The big thing in gaming this week (aside from the new consoles) has been the announcement of this new game, No Man’s Sky, that is created with almost all procedurally created content. Here’s the video.
There’s a lot here that’s interesting (and a lot that’s concerning), but the idea is something I’ve been wanting to see for quite a long time. The creation of art assets is one of the biggest costs in game development, and having a game engine that can create entire worlds with math rather than artists will go a long way toward making huge, open-world games possible for small developers. That’s not to say artists won’t be needed, but they can focus on details, and let the engine work out the rest.
The idea of having a game with infinite worlds to explore is … amazing. In fact, watching the video reminded me of seeing video games back in the early 1980s. They’re ugly, and the gameplay might be simple, but you can see so much potential. Most games these days are overproduced, slick, and gorgeous. But just how much further can you see FPS games going in the future? There’s a very real sense that they have reached a sort of plateau. Maybe the next generation of consoles will change that, but I doubt it.
Of course, this game looks like a few steps back. We don’t know anything about the gameplay, for instance. It’s not bad looking for what it is, but it’s not good looking, either. There isn’t the detail that you get in human-created worlds. And how long would it be before it’s like Minecraft, where every world is unique, but somehow after a few hours it’s basically all the same. There’s definitely a trade-off, and I’m not sure it’s worth it yet.
The other problem is narrative. These sorts of games have emergent narrative–the story is, basically, what you do. I found this planet, I did this there. Some aliens came and chased me off, I left. It’s simple, but it’s more personal. No grand arcs, no subtext or theme or anything like that. I like more traditional narratives. Could you impose a traditional narrative on this sort of thing? Maybe. Probably not.
I still think the real payoff will be a balance of created art assets with procedural generation. Worlds that go on forever, but are filled will millions (or more) created objects, locations, etc., that were made by human hands. So far, no game that focuses on procedural generation has gotten it right. The games look … dated. No Man’s Sky looks better than most. But this isn’t quite revolutionary. I just hope that game developers will look at it and find ways of incorporating those ideas into their AAA games. I’d sacrifice some graphical niceties for a game that felt real and went on forever. It’s been years since I had that sense of adventure and discovery and exploration in a game. Odd that will all the bells and whistles they add these days, it’s one thing the old school games never had much trouble with.
Or maybe I’m just an old fogey wearing rose-tinted glasses. Take your pick.