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?

3 Things to Play or Not Play a Next-Gen MMORPG

Can you guess the MMO?

Keen’s got one of those ubiquitous lists up and is inviting everyone to give their views about what they’d want or not want in a next-gen MMO.

Honestly, I dunno how this is ever helpful for developers. Ask ten bloggers or commenters what they want, and they’ll give you twenty different perspectives back, most diametrically opposed to each other, and possibly end up starting a few flame wars in the process.

I’m not very picky. I’ll play most anything once to give it a shot. In that sense, typical questing or sandbox/themepark doesn’t bother me one whit. Graphics-wise, I can deal with ASCII and text all the way up to super-photorealistic, and even give uncanny valley a temporary free pass until I’m absolutely creeped out and have established other reasons not to play.

On the other hand, I realized I don’t stay long in games that violate the following principles:

1) Going Solo Must Be Viable/Valued Playstyle

Note this does not preclude the option or choice to group. But if I have no time to waste in a particular gaming session to find other players, or simply don’t feel like interacting with others that day (for those games that automatically assign you to pickup groups,) I want to still be able to enjoy your game’s gameplay solo and make reasonable progress towards my goals / victory conditions in the game.

I enjoy my autonomy and locus of control in a game. Being forced anywhere, or to do anything I don’t want to do, interferes with that drastically. After a while, I don’t put up with games that hamfistedly do that instead of subtle positive encouragements to do different things, and I’ll take the ultimate step to regain my autonomy, aka choosing not to play your game (and pay you.)

2) Design Should Foster Pleasant/Decent Social Relationships Between Players

Most players will no doubt smell a Guild Wars 2 influence here. Certainly in terms of next-gen MMO tweaking to ensure -by design- that players are encouraged to cooperate and at least tolerate each other’s presence in their vincinity, rather than be antagonized or dropkicked unwillingly into ultra-competitive mode, GW2 has been much talked about.

While I really enjoy GW2’s style of design, I just want to point out it’s not the only way of establishing this criteria (for fear of the next fleet of MMOs just blindly copying what works.)

A Tale in the Desert, a game I still support, by a mix of accident and design and slow iterative evolution has a carrot-stick model that also seems to work. The small size of the community establishes meaningful name recognition, exerting underlying pressure to behave or be ostracized from the game. Players are forcibly reliant on others in some aspects (but not all, so there’s still stuff to do if one is alone) inducing completionists and veterans to be nice or at least build cooperative networks. Solo being viable here is debatable, but worked around by paying extra for the privilege, aka buying a second account to give yourself an extra set of hands, which I feel is a fair enough financial model.

This is as contrasted with a game like Eve Online, which I’ve tried twice and was somewhat intrigued, but ultimately couldn’t buy in to the model of paying monthly for the privilege of possibly being preyed on by anyone who felt like it and had more friends/time/power than thou, while fostering your own network of allies to do the same to others. That sort of nuclear escalation can only end badly in the long term.

Reality may indeed be that the glass is half empty and half full at the same time. I want games that highlight positive behaviors in order to encourage it, rather than glamorize the negative and make that habit-forming.

3) MMO Should Return Equitable Gameplay Value For Price Being Asked, as Compared to Other Games on Market

Okay, this general statement is cheating, I know. It’s very subjective, what is good gameplay value to me is different from what others prefer. But it’s the best way I can summarize the final decision to play or not play a particular game.

It encompasses what you’re supposed to do in a game, and all your options for doing stuff. Personally, I like killing mobs (mindlessly, meditatively and methodically, or with good tactical use of skills and positioning, preferably alone or with tools under my control aka henchmen/heroes), exploring, building, minigames, and certain kinds of team/objective-based PvP. I don’t mind crafting, collecting, achievement hunting and vanity dress up but am not completionist about them. I enjoy experiencing a good story and narrative. I tolerate with some neutral sway playing in a group. I’m open to some vertical progression like levels, but I wouldn’t mind leaving it in a heartbeat to focus on lateral goals like mission/story unlocks, optional challenges and so on.

It takes into account the pricing model of the game. How much am I supposed to pay monthly to enjoy doing the main bulk of the stuff in-game? Can I choose not to pay for a time and still have a viable good experience, if I don’t necessarily need it ALL, NOW? Can I use in-game currency (or time invested in playing the game) as a viable alternative to real life currency? Can I leave and come back after a time, without feeling like I’ve lost out completely and it’s now impossible to catch up with anyone?

(For the record, I’m comfortable with $0-20 monthly. Yes, yes and yes, are the answers I want to hear to the other questions.)

