If you’ve played a video game from the last decade or so, you’ll probably have heard of the phrase ‘procedurally generated’. This term refers to worlds, quests, and characters (etc.) made automatically by the computer. Clever, yes, but not quite to the extent that many players might expect. While it’s all based on maths and algorithms, the actual content usually draws on existing templates – and it can get old fast. 

Following a rather limited showing from the technology so far, can automation ever truly excel at this lone task? Does it need to?

Adaptability

Regardless of which industry you look at, automation is set to become a major aspect of everybody’s lives. In video gaming, the concept has actually been around for quite some time. For example, the 1995 Amiga game Worms created its arenas by simply drawing a line from one side of the screen to the other and then filling the bottom half with ‘land’ that the characters could do battle on.

 

In the public’s consciousness, automation is perhaps more commonly associated with factories and giant manufacturing robots though. However, it works on both macro and micro scales. A piece of machinery that can build a car on its own isn’t all that different in practice from a video game that can generate millions of terrain blocks to explore. The AI in both cases has instructions to follow in order to achieve a pre-determined goal. 

In lots of cases, the adaptability of automation has allowed it to become almost mundane, with the workings behind the comparison website a good example. Trussle, a mortgage broker that checks up to 12,000 different deals, makes use of automation to help buyers find a mortgage in principle. What makes this case interesting is the fact that mortgages have historically been one of the more analogue sectors out there.

No Man’s Sky

The problem with procedural generation in gaming is that it’s quite difficult to actually make genuinely original things after the templates have been covered a few times. This means that a game like No Man’s Sky, with its 18 quintillion planets, only truly has about ten different types to visit. That’s not to say that each planet isn’t unique but it can sometimes come down to minor things like the colour of the grass.

This isn’t necessarily bad or unrealistic. After all, just about every planet in the (real) universe is bound by laws governing things like gravity and how energy is used and fits into some descriptive box or another. The issue is with how quickly games encourage us to discover content, which means that even procedural madness can get boring after a while. The onus is therefore on developers to create environmental richness rather than endlessness diversity.

Hello Games, the creators of No Man’s Sky, have arguably achieved this since the now-infamous launch of the title in 2018. Despite the fact that the game was marketed almost entirely on its skills of procedural generation, this function is now almost secondary to the kind of content you’d find in other games, like politics, space battles, aliens, base-building, and questing. Of course, this is how it’s supposed to be.

Automation still can’t produce meaningful content as humans can but it does seem to excel at providing a background to it all.

Book Review: BABEL