Having had technology and the acquisition of technology be one of my foremost hobbies over the past decade or so, I’ve come to a very distinct realization: Technology, at its core, is just a tool. Seems simple, right? A tool is just an implement used to carry out a particular function. Like a hammer is just a tool. In game development, designers use multiple tools in their creative works, one popular tool of late is Procedural Generation.
Procedural Generation, at its heart, is the process of programming an application to design the content of a game using and working within a specified set of parameters. The use of procedural generation in video games goes hand-in-hand with the genre itself. Games like Rogue (1980), of which the term Roguelike is derived, was nothing but procedurally generated dungeons, one after another, that the player was meant to explore. This gave the game a never-ending appeal, where a little bit of code gave you a game that was always different than the last. Procedural generation has been used to do everything in gaming from creating environments, to dungeons, to loot lists, to sprawling towns and populations. In the end, though, it’s just a tool.
Kyle, one of the writers here at Sub-Cultured, has been enamored with No Man’s Sky. For good reason, too. No Man’s Sky, first off, is gorgeous. The art styles, the visuals, and the chance of seeing things nobody else is seeing are some of the game’s big positives. I also picked up the game within its first week of release and had some fun exploring the few worlds that I found, but in the end I found myself quickly losing interest. Yes, the worlds themselves could, at times, be very pretty, but I had a hard time feeling that anything I was accomplishing was meaningful or significant.
I was exploring all of these places that had already been explored before, I was re-naming animals and plants that were located around small settlements and surrounded by floating machines, constantly scanning them, and I was learning languages that, even after learning a metric ton of words, I still couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. Nothing I was doing felt like it had any impact on anything, or at worst felt like I was just already going where everyone had already gone before.
Overall, I blame the procedural generation and how heavily they used it. It is the hallmark of the game, how what you were seeing was never seen by any other player and it was special to you. Except that it had been seen before. When I came across my 50th giant tooth shaped plant (and was naming it ‘Yet Another Giant Tooth’), or my 30th wolf-looking creature with fungal spores all over it (‘Yet Another Diseased Wolf’), I had reached my limit.
No Man’s Sky‘s use of procedural generation, their hammer, felt like the only tool they were really using seriously, and when it duplicated assets, it was glaring. Any “story” was coming at what felt like a snail’s pace, and progression was also a slow process. This means that the way the developers wanted you to play involved just hitting one procedurally generated planet after another. Which means also seeing the same formations over and over in maybe varying colors or sizes. I’m not sure which writing outlet first used the phrase “18 Quintillion Bowls of Oatmeal“, but it certainly feels apt.
ProGen Behaving Badly
Let’s be real, though, No Man’s Sky isn’t the first to overuse procedural generation. One of the biggest games of all time, literally, is one that used procedural generation to launch a franchise: The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall. Coming off of the successful Arena, Bethesda wanted to make a game that truly felt like a world. Some sites posit that the full landmass of Daggerfall reaches a staggering 62,394 square miles! I started playing it not long ago and it isn’t kidding around. If you were to walk from one town to another, even if those towns were right next to each other, it would take you HOURS to do so. With 15,000 towns, cities, and villages to explore, the game wasn’t messing around. The first thing you bought was a horse and a wagon, because without them you were hosed.
The landmass of Daggerfall wasn’t even the worst of the procedural generation, though, it was the dungeons. Daggerfall‘s dungeons took multiple dungeon “sets” and patterns and hooked them together to form an overall dungeon. Combined with an uber-confusing three dimensional mapping system, Daggerfall would turn a simple low-level dungeon into an hours long slog through random-mob infested hallways, where sometimes monsters well above your level would lie in wait to wreck you. To put it lightly, Daggerfall‘s use of procedural generation was simultaneously complete overkill, frustrating, and completely unforgiving.
Randomness Isn’t Really Exploring
One of my favorite things to do in games, though, is exploration. I will look behind every nook and cranny, every little path, every little tiny area, and in most games that exploration is nicely rewarded with either a nice sight, some extra loot, or some easter egg. They are specifically placed on the game map by the developers, though. When you start making everything through procedural generation, you lose those little rewards. Everything you could possibly encounter by checking every nook and cranny is just as available as any other point. The entire gaming world gains a homogeneity that stops rewarding exploration simply by its very nature.
There was a poll given by the developers of Star Trek Online on their forums once that once asked the players “What do you really want to see in Star Trek Online?” The biggest response back was simply “Exploration”. Since the tagline of Star Trek is “To boldly go where no one has gone before”, though, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The problem was that the game already had an “exploration” system. They combined random scenarios, randomized enemies, randomized aliens, and placed them on some randomized maps. To the majority of players, although what you were seeing was fresh, it didn’t “feel” like exploring.