Then finally, does another game on the market give me better return for the same cost or less? If I keep thinking how I’d be better off playing another game, while I’m playing your game, well… Yeah.

As for what I don’t want, there’s possibly some consistency and repeats, if you flip them and compare them to the want list.

1) Holy Trinity Co-Dependency

First of all, it’s been done. To death. I love an MMO that gives me an interesting twist, a new take, an innovative feature. I hate MMOs that fall back on the same lazy tank/heal/dps standard combat.

I loathe the co-dependency involved. I’m big on being able to act as an autonomous party. Needing a pocket healer to keep me alive is not at all part of that plan. Being a meatshield that can’t do any real damage at all is gimped. Choosing squishy dps, you end up having to wait for two other suckers to take the less wanted roles.

Screw all that. If I’m a good player, I want to be able to juggle my skills and positioning and react with good timing and situational awareness to do damage, help and support other players as needed with the overall goal of taking the mob down. If I’m a less good player, I’d like a good player to be able to step in and catch me/save the day with the above, while still contributing a valuable, decent amount to the overall cause. I especially would not want to be the sole cause of a group’s downfall if I’m not as good playing the game as a baseline average of players (that just sorta long-term whittles out your playerbase as the elites group together in insular groups and everyone else is discouraged from joining in.)

I’m not at all keen on the super-specialization of builds/roles/functions a player is expected to perform when joining any group. That leads to cookie cutter builds and gameplay expectations. Deviate and be scorned.

Eff that. I enjoy the flexibility to choose melee or ranged or even dance back and forth between them at short, medium, long ranges as appropriate to the combat. I enjoy the freedom of a well-timed skill that saves someone’s butt (including my own.) I enjoy being able to kill stuff at a good pace when I want to.

2) Forced Group, Endless Hamster Wheel Progression

I’m cheating, I know. It’s two things. But since they often blend the two into *coughcough* raids, I feel justified to lump them together.

Forced group has been explained before. I find it very distracting and situationally chaotic to have too many people in one place at one time. Even worse if I feel pressured into the situation in order to progress further with the game. It’s a bloody game, I play to relax and enjoy myself – if I wanted that kind of performance anxiety and stage fright and excessive mental effort, I’ll go make a speech at an auditorium or do a public performance and get paid for it or something. Remember, I’m paying the game to entertain me, not torment me.

The hamster wheel of running in one place to get nowhere at all is a model that needs to die with subscription games falling out of vogue. The bottom line of that design is to keep you subscribed to the game. “Work” so hard defeating this foe, that challenge, “earn” a pretty reward, and what do you know, the baseline gets redrawn, and you get to do it all over again, and your reward is now considered trash. Go get the next uber sword, now, there’s a good donkey.

Ultimately, all you end up with is an increasingly smaller group of people who faithfully chase these goals and become elite and insular, and everyone else has fallen by the wayside (or chosen to stop, turn around and walk in the opposite direction giving you the middle finger… or simply meandered away somewhere else.)

3) Non-Compatibility with Older Computer Systems

Beyond those, I’m not terribly picky, so it was a bit of challenge coming up with number three. I settled on the point that could literally, stop me from playing your next-gen MMO.

I’m eventually going to upgrade and rejoin the ranks of ‘serious’ gamers who have stellar rigs with phenomenal graphics cards, CPU and memory out the wazoo, which will then make the point moot from a selfish standpoint (until two years after that.)

But my current situation gives me a lot more sympathy and understanding for those that presently don’t have the option to upgrade – kids dependent on parents, broke college students, people with families to maintain on a limited budget, out of work folks, people in less privileged countries, whatever.

I’ve been systematically crashing out of a number of games, including GW2 and TSW, as the programs happily exceed the 3MB RAM limitation on Windows XP systems while loading the next graphically-intense zone. GW2, at least, doesn’t crash if I have everything on its lowest settings and still looks decent, which suggests they must have taken it into account – even if Steam shows WinXP users are 15% of their population and dropping. It’s still 1 out of 10 players, y’know. Designers give worse drop rates to treasure tables and still assume players chase them.

I could always go out, pick up Windows 7, spend an entire evening backing up stuff and installing a new operating system… Just to play your game.

Or I could… play a Steam game, play a browser game, play TOME4 (or another roguelike, gogo ASCII and pure gameplay,) play Minecraft, play Civilization (and all its sequels and clones), play a game from GoG (old games, hooray for lower system requirements), hell, play Skyrim (it doesn’t crash and it’s graphically gorgeous) and basically play a game that plays nice with my geriatric computer.

