MMO Mechanics, Procedural generation is the future


MMOs are infamous for the exorbitant amount of both time and money that is required to make a fantastic end product. Much of this effort and expenditure goes into producing very specific content such as leveling zones, quest chains, and dungeons. The classic themepark MMO in which all the rides are carefully engineered and maintained is compelling for a time, but the content therein tends to take longer to create than it does to exhaust. This invariably leads to redundant content that ends up on the scrapheap once it has been enjoyed for a time.

Procedural generation corrects much of this redundancy by providing essentially limitless variations of content, adding replayability and variety to the usual MMO repertoire. It also opens up some unique mechanics, like Elite: Dangerous' planned procedurally generated galaxy that is a full-scale replica of the Milky Way.

In this week's MMO Mechanics, I will look at how the genre is evolving because of how accessible procedural generation techniques have become to developers. I'll also explore how this might affect the future of MMOs by examining the mechanics that upcoming titles will incorporate.

Elite: Dangerous and its procedurally generated galaxy

Star Citizen is taking the hand-crafted development route by individually designing each of its solar systems. These systems will perhaps have more character than their procedurally generated counterparts due to this manual process and the inherent uniqueness it creates, but this attention to detail takes time and money. A nice middle ground between potentially bland procedural generation and time-consuming manual creation can be found in the promises of Elite: Dangerous developers Frontier Developments: The team will layer manually created star systems and other content on top of a massive procedurally generated galactic backdrop. The advantage of this is that it has allowed Frontier Developments to create a full scale model of the Milky Way that is fully explorable. Every solar system could be a unique combination of all the variables involved, filled with various planet types, hidden items or facilities, and random enemy ships.

Elite's galaxy incorporates both stars near Earth's solar system and other major stars in our galaxy from real astronomical maps. Procedural generation then fills in the gaps in human knowledge, readying the virtual galaxy for exploration and paving the way for imaginative play. If this is done poorly, the galaxy will seem samey and exploration would get boring rather quickly, but if it is done well, then procedural generation will add a real depth to Elite's exploration gameplay. I'm really excited to see how this shapes up: Could I travel out into deep space and find another player's hidden facility, sparking a classic sandbox territorial dispute? Imagine if EVE Online had a full-scale galaxy like that to play in!

Procedural generation on a planetary scale

Upcoming online game No Man's Sky takes things one step further by procedurally generating entire planets for you to explore. Every planet in the game will be unique, featuring various different environments and topographical combinations. The developers are even claiming that each planet's indigenous flora and fauna will be procedurally generated and entirely unique to that world. The potential for amazing combat and exploration mechanics in such a system is staggering, especially when you consider that the plan is to throw these planets into a persistent online universe. When you explore a planet, that will reportedly affect the online database for other players to see. You could perhaps find someone's crashed ship or stumble upon a forest someone burned down. Of course, this also means that if anyone decides to draw lewd things in the sand, then you'll also have the misfortune of seeing that masterpiece, but I'll gloss over that downside for now!

If Star Citizen hits its $41 million US stretch goal, then Cloud Imperium promises to put together a special development team dedicated to producing similar procedurally generated planets for players to colonise. Inspired by the rampant popularity of Minecraft, the MMO development team at Trion Worlds is set on making a similarly blocky voxel-based MMO called Trove. The title will reportedly blend handcrafted content with automatically generated zones to create a unique gameplay experience. And let's not forget Love, the fully procedurally generated MMO created by a single developer in which even the artwork is procedural. It has no core quests or content; instead, the player's journey is shaped by the actions of other players. With so many big games on the horizon incorporating similar gameplay, it's clear that procedural generation will play a big part in our gaming future.

Procedurally generated content within a scripted world

Procedural generation isn't limited only to building environments: It can also be used to create infinitely replayable core content such as dungeons and quests. Custom quest generation tools have proven incredibly popular in several MMOs, and some have toyed with randomisation to make those quests feel much more unique. City of Heroes' architect system allowed players to create their own missions by specifying a number of parameters and writing custom dialogue for NPC characters, which wouldn't be possible without the engine's ability to generate the levels quickly from a template.

EQN Landmark aims to take things one step further with procedurally generated quests: The player will no longer settle for changing some flavour text or predetermined variables. EQN will generate many quests on the fly, but EQN Landmark aims to put those tools in the hands of the player. These MMOs have the potential to showcase the true power of procedural generation in allowing players to solve quests by modifying their environment; the Voxel Farm engine that makes this possible is like Minecraft on steroids! But perhaps the best example of procedural content came in 2011 when RuneScape's developers released the massive Dungeons of Daemonheim expansion. The massive update brought in the dungeoneering system, a completely procedurally generated tool in which random dungeons full of puzzles and monsters are tailored to you and your party.

Custom-built content can be slow to produce and may have quite a short shelf-life due to its inherent lack of replayability. If procedural generation can allow entire planets and even galaxies to be created in astounding detail, the incoming wave of new MMOs using this technique will bring along great new mechanics to the genre. The technology is being used by everyone from Triple-A studios to new indie start-ups and even individual enterprises, so it's fair to expect great things from up-and-coming MMOs. I have written before about common MMO trappings such as the vertical climb, barriers to entry, and redundant content, but I have yet to find an easy remedy for all of my MMO woes. Perhaps the future implications of well-done procedural generation will give me the answer I've been looking for.