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Mark Riedl, the director of Georgia Tech’s Entertainment Intelligence Lab, remembers when video games of the 1980s used equations to spew out new variations on their algorithm-generated content, rather than trying to store an entire game space in the limited memory of a personal computer. One early example was the 1980s game “Rogue,” with its randomly-generated ASCII maps of monster-infested dungeons. This technique evolved into the random maps in later games like “XCOM,” “Diablo” and “Civilization.”
But decades later, with the more powerful computers of today, the technique is enjoying a resurgence of popularity as a way to produce procedurally-generated mobs, maps, and even entire universes. In an article titled “How Games Are Building Themselves,” researcher Mike Cook described it to Rolling Stone as a vast time saver. “It’s a bit like leaving your game uncompleted, and teaching the software to finish designing itself while someone is playing.”
“Procedural generation gives a small team that’s wanting to punch above its weight a big advantage,” adds the lead designer of an upcoming horror game called “We Happy Few.” The article notes that the technique’s been used for more limited effects in other games “an inexhaustible variety of levels in ‘Spelunky,’ an endless array of bizarre weapons in ‘Borderlands,’ hordes of zombies appearing out of nowhere in ‘Left4Dead.’”
And, of course, “Minecraft,” which shifts endlessly, offering a new world each time it’s played.
Now some game makers are testing just how far they can push the technology…
Back in 1984, David Braben was just 20 years old when he and developer Ian Bell released the first iteration of their space exploration game. Braben remembers “Elite” as a pioneer not only in 3D graphics, but in “open world” gaming, where players could endlessly explore a primitive rendition of the star-speckled frontiers of outer space. When the game was first released, the whole thing fit into 22K of memory, or “less than a single typical email today,” Braben remembered in 2012. But that was only the beginning …
In the 1990s two more sequels were created for the game, and both now ran on 16-bit computers. Now the game could simulate the entire Milky Way galaxy, over 100 billion star systems, with their planets and moons, and was “as scientifically accurate as I could make it,” Braben remembered. “We were sick of games with three lives then a new life every 10,000 score; we wanted something new.”
Braben is also one of the co-founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, so he’s deeply aware of the power locked inside even the smallest of today’s computers. So as Braben watched the growth in computer processing power since 1984, he wanted to apply that to his game series one more time. In 2012 he launched a Kickstarter campaign promising “the richest, largest gaming sandbox ever created, set against a backdrop of raw anarchy, galactic powerplays and intrigue.” It ultimately raised nearly $2 million from 25,681 backers, and the game’s next evolution was underway.
“If a new planet in ‘No Man’s Sky’ was discovered every second, it would take 584 billion years for them all to be discovered …”
The 2015 game “Elite: Dangerous” boasts a galaxy of 400 billion star systems, as well as planets and moons all orbiting in real time. Even the game progresses in real time, albeit 1,286 years into the future. In the year 3304, players start with their own spaceship and 100 “credits,” then try to make more money, either legally — by trading — or illegally, through piracy, bounty hunting, and performing the occasional interplanetary assassination.
It’s still a miracle they were able to generate the entire game for a fraction of what most modern video games cost, a miracle enabled by “artist-directed procedural generation.” (And crowdfunding also let them bypass traditional game publishers.) In a video on Kickstarter, Braben describes procedural generation as “one of those techniques that I think is not used as much as it could be … a piece of magic whereby a vast amount of rich content can be created which would otherwise take a long time to make.”
The fear, of course, is always whether such a universe will feel “same-y,” but Braben argues that’s not a foregone conclusion. “It depends on how you use it … What the artists are doing is providing the ingredients, and if the ingredients are varied enough, then so is the end result.”
It’s also a video game-shaped testament to how much technology has improved, as well as how long our fascination with space-based games has endured. The Commodore 64 version even had a primitive musical score that’s still fondly remembered. “I’d listen to the game’s simple but beautiful rendition of the Blue Danube as my craft spiraled delicately toward the space station entrance,” wrote a reviewer for The Guardian.
It’s commemorated in the new game with a gorgeous symphonic rendition of the same piece when your spaceship triggers its auto-docking sequence.
The game now supports virtual reality headsets, for an immersive traveling-through-space experience. “One of the things that I really wanted to get across — and hopefully we have — is just the vast scale of our galaxy,” Braben told one interviewer. The game even features abandoned outposts from space pioneers who didn’t survive the immense journey.
But it’s not the only game using procedural generation to create vast new virtual worlds …
Soon Cloud Imperium Games will release “Star Citizen,” a space battle game set in the 30th century that features a star-studded cast of geek-friendly voice actors, including Gary Oldman, Mark Hamill and Gillian Anderson. The game’s director, Chris Roberts, directed the popular game “Wing Commander” back in 1990, and describes “Star Citizen” as “an epic first-person experience spanning hundreds of solar systems, where players can fly highly-detailed spaceships, battle on foot through massive space stations, explore life-sized planets, and discover adventure in an ever-expanding and changing galaxy.”
The game was also crowdfunded. By last month, its total haul had reached $145 million, making it the second largest crowdfunding campaign in history. “It’s not just a single-player game or something you’ll finish in a week,” Roberts told CNBC. “We’re building a universe you can live inside.”