No accounting for personal taste, eh?

MBTI and MMO Gaming

So am I the only one who stumbled on this and got a sudden urge to play Minecraft? Underground subterranean farm with sunlight, it's all here!

A perfect storm of stuff got me thinking along these lines lately:

Some folks in the blogosphere have been commenting about the difference between feelings of “fun” and feelings of “accomplishment.”

It seems one subset of people are searching for a game that gives them that accomplishment (or hard fun or whatever you want to call it) feeling, where it’s okay to “work” or put in a hefty amount of effort overcoming an obstacle so that you can feel this sense of satisfaction or triumph at the end when you achieve the final rewards. It’s okay if through parts of this process, they have to endure occasional not-fun stuff or frustration or grind as long as they reach their desired reward in the end.

“It’s character-building,” they claim.

Still others are looking for more immediate fun (or easy fun or what-have-you) where the moment-to-moment stop-and-smell-the-roses stuff is fun and enjoyable and relaxing and either easy to coast along or seeking that one true moment of perfect meditative flow. Not-fun or frustrating stuff wrecks this right in its tracks and yanks people out into gripe city.

“Whiners who need to L2P,” say the other subset. “Or learn some commitment. Pandering to these guys is what ruined MMOs. I miss the good old days.”

Let us disregard the obvious – that game designers will aim to put both types of gameplay into their game so as to suit the greatest number of people. (The first is more suited for long-term content and the latter short-term experiences, so they are relatively complementary and not always necessarily at odds with each other.)

Let us also disregard that people may not only be one subset or the other – they might enjoy both kinds of gameplay at different times.

Is there some kind of explanation or analysis that can help to explain why certain people prefer certain kinds of gaming styles?

Immediately, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) comes to mind as a helpful tool.

Of course it is over-simplification to classify all the varied people in the world into merely 16 personality types, but as these things go, the MBTI is pretty accurate and useful in being able to discern the preferences of groups of people.

Do bear in mind, no one preference is “better” than another, they’re just different. The main goal of the MBTI, as I see it, is more to allow people to understand that folks around them can have very different, but equally valid, preferences.

It’s beyond the scope of this post to cover the MBTI in detail. If you want one of those quick quizes that will approximate your MBTI, you can try out the Humanmetrics one here.

If you want to just read all the options and pick the one that best fits you, the Personality Pathways page explains what all those funky I, E, S, N, T, F, J, P letters mean.

Doing the Humanmetrics one for myself, I score this result:

Introvert(100%)  iNtuitive(50%)  iNtuitive  Thinking(62%)  Perceiving(44)%
  • You have strong preference of Introversion over Extraversion (100%)
  • You have moderate preference of Intuition over Sensing (50%)
  • You have distinctive preference of Thinking over Feeling (62%)
  • You have moderate preference of Perceiving over Judging (44%)

Typelogic explains the INTP personality in a lot more detail. I’m heartily amused by their turn of phrase, “A major concern for INTPs is the haunting sense of impending failure.” I’m sure regular readers of this blog are quite aware that I can sit around a lot obsessing about being seen as incompetent.

We’re “pensive, analytical folks,” “relatively easy-going and amenable to almost anything until their principles are violated”, but “prefer to return, however, to a reserved albeit benign ambiance, not wishing to make spectacles of themselves.”

That’s pretty much me to a T.

“So what does this have to do with gaming? “INTPs thrive on systems. Understanding, exploring, mastering, and manipulating systems can overtake the INTP’s conscious thought.”

Like I mentioned before, I play all this shit in my sidebar to grok things out. I may find one or two games that seem worthwhile to play around in for the long-term, but you bet I am dabbling with lots of other games on the side as well. I need my novelty fix or I will go crazy. I’ve learned not to expect that one single game will ever sate me entirely, so I game-hop tons, but keep one or two primary games to focus on. (It’s perhaps telling that I have to quantify and say two games, I don’t think I can ever just focus on one, period.)

INTPs are, however, not a big part of the population. Various sources peg us at about 1-3% representation, which makes us fairly un-average. We easily baffle other people who don’t share our same preferences. We’re quite easily misunderstood. The only thing we really have going for us is people stop and blink when we make one of our insightful or creative comments from time to time. :)

We can’t help ourselves though. We can’t help but wonder about stuff.

Like, has anyone else thought about the MBTI in relation to gaming? Or MBTI and MMOs specifically?

