The Hard Problem

The Hard Problem: Dynamic Content

John Scott Tynes | 2 Jul 2009 17:00
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It all went downhill when we started saving our progress in games.

Whose brilliant idea was that, anyway? Once we introduced the virtual bookmark, our industry decided we were making virtual books. This was a mistake.

Until that sad day, videogames were arcade games. When you walked up to Pac-Man or Q*Bert and put a quarter in the slot, it didn't matter how many hundreds of times you'd played that game before. There you were, beginning at the beginning. Sure, maybe you could get to the third level in R-Type. Did it matter that each time you visited the arcade you had to play through the first two levels to get to the "new" stuff? No, it didn't matter - because those first two levels were still hard as hell and a blast to get through each time.

This is all by way of me explaining why it is that Carnival Games on the Wii has handily outsold touted blockbusters like God of War II and Fable II, among many others. Because it's not a virtual book, it's an experience you can pick up anytime and enjoy. You know, like Clue or chess or football. But this also explains why games have gotten too expensive to make, too pricey to buy unless used, and too much of a turn-off to the mainstream: Those giant AAA level-based sacks of linear, use-once content demand enormous resources, require an exorbitant retail price, and are too complicated for ordinary people.

The solution is dynamic content, game content that is generated on the fly from a large library of components. Many games have dipped their toes into this approach. Some have jumped right in. But it's still considered a rudimentary technology that can't possibly deliver the quality and immersion of carefully scripted and planned gameplay embodied by the Call of Duty series, among others.

So what the heck is the hard problem here that I want to solve with dynamic content? The problem is levels.

Level 6: The Sewers of Ice World Volcano Mansion Driving Sequence

Level-based games have dominated the market for years. In some form, they've been with us since the days of Pac-Man and Galaga. But it's been the rise of the first-person shooter, dating back to Castle Wolfenstein 3D, that has really led to game content being structured in a linear series of levels, each comprised of unique terrain and encounters and connected by a narrative. And unlike R-Type, you aren't expected to begin at the beginning every time you sit down. No, we save your game, making the preceding levels obsolete once beaten, and turning your $60 game purchase into a one-way trip down obsolescence street.

Level-based games are a huge problem. They're why AAA next-gen games cost $20 million and up to make. Every level's worth of content represents a massive investment of time, talent, and manpower, all for an experience that a typical player might see for twenty minutes or so before moving on to the next level. Forever.

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