Friday, March 6, 2015

Authenticity And Contagion

Syp's post on procedurally generated content kicked off a flurry of responses around this corner of the blogosphere. Murf has compiled most of the links here so I'll just link to him and add Tobold's contribution.

I wasn't sure I'd ever played a game that used procedurally generated content but apparently I have because Tobold says Anarchy Online uses it. That would certainly explain my early experiences in Rubi-Ka, running for what seemed like hours across a landscape full of landmarks yet devoid of context.

My instinctive response to the whole idea of algorithmically-inspired content is negative. Emotionally it hits all the wrong chords. That's why, as Syp points out, it's a risky proposition as a marketing tool. There's a lot more going on here, though, than either the mechanics of making an imaginary world or the business of selling one.

When I think back to the early days of playing Everquest, sooner or later, usually sooner, one image always floats to the surface. It's the crumbling, enigmatic portrait of the mysterious boy-king that gazes arrogantly down from the high walls of the East Karana ramp.

That face used to haunt me every time I took the long climb to Highpass Hold. Even more so when I realized that it was replicated on a ruined temple half-sunk beneath the snows of Everfrost. Who was this Young Ozymandias, his mighty works all forgotten and fallen to decay?

Because I knew enough to know that Norrath had a history, even though I had little enough idea what that history was, it somehow seemed to matter. For a long while I even believed I might one day learn the truth of it.

That was not irrational. Stepping back, I knew I was seeing a construct made by individuals, creative artists and writers and designers. That face hadn't just happened there. Someone had to have created the image and to have placed it where I found it. They would have had a reason. Wouldn't they?

I still have no idea who that boy-king is. If he has anything to do with Norath's gordian tangle of lore and legend I haven't been able to tease it out. What's more, now I'm able to peer into the world through a 24" screen at 1980x1020 instead of on a 15" CRT at 1024x768, I can see that the frescoes on the Everfrost ruin aren't even of the same face. (Although it could be the same person at different ages. Hmmm.)

In a world where one of the main cities has a name that's the name of the game and its operating company spelled backwards, chances are the "boy-king" is actually nothing more than a picture of one of the designer's children, placed there as an ego-gratifying in-joke. But there might be more to it. There might...

That first-person camera can't come soon enough

Every handcrafted MMO has a myriad of things like that. Odd little weirdnesses that seem like they might mean something but almost certainly don't. In GW2, in an inner room of an outpost right at the very limits of Snowden Drifts, there's a very large, overfed cat that likes to roll on her back and wave her legs around. When I first found her I was charmed and surprised. I'd never seen a cat like that before and I thought it must "mean something".

It didn't, of course. There are quite a few big-boned felines rolling about Tyria and I don't mean just at Meatoberfest. Still, I was back in Snowden Drifts the other day after a long absence and that cat surprised me all over again. Even though I know it's just set-dressing I still half-expected something to come of it.

Carrying on with the cat theme there's the Crazy Cat Lady house in LotRO. There seems to be no reason for that place to exist other than some designer thought it would be amusing. And he was right. By now it must have tickled the fancy of thousands of hobbits with time on their hands and an inquisitive streak.

I could go on and on pulling up examples like this out of memory. Some of them without cats, too. Done well, this kind of crafted serendipity has a powerful impact that creates lasting memories. So why am I leary of seeing something similar produced via algorithm? Why does it instinctively feel that that would be a cold, empty, enervating experience, where these examples feel, conversely, so warm, so pregnant with potential?

Is this handcrafted or procedurally generated? Could I tell? Would I care?

Authenticity is the obvious response. There's a lot of interest in nailing that one down and good luck to anyone that tries. George E. Newman and Paul Bloom took a run at it and it was from their paper that I learned of the psychological term "Contagion", which they summarize thus : "This is the belief that, through physical contact, objects can take on a special quality or essence."

That does seem to help. When you get right down to it, the huge majority of hand-crafted backdrops, scenery and set-dressing in virtual world MMORPGs don't have any special meaning. They have accretive value in building worldliness but there frequently, usually, is no lore or backstory that can be revealed, no matter how long and hard you dig. There was a space and someone put something in it is the alpha and omega of that story.

But there could be. There could be something. A creator's hand touched the keys. Magic could have passed. Probably didn't but you never can be sure.

Crafted or generated, it doesn't pay to stand still too long, or look too closely.

Of course, in virtuality we are already operating at one remove. Whether you can have contagion when there's no physical object is something for some other Yale psychologists to consider. Add in algorithms and that's two orders of reality between us. Is it a stretch too far to feel the touch of the creator of the mathematics and the logic through the layers?

Experientially, as a player, I can't truly say for sure whether I could even tell the difference between a hand-crafted and an algorithmically generated gamespace. It's even likely that I'm already doing as much of the imaginative work, as a player, bringing the world to life in a crafted game, as advocates of procedural generation claim they so enjoy doing in a procedural.

The problem, for me, then, is foreknowledge, which brings us all the way back to Syp's original proposition: "Procedurally generated worlds/zones are not a selling point". With that statement I definitely, unequivocally, do concur.

Procedural generation is a tool. Used knowingly and effectively by creative artists, I don't see any reason to discount it's value and effectiveness. The thing is, if you are using it, I'd really rather you kept quiet about it.


  1. Mmm.... this is a tough topic.

    To me, procedurally generated world / terrain is a selling point *to the extent that it frees designer time to work on more interesting stuff*. The fact that there is a procedure that generates terrain isn't particularly interesting. What you do with it, on the other hand, is.

    Crowfall seems to be a good use case for procedural generation. They need lots of worlds that aren't meant to last any real length of time. Making these by hand seems a waste, possibly a fatal one. Landmark might be another good case.

    In a long running, persistent MMO, the fit might be very good or might be very bad, depending on how it is used. Normally I gather that the designers say "OK, I want a zone with a city -- lets make some flat terrain and maybe a waterfront." A good use for procedural generation might be to make a map, then decide where a good place for the city you want is. Then what is it near? How would all of this looked a hundred years ago? What sort of monsters might be nearby? If there is another city in another good place, where does the trade route between them naturally go? That could all be good.

    Saying "random map, go!" followed by "plunk stuff here and there -- done" might not be. But if it is quick enough, and that means you get more time on story, and characters, and the rest of the world, well... maybe it would be OK.

    Sounds to me like a management issue, mostly.

    1. Sorry - late reply! Sometimes I get the feeling all MMO "design" problems could be summed up better as "management issues". I'm also somewhat vague on how procedural generation works once you get beyond topological features and vegetation. Can you algorithmically generate an entire city? How about the interiors? Does an artist have to create all the furniture and fittings individually for the algorithm to place? Can you procedurally generate the paintings in a nobleman's house or does someone have to "paint" them first?

      Like a lot of things in MMOs the more I start to think about it the more I realize I have no idea what I'm talking about, which makes me begin to doubt whether anyone else talking about it does either. At which point I just give up and go slaughter some gnolls.

  2. It seems to me all this terminology as only interest for people that want to push "sandbox" and "user generated content" vs "themepark"/"developer content".

    Random generated maps are nice - god knows that make turn based games more interesting and some old 2D RPGs & 2D RTSs got replayability from that.

    It is a question if we want a toy like lego or a game with story and rules/systems.

    Otherwise it is just a tool for the developers.


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