Postcards from Procedurally Generated Worlds

Syp from Bio Break is asking this about procedural generation:

“If it’s a bunch of cobbled together randomness, then why do I want to explore it? None of it is connected to a special narrative, so it exists without purpose, without meaning.”

I would like to counter with a few things.

Firstly, I wonder if we’ve lost the true meaning of exploration after being taught by Wildstar and GW2 that it’s about getting to points on a map and then having an achievement ding.

Or even after being taught by WoW and Skyrim (and Wildstar and GW2) that it’s about going to someplace and having a handcrafted scripted scene or story play out for you.

That seems to me like going for a tour or a guided experience, rather than exploration per se.

(That’s not to say that it’s bad.

The linearity of The Wolf Among Us and the elegant way its aesthetics told a story with a beginning, middle and end made for a wonderfully -immersive- experience…

…but it’s a bit of a stretch to say that one was -exploring- the game, unless one really sat down to map out every last possible branch of story, or even dabbled with exploration by rewinding a chapter or two to see how the story or characters might change.)

Here’s Google’s definition of exploration:


The highlights are mine, because I think they rather succintly answer Syp’s question.

You can want to explore something because it’s unfamiliar, because it’s new, because it’s novel. Because you’re checking it out to see if you can find any purpose or meaning in a locale previously unknown to you.

(Many games, when they are new and all their systems and geography unknown, draw explorers like magnets. And once everything is laid out in guides and on third party websites, when all the novelty is lost and everything predictable, that’s where explorers start to get really bored.)

The search for resources or information or knowledge that other people don’t know about is a big deal to explorers. It’s one of the things Bartle checks you out for, before labeling you an explorer.

Many sandbox games dangle resources as the bait for the WHY someone would go out and explore what could be merely a bunch of rocks and sand. Eve Online, A Tale in the Desert, Minecraft, Terraria, Don’t Starve, a ton of other games in the survival crafting genres, need I really go on?

And sometimes you just explore because it’s -there-, because you want to be thorough and make sure you’ve seen its every nook and cranny, because the mountain was there to be climbed, and because the maze or puzzle was there to be figured out and solved.

Not every game has to be played for story and narrative.

Not every player expects a game designer to serve each person the same scripted experience.

Part of the fun in a procedurally generated game is that you yourself may not encounter the exact same thing twice. That your next playthrough can be different. That it can be unpredictable, forcing you to react in a different way.

Others have chimed in with additional points, such as:

  • Purpose and meaning being in the eye of the beholder and that it can be up to each player to create that purpose, meaning and narrative for themselves in a procedurally generated game,
  • that player interactions often form the meat and potatoes of story and narrative in such a game and the very fact that they are unique one-off events that will never quite happen again in the same way can be super-appealing for some people,
  • and that designers can actually use procedural generation in a sensible way and layer set pieces or handcrafted content over other layers that were procedurally generated so that the results look a lot better than what Daggerfall produced in 1996.

But rather than quote the entire Wikipedia article on procedural generation which highlights games like Dwarf Fortress and Left 4 Dead and plenty of other games that use it in interesting ways, I’ll just leave these here:

Minecraft - Wanderlust Reloaded modpack - seed: Bio Break
Minecraft – Wanderlust Reloaded modpack w Biomes of Plenty – seed: Bio Break
Minecraft - Wanderlust Reloaded modpack - seed: Procedural Generation
Minecraft – Wanderlust Reloaded modpack w Biomes of Plenty – seed: Procedural Generation
Minecraft - Wanderlust Reloaded modpack - seed: Bio Break
Minecraft – Running Red 2 modpack – seed: Bio Break
Minecraft – Test Pack Please Ignore modpack – seed: Bio Break
Your Loss, Syp
Minecraft – Wanderlust Reloaded modpack w Biomes of Plenty – seed: Your Loss, Syp
Minecraft - Wanderlust Reloaded modpack - seed: Bio Break
Minecraft – Wanderlust Reloaded modpack w Biomes of Plenty – seed: Why I Explore

I barely moved from the spawn location to snap these shots.

I rolled these up simply for the purposes of this post.

And I don’t know about you, but there’s at least one seed I’ll be revisiting again that just -cries- out for a story of a survivor shipwrecked onto a mostly desert island with some jungle in the distance.

What does the rest of the continent hold, pray tell?

