Edge of Innovation

How No Man’s Sky is making procedural games cool again

 

Think of procedural generation as an automatic way to create game content, whether that content is an object, a room, a building or a level, a city, a landscape, a whole planet, even an entire universe.

The ambitious space game No Man’s Sky uses procedural generation to create 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 different planets – that’s over 18 quintillion fully-realised worlds. And you can visit any one of them.

The traditional way of making video games is having content that is created by hand – buildings are modelled, levels are mapped and landscapes are painstakingly designed. The downside is that games that rely on such pre-made content are often limited in their scope with a finite number of levels or a predefined play area. Games that use procedurally generated content often aren’t bound by either of these things.

Destiny Xbox 360
Traditionally produced games, like Destiny, tend to have ‘sky box’ backgrounds that players can’t explore.

Procedural games aren’t a new invention

Ironically, procedural generation isn’t a new technology. It has its origins in the limitations of early computing systems, which didn’t have enough space to store lots of pre-drawn, manually-created game content.

So games like The Sentinel and the original Elite let maths algorithmically generate the 10,000 levels and trillions of star systems that they promised. The introduction of roomier storage systems – CD, DVD, hard disk drives and eventually Blu-ray – saw procedural approaches fall out of favour in favour of high-quality visuals, lavish cinematics and hours of digital audio.

The Swindle video game
The Swindle uses procedural generation to randomise rooms, buildings, even the AI thieves that join you on in-game heists.

Never get the same level twice

But with the potent processing power of today’s PCs and game consoles, procedural technology is making a comeback. You can see it in the procedural rooms of cat-burglary platformer The Swindle, where its creator Dan Marshall has used mathematical formulae to boost the game’s playability (and replayability), ensuring that you’ll “never get the same level twice.”

You can see it in Shadow of Mordor’s grisly army of procedural orcs, algorithmically birthed with different bodies, heads, armour, weapons and names. And procedural generation techniques are also used in Bloodborne’s Chalice Dungeon, which promises a different layout, traps and enemies for every adventurer who ventures into it.

Minecraft
In Minecraft’s procedurally generated worlds the only limits are those of imagination and time.

Truly open worlds to explore

But think bigger. Procedural technology can be more than just a tool and it can give us open game worlds and experiences that are bigger than we’ve ever imagined. You can see it at work already in one of the world’s most popular games – Minecraft. The game randomly constructs its distinctive blocky landscape as the player moves around within it. There’s a whole world to explore and manipulate. No visible boundaries. No game is ever the same.

While Minecraft is one world, Star Citizen, Elite: Dangerous and No Man’s Sky are procedurally generating billions of planets, stars, spinning space stations and asteroid fields. Elite: Dangerous creator David Braben has described procedural generation as a “piece of magic.” It allows the new Elite to model the entire Milky Way galaxy in extraordinary detail, using real scientific principles to construct stars and predict the exoplanets that loop around them.

No Man's Sky desert planet
Procedural generation doesn’t mean random. The fantastic landscapes in No Man’s Sky are based on a series of rules and pseudo-scientific principles.

Mind-boggling vastness

No Man’s Sky is perhaps the most ambitious use of procedural generation to date. Not only does this exploration/survival game give you a universe of 18 quintillion planets to play around in, you can land on each and every one of them.

Well, almost. There are so many planets in the game, that developer Hello Games suggests that if you visited one every second, it would take you five billion years to see them all. This mind-boggling vastness ensures that every player will see interstellar sights that nobody else will ever see.

Crucially, No Man’s Sky use of procedural generation extends beyond clever planetary architecture. Hello Games has used it to create every mountain and ocean, every cloud, tree, cave and rock, and every bird, lizard, mammal and gargantuan space dinosaur. By laying down sets of rules about how landscapes are formed and how flora and fauna evolve (if a planet is the right distance from the sun to support life), procedural systems can create almost infinite planetary variations for players.

Not even the developers of No Man’s Sky know what’s out there.

No Man's Sky ice planet
Almost everything in No Man’s Sky is procedurally generated, from the terrain you see to the space craft you fly.

Next generation gaming experiences

Of course, using mathematical formulae to create astonishingly varied visuals doesn’t make a good game on its own. There still needs to be a guiding design, logical world-building principles, consistent art direction, and some form of story to give it all meaning and purpose.

But procedural generation potentially changes the way that content for big, ambitious games will be made in the future, giving us games that are bigger and more varied, games that we can replay endlessly, games that deliver non-linear, next generation experiences that we’ve never had before.

 

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