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About the Archives

This page contains all entries posted to GAMBIT in June 2012. They are listed from oldest to newest.

May 2012 is the previous archive.

July 2012 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Thoughts on Procedural Content Generation

This post originally appeared on Clara Fernández-Vara's blog Vagrant Cursor.

At the end of May, I gave a presentation on the underlying systems and tools that we used to develop the games Symon and Stranded in Singapore at the Procedural Content Generation workshop during the Foundations of Digital Games Conference. Most of the other presenters were computer scientists, as well as my friends. Thus I had a kind audience for this humanist to present the paper I wrote with Alec Thomson (now available online). Feeling a bit of the outsider in terms of background and methods, I also sensed the cultural differences between their approach and my own. In general, the presentations focused on generating the game (including mine). What I found considerably absent was a discussion of human factors: are these games playable? How does PCG transform how we make games? How does it change how we play them?


The workshop obviously had a technical focus, so when it came to talk about evaluating the systems, the discussion focused on how AI solvers / computer players were used to see if the game generated is consistent. Few of the presenters seemed to have used human players (more sophisticated and accessible AIs which you don't have to implement) to evaluate their systems. On the other hand, there were presentations that dealt with the systems exclusively, not really dealing with why this approach was better for games apart from the pre-existing arguments efficiency in creating more content with smaller teams.

I guess that the presentations at the PCG workshop were clear examples of the proceduralist stance in game development, since the discussion of players seemed to be out of the question. Many of these presentations are more hypothetical, and implemented as early prototypes, still far from being actual games. I'm not saying that this is bad, we do need this kind of studies and tools. It was also the nature of this seminar, which was grounded on computer science, and the expectation seemed to be focusing on the systems and not players.

Throughout the workshop it became evident that we also need the space between procedural generation of content and evaluating that content through playtesting. After two years of working on games using PCG, the conclusion is that, in our case, we can generate procedurally generated narrative puzzles. It's a lot of work, but it's true it's only half of the work. The other half is making them playable and fun. For that, I have less faith on AI and more on actual humans designing and playing.

I'm advocating the creation of a research space closer to HCI, where we study how procedural generation actually affects game design and gameplay. There is a need to study how the process helps both designer, the design process and the players. We need to see this in games that can go beyond academic experiments, that are played by people who don't know and probably shouldn't care that these games are part of research. Reaching out beyond the academic sphere is not easy: there's Facade and Prom Night, and my own games Symon and Stranded in Singapore. (If there are more, please let me know in the comments!) We cannot feel snug about creating a system and making a game that our friends will play. If we want to make an impact on game development and design, we must take it a step further, we need to evaluate how games using PCG are played by people who are not those who developed the system.

There are already some easy questions that we can start looking into:

  • If we think of content as something like puzzles, or level design, how do we provide cues for interaction to players? Think of hints to solve a puzzle, or user feedback about where to go. This is a common problem--Gillian Smith had run into these issues as well during the development of Endless Web. We can certainly design a system to provide these cues and feedback, but the best way to do it would be studying how players interact with the game first.

  • What are the aspects of game development that can use procedural generation best? Design? Art? Code? QA? Writing?

  • All the designers I can think of working on PCG come from computer science. How can we make procedural content generation accessible to non-programmers, or at least people who don't have a strong background on CS?

  • What mechanics and fictional worlds fit PCG best? I believe PCG is one approach to game development, but not the only one. After working on Stranded in Singapore, one of the conclusions was that it was really hard to design puzzles to be procedurally generated when they were based on the real world. Dreams, on the other hand, seem to be a good match for PCG, as seen in Symon and Endless Web.

These are the immediate questions that come to mind, based on my experience making games. I have a few preliminary answers for some of these, but we need to expand our thinking on what PCG means with relation to games.

The workshop taught me (amongst many other things) that many of the people working on PCG already take playtesting as part of their process. There were also slides that made my blood curdle, which reduced human behaviour to mathematical formulas. One presenter had a formula for "fun" depending on the type of player (who I'm guessing it's also determined with another mathematical formula). Another presenter called the story "filler" in the context of RPGs, which can be just generated to give you a motivation; when I called him out, he admitted that it may not be the best term. The fact that human feelings and behaviour are reduced to numbers, and that narrative is considered filler, may be symptoms of the subconscious disregard certain computer scientists may have for human behaviour. This is one of the dangers of focusing on the procedures so much: look at the screen for too long and one loses sight of play as a human activity, doesn't question how our brains and hearts fill the gaps so that we don't have to really generate all the content, and stops giving enough credit to players. By approaching fun and storytelling as things that are generated mechanically, negating that fun is an awfully vague concept (and non-quantifiable), and that stories are not only about events but about worlds and the people in it, we're heading towards playing with mathematical formulas empty of human meaning.