I don’t blame the players, though, it truly *didn’t* feel like exploration. To hit this home, the game that I play that hits that exploration button the best is American Truck Simulator. Sure, ATS uses some procedural generation to save time on creating the environments, but it’s seeing all the specific locations and special places that makes the exploration worthwhile. It isn’t what is random that taps that exploration feeling, it’s what is purposefully placed that you’re seeing for the first time.
ProGen Is A Good Tool, But Shouldn’t Be The Only Tool
If you take a look at some of the best games of our day, though, like Diablo, you’ll see that they all use procedural generation. However, their use becomes reserved to creating large, similar themed environments without sacrificing development resources and isn’t a crutch. Procedural Generation isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and it really shouldn’t because it’s such a useful tool.
What makes a great game, though, is using many different tools in its construction. Use some ProGen, some story, some good mechanics, decent audio, music, setting, etc. and put all together you have a great game. Relying on any one tool will make that tool stand out and show its flaws.
No Man’s Sky I feel was relying just too heavy on the procedural generation, and it was their downfall. Even compared to a game like Elite: Dangerous that also relies on space exploration and a ginormous universe, Elite feels more fleshed out and your actions feel like they have more weight.
I hope that we haven’t heard the end of No Man’s Sky, though. It has so much potential and can be so much more than it is. It’s at a good starting point and can only go up, but it will definitely need something more than just procedural generation to get players back.
There’s so many metrics to measure how successful a game is — sales, revenue, active users, # of microtransactions, review score, etc. All of these things are valid in their own right, but one that is rarely talked about is industry. I don’t mean the impact a game has on gaming as a whole, I mean how much money gets paid to people as a result of a game existing.
20 years ago, the people who made money off of a game were limited to the developer and publisher of the game. You could also include third party marketing deals for gaming like Legend of Zelda TV show, action figures, and John Leguizamo, but for the most part the money stayed in the industry. The first instance of an unrelated party making money off of a game that I can remember was Prima and its strategy guides. It wasn’t a first party resource like the Nintendo help hotline you were asking for help, it was some guy who wrote down some stuff on how to be good at the game you couldn’t be. For a while, that’s where it stopped too. Aside from video game branded merchandise, it was rather difficult to make money off of a game if you didn’t make it.
Then the internet happened.
Suddenly GameFAQs comes in to existance. Anyone could write their own strategy guide and post it for free to a site that was making money off of content they didn’t have to create. Great business model. It was easy to create webrings of Aerith shrines and chatrooms for RPing. Around then, people started to become interested in video games as a sport in a major way. Unreal Tournament, Quake, and Counter Strike all started having competitive scenes with small amounts of prize money. It still wasn’t enough to make a living, but definitely a great way to show off your skills and be rewarded for it.
As competitive gaming grew, it became clear that people liked watching others play video games. Platforms like YouTube, Livestream, and Justin.TV were all suddenly havens of gaming videos. Watching live or prerecorded, edited or raw, the content was there and ready for the consuming. The business models were a bit murky in the beginning, but were slowly coming along. So too was the ability to freely post fanart and have it seen. If you drew a really awesome Lara Croft, all you had to do was link your DeviantArt or LiveJournal and you were no longer drawing for an audience of one. As a result of creating communities and sharing artwork, it was easier to say “I’m going to be at ConnectiCon this weekend! Come by for a print of Sephiroth seductively sniffing a sunflower.” Again, not easy to make a living doing it, but much easier than before.
Fast forward to this year and there’s legitimate industries around creating gaming-related content. YouTubers like CaptainSparklez, SSundee, and MumboJumbo all make a living full time making Minecraft videos. Some are so successful at it, they can even employ people. Some people run custom Minecraft servers and make a living off modding the game and offering it for subscription fees. And now with Etsy, it’s easier than ever to make a McCree/Hanzo keychain, sell it to your fans, and be able to make money off of your passion. It’s by no means easy, but the fact that the work of a game company keeps strangers employed is incredible.
Squaring up a game’s worth is a tricky process and one that lends itself to a lot of bias. However, using the metric of how much money is paid to people is one more interesting vector to lend itself to speaking toward the importance of a game in the current culture. Games like Call of Duty, Minecraft, and Five Nights at Freddies are all finding large amounts of relevance in today’s society because of the industries they’ve created. Even classic games are gaining more of a foothold in the zeitgheist because of speedruns.
