Quick Post: Procedural Generation Misconception

I was up a little early this morning, reading some new entries over at the IndieGames Blog (specifically “Freeware Game Pick: Trapdoor Below (Telchar)“) when I saw a line that surprised me quite a bit. In describing this roguelike, the following was written: “…and the usual random dungeon generator that ensures every new adventure plays differently from the last.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Whoa! That’s not it at all! Now, I know I’m playing semantics here, but I’ve got a gut feeling that a lot of people don’t quite realize how contrary this statement is, and that might prevent you from appreciating the importance of procedural generation.

Part of the benefit of being able to randomly generate levels (or any number of other game elements) is that each time you play through the game it will be more like the first time you played. When you first play through any game that has you exploring levels — from Mario to Halo — you’re exploring uncharted territory. Players interact with levels they’ve never played before differently than they would with a level they know. In fact, many games get significantly easier each time you play through because you learn where the secrets and powerups are, where the enemies spawn, and where you’re supposed to go.

Rougelikes (and other games with procedurally generated levels) are different — and instead, they get easier each play-through as you learn how the game elements interact and behave. You can’t rely on predictability in placement of goodies and baddies, but you can still rely on the way those elements will act. Where in some games you’ll memorize and exploit the levels in order to succeed, in procedurally generated games, you’ll learn to predict the levels and adapt to them on the fly.

The benefits of this are outstanding in many games — imagine for a moment, when playing against someone in a competitive game where the level matters, like a racing game or an FPS.  If you are new to the level, and your opponent is not, you are at a disadvantage; you could be equally skilled in all other ways, but if your opponent knows the level better than you, they have the edge. It’s an edge we can, however, completely eliminate with generated levels, thus, part of the skill of the game is the rapid acclimatization of a player to their environment.

Additionally, this makes level design more interesting (as far as I’m concerned) as the procedure can’t include producing anything completely unpredictable or truly random. Like unforeseen instant-death traps that the player would otherwise have to memorize, or other absurd memorization elements.

Now if you want your players to memorize levels, procedural generation is not for you — but if you want them to understand your levels, you may want to the procedural route.

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