital.

So it could be the greatest game in the world, but unless he does a better job of telling other people - people who aren't already his fans - what the game is about, I don't know how he's going to get funded. Still, he's almost half-way to his £100,000 goal, so what do I know? (Funny how it seems to be the British invasion all over again, huh?)

Still, I'm intrigued by the whole idea of a space colony management simulator. And his description includes the fact that it's a "2km x 2km x 2km" procedurally generated world (which is why I've included it here). But this is one I'll have to pass up, unless he posts an update that's a little more specific than what I've seen so far.

Of course, I don't suppose I have to play every game ever made, plus pledge to support every new game, too, huh? Admittedly, that seems to be what I've been trying to do. :)

I'm sure there are more game projects on Kickstarter than those I've seen. Believe it or not, I don't actually go looking for them. (I saw these at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.) And I don't seem to get a lot of readers who are gamers.

But if you are a PC gamer, I'd be interested in other examples, either on Kickstarter or elsewhere. As I say, I've long been intrigued by the possibilities of procedurally generated content in computer games.

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