Another interesting property of the monetary gains begot by a game is that even if critical scores and sales numbers are low, this metric could still be high. Take something like the sea of Slenderman games. If games could be objectively bad, most of these would certainly qualify. However, some content creators relied on these awful 2 day hack jobs for views for a few months. Does that make them any more valuable or important? Maybe not. But Joe Gamedev’s weekend joke allowed a few people somewhere else in the world to buy a few meals. That’s pretty radical.
I readily admit my American ignorance when it comes to international history. More specifically, my familiarity with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was minimal. Then you encounter a developer like iNK Studios with a brave director like Navid Khonsari to provide you that much-needed history lesson with 1979 Revolution: Black Friday.
As a video game, 1979 Revolution is a lesser Telltale Games experience, mechanically-speaking. This is expected when a developer doesn’t possess as many resources as a juggernaut like Telltale. However, the story has all of the gravitas and emotion as any Telltale title. Instead of a full-fledged review, I felt it more necessary to discuss the game’s importance in storytelling.
Before we dive too deep, historical background is essential for this discussion. For those that might need the information, the Iranian Revolution stems from the civilian population’s frustration with the sitting regime’s corrupt and oppressive actions. The end result of the revolution isn’t the focus of the game, but be assured the Shah and his aforementioned regime was subsequently replaced.
Instead, 1979 Revolution centers on the experiences of an aspiring photojournalist, Reza Shirazi. Reza returns home to Iran to find his home country on the brink of a civil war. Reza’s friends and family already chose sides, which forces Reza into compromising moral dilemmas. Thus we have the basis of the entire gaming experience Revolution offers.
Hopelessness is a recurring motif of Revolution. When a tyrannical government is this powerful, you start sensing your choices matter less and less as the outcome is inevitable. “They” have armies, other countries, and even a few groups of citizens backing them. “You” have your ideals and the ability to organize protests. In the context of the game alone, the conclusion seems predestined based on the lop-sided battlefield.
Although, this absence of hope isn’t just a numbers game, but a moral struggle. A prime example involves when Reza returns home for a family dinner with his parents and his brother (who works for the current regime in law enforcement). Reza’s Dad sympathizes with the protesters’ cause, while Reza’s mother questions why things should ever change. Considering his occupation, Reza’s brother is of course pro-Shah.
Needless to say, none of your dialogue selections in this awkward scene feel right. For Reza, this is his family who he loves unconditionally, yet people are dying on the streets for merely speaking freely. This dinner scene along with the ending scene (which I won’t spoil) are the best illustrations of helpless despair during this tumultuous period in Iranian history.
The Risks Involved
Outside of the gameplay, the developers and lead director at iNK Studios took a gamble in even telling this story. Director Navid Khonsari lived in Iran during the revolution as a child but left shortly after its ending. He used what he saw with his own eyes as a template for many sequences in 1979 Revolution. The team also interviewed about 40 Iranians who resided in Tehran during this era, and gathered as many images and sounds as possible from related documentaries, speeches, and press clippings.
Regardless of this hard work, a conservative movement in Iran still exists that condemned this title. After Khonsari was accused of espionage, he deemed it too risky to even return to his home country. Other members of the development team also either fled Iran for their safety or now use aliases. When 1979 Revolution approached release this year, Iran’s National Foundation for Computer Games banned the game’s distribution and sale, declaring the content a poison on the minds of today’s youth.
Even in reality, this recurring motif of hopelessness is mirrored. Fortunately, we gamers in other countries have the privilege to play this title and to educate ourselves in the process, which I highly recommend you do at your earliest convenience.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday is now available on PC, Android, and iOS devices.
Ah gaming. It’s one of the rare pleasures of life. Video games are an addiction, an obsession, a forgotten remembrance for those of us who are forced to adult. In honor of Gaming Month on Sub-Cultured, I have written a short lament for all the gamers like myself who are missing out on all the latest and greatest happenings this Fall. I present to you, an ode:
“For those too busy to play
who are caught in their jobs and their pay
time with the family, exercise, keeping sanity
the Xbox sits idle all day
We long for that place
flying through time and space
where the land is acclaimed No Man’s Sky
Sounds of Doom filled the room
as we blasted and leveled
Running through ancient dungeons and tombs all disheveled
Nothing could stop us with Legions and boss hunts
instances we transitioned and lead inquisitions
while our armies protected our grunts.
We try to recapture our fun and our laughter
but we keep on displaying low prioritizes for playing
Time we can’t seem to catch, pokeballs we dispatch
and still always end up with disaster”