Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Why Randomly Generated Content Sucks

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 5 Jun 2012 12:00
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So then, randomly-generated content. Specifically, randomly-generated levels, in such things as dungeon crawlers. I think it's one of those things that always sounds much better in theory (and perhaps more to the point in press releases) than in execution. Why, it could present a theoretically limitless amount of levels to play through! Well, yes, but unless you've figured out how to randomly generate textures, furniture and architecture styles then it's all going to get a bit samey.

It's not the same thing as procedural generation, which is the thing that Spore's character animation ran on. Random levels in this case is taking a collection of pre-built rooms and randomly arranging how they're all slotted together. This does not create an infinite supply of dungeons, it's a constant rearrangement of just the one dungeon, an incredibly monotone dungeon with no intelligent direction whatsoever. And you wouldn't even know you were in a randomly generated dungeon until a second playthrough if maybe, maybe you remembered going down a hallway differently last time. At which point you will most likely think "Well, that explains why it's so samey", rather than "Well, this makes it all worth it."

But wait! In this very column I abruptly and for no apparent reason plugged the Binding of Isaac a while ago, which prominently features randomly-generated dungeons. Surely this is evidence for my having a mindless automatic bias against mainstream games over indie games (how many mindless automatic biases have I got by now, is anyone keeping track?). Not so, say I. I think Diablo 3 could learn from the Binding of Isaac. BoI not only randomly generates the levels but also the upgrades you get on the way through the game, which can lead to vastly different experiences from playthrough to playthrough. Perhaps more relevantly, the playthroughs generally aren't fourteen hours at a time. The dungeon crawling in Diablo goes on so bloody long that you find a combat style that works for you and fall into a stupor doing it over and over again, feeling a profound sense of disappointment every time you level up and only get upgrades for the six or seven abilities you don't use. Maybe I'd have liked Diablo 3 more if you were forced to play a whole different character every time you sat down to it.* Or if the player character was a tearful naked child. It'd make one think a whole lot worse of the questgivers, wouldn't it.

*Yes, I know about hardcore mode shut up shut up SHUT UP.

But let's forget about Diablo 3 - ideally forever - and return to the more general subject of random generation. Which as we've established is basically incredibly generic level design with zero direction or variety, but it was while composing last week's video that I wondered - between vodka shots - if that notion I had of a randomly generated novel wasn't as insane as it first appeared.

Not a novel that tries to randomly rearrange the events in the plot; as I said in the video that would mean the book would either make zero sense or every chapter would start and end with the story being in basically the same place and it would be boring as shit. But a novel that always presents the same situation, but randomly generates its characters and their reactions, that could be possible. And I think one could do this by approaching it from the perspective of a game designer. What we're talking about is basically a non-interactive text-only Bioware-style RPG, where instead of a player making choices, every character is an AI making choices based on their programming. What with E-books slowly murdering the print industry in its sleep, why not take the opportunity to mess around with the format in ways we never could before?

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