The company has released some play-testing content for gamers who purchase special memberships. And at this year’s SXSW, the game’s developers applauded the involvement of their community, which had already posted 4.5 million comments on their forum for the yet-to-be-released game.
The Challenges Of “No Man’s Sky”
After three years of development, “No Man’s Sky” was released this August, offering 18 quintillion (1.8 x 1019) planets scattered throughout its own virtual star systems, each populated with its own ecosystem consisting of plants, animals and, of course, aliens. Players mine for resources and embellish their home bases in another vast and detailed universe.
Rolling Stone explained that not every procedurally-generated planet would have aliens. “Most are too close or too far from their suns to support life, but those that exist in the sweet spot will have their own unique biomes with weather systems and landscapes — craggy mountains, lush forests, arid deserts, and churning oceans.”
But its scale is immense. “The universe is being built in an old two-story building, in the town of Guildford, half an hour by train from London,” joked The New Yorker last May. “About a dozen people are working on it. They sit at computer terminals in three rows on the building’s first floor and, primarily by manipulating lines of code, they make mathematical rules that will determine the age and arrangement of virtual stars, the clustering of asteroid belts and moons and planets, the physics of gravity, the arc of orbits, the density and composition of atmospheres — rain, clear skies, overcast.”
Ironically, two weeks later, an overflowing river flooded their earth-bound studio with waist-high water, destroying “tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment”.
Witnessing the magical formula in action, the New Yorker wrote about how “No Man’s Sky” Chief Architect Sean Murray “pointed to a rocky overhang, which looked like desert geology sculpted by harsh erosion. ‘This is quite naturalistic,’ he said. He added more noise to the formula, rotated the shapes it made, played with their scale, buried them beneath the planet surface. This is effectively more turbulence entering the maths …’”
The persistent universe allow players to name the worlds they’ve discovered. One player chose the name “Planet McPlantey Face 6.”
And apparently there’s some story elements scattered throughout the explorations, with a kind of resolution hidden somewhere at the center of the universe.
But not everyone was thrilled with the results, according to Ars Technica. “The game’s repetitive, grind-heavy survival experience across a near-infinite number of vaguely interesting (though beautiful) worlds hasn’t been at all well received by a community that anticipated it as the last game they’d ever need.”
“It lets you explore the universe in a spaceship,” CNBC chimed in “That’s pretty much it.”
To be fair, the game continues to add features — a new update was released in March. And it represents a pretty impressive technical accomplishment. CNBC points out there were just 12 developers at the company, versus the hundreds of developers that normally work on a popular title. To explore it all, Murray told CNBC, it would take millions and millions of lifetimes.
“If a new planet in ‘No Man’s Sky’ was discovered every second, it would take 584 billion years for them all to be discovered … In terms of beating the game, it’s not really an option unless you’re going to hand it down from generation to generation.”
It attracted a curious fan base. In the game’s first 24 hours, players discovered over 10 million species of alien — before the PC version had even been released.
For instance over night we hit 10 million species discovered in NMS… that’s more than has been discovered on earth.
WHAT IS GOING ON!!!
— Sean Murray (@NoMansSky) August 10, 2016
It is a testament to how amazing our network coders are that Discoveries are still working at all.
— Sean Murray (@NoMansSky) August 10, 2016
And it will always be a part of the conversation about the viability of procedurally-generated worlds.
“I don’t know if it will necessarily be the future of games,” Murray told CNBC, “but it will definitely be part of that.”
The Ultimate Question
But is it fun to play? A headline in The Guardian described “No Man’s Sky” as “‘Elite‘ for the 21st century, adding “Pointless? Maybe — but also sublime.”
The site Thumbsticks complained that “No Man’s Sky” was just a procedurally-generated universe with a game attached:
“It’s like one of those children’s games where you can jumble up the face, legs and torso of different characters to produce some comical results, but on a bewilderingly large scale … Yes, there’s a hell of a lot more variables, and yes, the results are a hell of a lot stranger than anything we’re used to — and the created universe is still unimaginably large and entirely unfeasible to even comprehend — but it’s still just procedural generation.”
In response, one reader left a comment lauding “No Man’s Sky: as “one of the technical achievements of the century,” but also asking what’s perhaps the ultimate question. “isn’t the universe itself, the one we live in, just the result of a kind of maths and procedural generation? Aren’t the only differences, really, that the supercomputer made to create it was far more advanced than anything we currently possess …”
It’s a thought echoed by The Guardian‘s reviewer, who suggested some of the backlash was a result of the game’s life-like recreation of the real world, with its own lack of direction. He reaches a nuanced conclusion that “as a product the game falls short in many practically understood ways. As an experience it can be utterly transcendental.” But he also asks if today’s gamers just lacked the patience that the 1980s game required.
“Is it a wider sociocultural phenomenon — that we have been taught to expect some sort of cogent journey, some carefully scripted satisfaction, from every single thing we engage with?”
“I guess I’m old, that’s the thing: I’ve learned how much moments matter, and how, when the context fades, the joy often remains, like a pinprick of light in the blackest sky.”
Feature image: Screenshot from “Elite: Dangerous” trailer on Kickstarter.
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