7 thoughts on “Postcards from Procedurally Generated Worlds

  1. I agree with you and made the comment on Bio Break that done well it can be amazing. Games are missing the sense of discovery – that same discovery that Minecraft affords you everytime you create a new world. The things and places I have found in that game you would just believe they were hand crafted.


  2. To use procedural generation to do the grunt work is fine so long as a human intelligence comes along afterwards and adds meaning. Without that the entire “exploration” experience has, at the very, very best, the emotional impact of a firework display.

    Exploring isn’t just wandering about and staring at pretty stuff; it’s about understanding context and making connections, about learning, and, most importantly and essentially, about feeling the vast, unimaginable weight of time bearing down on you.

    You can use all the clever algorithms you like to shape the geology and the ecology; you can even seed the landscape with procedurally-generated ruins and statues and villages and temples. If there’s no human understanding of why those things are where they are, no backstory, no patina of use, then they are vapid ciphers.

    Even handcrafted MMOs have too much scenery that’s just there because a space needed filling. To my way of thinking you should be able to tour every map of every “virtual world” MMO with a designer, point at anything, anything at all, and get a meaningful explanation of why it’s there, what significance it has, what its history and provenance are.

    As for the idea that the customer should do the creative work instead of the producer, that’s flat-out insulting. What are we paying these people for if not to have the imaginations we lack? Are they the professionals or not? To me the very mention of “procedurally-generated” content is a very big, bright red flag. Any game designer is going to have to do a lot of convincing to get me even to bother taking a look.


    1. see it’s kind of funny but a developer led preview of a world like that would bore me, it tells me this space is already full of stories that aren’t my own. I would much rather have a world, get a tour form a player and then be told the vast actions that have been happening around me. Oh, that’s where the battle between these 2 super forces played out for two days, the federation was sieged for a week in thjeir castle here, or, this is where i like to farm potatoes. Player stories like that are interesting to me and what, I believe should be aimed at when populating a world


    2. See, that’s the thing. Procedural generation lends itself to player-created narrative, the human intelligence that comes along and gives it meaning is the player themselves.

      Handcrafting content lends itself to developer-created narrative, something designed for the player to experience. Even then, one requires a certain amount of player agency and willingness from the player to get involved.

      Players can and do skip through reams of quest text that tell a story, or run right past historical sites of handplaced significance in GW2 because they have either no context or interest in what their surroundings are telling them.

      And I’m quite content with a subset of games that don’t patronize me and assume I lack imagination as a player and customer, that offer me the tools to create my own narrative, to be a GM instead of being a player (to use a tabletop RPG analogy.)


      1. “See, that’s the thing. Procedural generation lends itself to player-created narrative, the human intelligence that comes along and gives it meaning is the player themselves.”

        Well if you don’t you turn it off straight away.

        “And I’m quite content with a subset of games that don’t patronize me and assume I lack imagination as a player and customer, that offer me the tools to create my own narrative, to be a GM instead of being a player (to use a tabletop RPG analogy.)”

        I’m not sure how the other games are patronizing you.
        A book with a printed story isn’t patronizing me while a book with blank pages is treating me as an adult.

        This is the kind of jargon that exist to fulfill an agenda.
        You can buy paper and a pen (or use some word processor) or you can buy a book.
        You can buy a game or you can buy a toy.


        1. Other games are not patronizing me. The existence of other games that function in different ways do not patronize me.

          However, a lack of a genre or subset of games that allow a player to be a more active participant in the creation process does.

          I am defending the right of both types of games (handcrafted and procedurally generated – though to be frank, it’s not a black-and-white alll-or-nothing dichotomy, procedurally generated games have tons of intentional manual design too), both types of books (printed and blank) to exist.

          It would be a sad day if manufacturers decided that our populace no longer are capable of writing stories for themselves, and therefore will not sell blank books any longer. Here, only have the stories that a ‘professional’ writer has written for you.

          That’s not to say that a professional story is bad. I love me a good handcrafted story – Wolf Among Us was great, and I’m in a current playthrough of Grim Fandango having a massive love affair all over again.

          But when you want unpredictability, when you want discovery and serendipity, when you want the ability to refresh and reset and encounter different layouts, when you want to be given the tools to tell your own stories, procedural generation games are the niche you want. And I’d liken them more to a random table of a certain genre that a ‘professional’ designer sells you, rather than a blank book, to be honest.


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