I'm probably preaching to the converted--most of my friends working on PCG will talk about their playtests and what they learned from them. This post is calling out a certain type of discourse which, also necessary, also seems to leave out the humanity of games. Rather than complaining (too much) about it, we should see this as an opportunity to opening up a new area of study. The combined study of procedurally generated content and human-computer interaction is waiting to happen.Who's up for it?

Ten Years of Civ II: Why Procedurality is Insufficient yet Critical

The Internet (well, the part of it I care about anyway) practically exploded this morning in response to the 10 year Civ II game.

If you haven't read that article yet please do so now, as I'm going to assume you are familiar with it for the rest of this post.

While I certainly found the story interesting, especially since I've been reading Noah Wardrip-Fruin's excellent book "Expressive Processing," I have been wondering why everyone has found it so compelling. On Twitter Chris Remo called it "breathtaking," and this doesn't seem to be an isolated case of hyperbole.

So what is it about this particular game of Civ II? I think that the answer is pretty straightforward, but is interesting in light of a recent game studies debate.

It seems pretty apparent that we (myself included) find this instance of Civ II compelling because it resonates with our fears regarding our own future. With Stanford biologists recently claiming that the current state of the world is unsustainable, recent economic pressures, climate change and general environmental destruction, in this game we see our potential future. It looks like a real possibility, and it scares us. This fear is amplified by the fact that it comes from a medium so many of us are so attached to, and furthermore, from a simulation that many people don't realize is as ideologically charged as it is. It's a bit like predicting the Super Bowl with the most recent Madden game. As Ian Bogost might say, people reading this story are working through simulation fever, asking themselves what it might mean that Civ II predicted this (feasible?) outcome for us.

What is fascinating to me about the reaction to this game is how it appears in light of recent game studies discourse in the wake of Migel Sicart's fascinating "Against Procedurality." As the argument goes, proceduralists believe that the meaning of a game arises primarily, if not only from, the rules and mechanics driving it. On the proceduralist side, games researcher Mike Treanor has perhaps most openly embraced this viewpoint.

The reaction to the 10-year Civ II game shows one of the major shortcomings of the proceduralist stance: the meanings that people make of games depend heavily on the context in which the games are perceived. I highly doubt anybody would care about the Civ II game if it did not seem so real, so possible, and it only seems this way because of the world we live in and how we understand it. If I played a game of Civ II for ten years and it ended in a utopian paradise, would anyone care?

I don't wish to throw-out procedurality entirely, though. As is often the case, the truth lies in the middle. This instance of Civ II is important to us because the rules of the simulation enabled it to happen AND because of who we are and our experience of the world. It is the sum of what the game is and how it works AND our own selves that make it meaningful. Subtract either and the meanings that so many are finding it, the meanings that make the story compelling, are gone.

From debates on Twitter I've realized this was not as clear as it should have been. I will blame writing quickly, but own it anyway and leave the original unchanged. My goal with this piece was to be a reminder that meaning construction is a collaborative process.

Many say that the "proceduralist" is a strawman, and they could be right. But I've met people who believe the game is everything, and I've met people who believe the game is nothing and it's all on the user. I don't think either viewpoint is correct, and that most people don't hold such extreme views, but even at the extremes both are valuable.

And I forgot to add in the original that Mike does great work, and I highly recommend it.

Friday Games @ GAMBIT - Starcraft 2

starcraft-2-logo.pngThis week Starcraft 2 players in the US are battling for fame and cash in two major tournaments, Major League Gaming: Anaheim and the US Nationals of the Starcraft 2 World Championship Series.

Since its release in 2010 Starcraft 2 has been at the forefront of the rapidly growing eSports industry. Players at the highest levels of competition are now traveling internationally to compete in tournaments and are able to support themselves financially solely from tournament winnings, streaming revenue, and sponsorship deals. eSports as a whole is expanding, with tournaments attracting upwards of a quarter of a million concurrent viewers via online video streaming services and attracting large mainstream sponsors, eager to promote their brands to the new market of eSports fans.

Come join us at 4pm in the lounge where we will be giving a primer on pro-gaming and Starcraft 2, then settling in to watch some epic matches.

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