Google to the rescue. Sometime back in 2008, a guy made a blog post about it and made a few predictions for where you might find the various types. I think he’s a little off, and making guesses that veer toward horoscope-y, but at least he’s thought about it some.

What we really need though, is data. (Or so says the Thinking preference in me.)

In 2004, at the MUD Developers Conference, Kevin Saunders wrote a paper titled Applying Myers-Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI®) to Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) Design (I can’t seem to link the Quick View version – please google “MBTI and gaming” to get the link if you can’t FTP.)

One of the most interesting discoveries he made was that compared to the general population, we see a much stronger representation of introverts, intuitives, and/or feelers online. He goes on to surmise what kinds of game features would best appeal to this potential customer base. (This was way back in 2004 though, it’ll be interesting to see if populations have shifted any, what with WoW bringing in more mainstream game players.)

For example, introverts recover energy by spending time alone. Speaking for myself, I score extremely highly on the introversion scale, I’d be an 11 on a scale of 10 if they had one. I -need- solo time to myself. I find it very relaxing, especially if I’ve had to face people all day in real life while at work. The last thing I want to do is spend all of my game time feeling forced to socialize with others.

Add on irregular gaming hours and I become quite leery of committing myself anywhere.  Add on a preference for Perceiving, ie. unstructured activities, not being chained to a schedule, going with the flow and a Thinking preference that leaves me more interested in objective facts than what other people think and consensus-building (aka no drama, kthxbai) and I’m not your regular guild attendee. I’m quite thankful Guild Wars 2 allows multiple guilds and that a solo personal guild is quite viable if you’re patient and don’t mind spending some gold from time to time.

I’m not all people though. I suspect those with a Feeling preference would be much more inclined to seek out other people and socialize, introvert or not. And hey, Feelers are apparently the majority online, so there’s lots of potential guild members right there.

Extraverts would probably go crazy or get utterly bored of the game if they had to be by themselves for a while, so guilds and being able to party with whoever and whenever they wish is a game feature right up their alley.

I’ve no real idea how Sensing/Intuition relates to MMO gaming as yet, except maybe Sensers might need more guided step-by-step instructions and tutorials, while Intuitives may be more comfortable just feeling their way through and figuring out new concepts? That’s just a wild guess, though.

The Judging preference might be more telling. I’m guessing that Judgers really like a sense of structure to their gaming. They need to be able to make plans, to see the next goal ahead of them, and are probably the most likely to enjoy making lots of to-do lists and checking them off. They probably make good hardcore raider types. Scheduled activities, regular repetition, sense of progression, and what-have-you. Discipline is their watchword. I wonder if these are the folks that tend to seek that refined sense of accomplishment over just simple ordinary everyday fun?

If you ask me, Guild Wars 2 does a fantastic job catering to all types of preferences. There’s stuff for soloers, stuff for groups, most of it optional or do it at your own pace. You can run through the world going from heart to heart, POI to waypoint like a laundry list of things to get done to accomplish 100% world completion and get a shiny gold star, or you can wander around aimlessly to check out the hill over yonder, ignoring anything that doesn’t interest you (Bhagpuss is the epitome of this style of play, eh?)

You can play WvW or sPvP or dungeons in a hardcore fashion, with schedules, guild organization, alarm clocks, practice sessions and more, for high stakes. Or you can dabble in the same activities in a more leisurely, PUG or hotjoin manner at a lower level of intensity – just accept you’ll be steamrolled by those playing at a higher intensity level. The cost of high intensity is faster burnout, so it all balances out in the end.

Perhaps the only thing that the panacea of Guild Wars 2 hasn’t solved yet is how to help different gaming preferences find like souls.

I did some jumping with a 25% speed thief and somehow squeezed past some geometry into this little private section of Sparkfly Fen. This little illicit thrill of breaking the boundaries exploring and being in a place few ever get to gives me a helluva lot more ‘hee-hee’ laughs and satisfaction than, for example, out-playing someone and getting to do a finishing move on them.

I’m a lot less dedicated than these guys to the art or sport of walljumping, but it’s nice knowing a few like-minded souls are out there. (I learned just by watching someone a little secret climbing spot in the Lunatic Inquisition map, fer example, though it got fixed and blocked later on.)

Maybe some day, an MMO will figure out how to help players with similar preferences and playstyles find each other. Timezones, alas, do not help. (More than once, I’ve seen an NA guild or two that looks it might match me, but yeaaaah… 12 hours difference is hard to work around.)

Until then, I guess we just have to play our MMOs and enjoy them our way, while recognizing they’re populated with a whole host of people with varying preferences and priorities.