Sunday, June 01, 2008

Death of Level Designers

I’ve recently read a series or articles globally titled The Death of the Level Designer: Procedural Content Generation in Games, purporting the rather bizarre idea that PCG (procedural content creation) would lead to the “death” of level designers.
Well, I decided to drop a few stones in the comment section of chapter six (last one thus far).

As you may have guessed, I couldn’t disagree more.
Here’s a copy of my reply (with all typos included!):


I've been lured by this provocative title, and felt like it needed comments.
I'll be honest and go straight to the point.

First and foremost, you say:

"The Death of the Level Designer: Procedural Content Generation in Games"

After six pages of what should have been an argumentation to defend your eye-smitting hypothesis, I'm yet to see anything that would remotely provide a solid argument in favour of your bold claim.
Had you limited your article to the informative enumeration and discussion of new PCG technologies, it would have been fine. Trying to spin that into a sensational claim was an absurd choice.

We're looking at cases where the topology of the terrain doesn't matter much as long as you can complete independant and repetitive tasks, like hacking mobs.
There are concepts which this methodology works for. There are others where this fails totally.
There is no doubt that terrain generators help gain a lot of time, but this won't necessarily apply well to all genres.

Procedural content is a good topic, but it should be wise not to make generalizations.
PCG is most acceptable in games where the randomness - and may I say soullessness - of a level doesn't matter much. This is why, among other things, random maps for RTS isn't a tool as shocking as a competition map on a FPS for example... but I could pick a racing game. People would rather play a thousand games on the same Mute City track rather than play on thousand variations of said track, simply because the success of a game is about learning it, and learning the levels.

So what are your chapters about, in regards of the initial claim?

Part I-II:

Points 1 and 2 are appreciable lists of existing methodologies and technologies, but don't prove that the end is nigh for level designers (or whatever you wanted to imply in your premise).
You would rather find yourself be telling that new tools offer new forms of creation, and fasten production times, make level designers' lives a tad easier (which, actually, may be arguable for anyone who's toyed with Carmack's texture technology).

Point 3 gets lost in irrelevance in my opinion. There is an amalgam of technologies which do refer to procedural content to a degree, but in the end, they have more to do with LOD than anything else. Case in point: It was only a question of time before we'd get beyond the limitation of spheres that kill you if you get too close (Freelancer for example), supposed to represent a true world in space.
You also pretend that (endless) exploration of random landscapes will make for future thrilling gaming experiences.
Not only this would get boring after a while, but worlds which would be too detached from human direct intervention would have no real warmth to them, and not having humans get the final say, add the final and meaningful touch to the picture is a mistake.
Of course, there are degress of PCG, from totally created out of the blue based on variables, or at least merging precreated assets with the fruits of algorithms. PCG without human intervention as a future standard makes no sense. You'll still smell the tasteless fractal essence of a world you wander in.

Point 4 digresses totally from the main topic, and we can rejoice to the idea that we'll finally have genuinely different NPCs, it doesn't provide a shred of evidence that LDs will become pointless.
You always need very specific content at some point, and this will be part of the LD to get sure this specific content meshes well with procedurally generated content.

Point 5 picks the case of Spore, which most important aspect had nothing to do with level design, especially due to the type of game we're speaking of. You are relying on a product which, at this moment, and maybe for the years to come, will be hard to hammer with fiery negative criticism. You're not taking risks by citing anticipated and already appraised subjects, much contrary to your series' title.

Part III

Point 1: It's already happening. Carmack, for example, has made no secrets about his work on the next id Tech iteration, where PCG will be applied to BSP content texturing as well.
It's probably less flashy than the likes of the Unreal Engine or CryEngine at the moment, but the implication is huge, and it's done step by step. But he never dismiss the intervention of the designer. On the contrary, he shapes the tool to make the job more effective and easier for the artists to add his own detail after the construction is done. Depending on how you segment the level production, the one who may have less work to do would be the artist, but the level designer will still be crucial.
They'll phase out in games where careful and meticulous level design is less important, as in, for example, Diablo 2, but no one has played this game because of the incredible repetitive mazes.
It's rather obvious, by the way, that quality should prevail on quantity.

Point 2 assumes PCG will apply to "games" as a whole, which is just plain wrong, and is in error in thinking that procedural terrain generation will become the rule in MMORPGs. MMORPGs being games which need less of the traditionnal replay value tricks. Yes, people do like the world they have actually learned day by day, and I don't think worlds would make much sense if, for example, Middle Earth looked differently everytime you and your guild logged in (yes, remember, this article initially started with a bold and embarassing claim regarding level design).

Point 3 is a good point, in only that the success of Spore will possibly launch a (re)new(ed) trend. Say a new market. But other branches won't dissappear all of sudden. It would be most absurd to think so.

Point 4 wrongly that PCG would engender greater game design, while totally forgetting that many good game designs reveal their greatness through the existence of equally excellent, manually and cautiously crafted levels.

Point 5 sees PCG as a revolution and tying itself into games-in-a-box. What is that? Is it relative to classic retail? Sand box genre? File size?

"The consumers benefit because they get a well-designed game as opposed to the licensed rubbish that is often churned out at the moment."

I'd say the rubbish lies in the out of the blue claim more than elsewhere.
PCG won't magically make games better.
Cherry on the cake, there's no credibility to gain by citing Atari's ET as an example in favour of your argument. On the contrary.

Part IV is almost entirely irrelevant to the LD issue.

Part V is interesting by the introduction of the following subclaim:

"The one area that random map generation is missing complex 3d topology generation: and no game is currently doing this. Dwarf Fortress doesn't generate the fortresses for you - it still relies on human intelligence to go through the process of placing tunnels and building bridges and towers. When a game is capable of procedurally generating maps of the complexity of Half-Life 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Minerva or any other modern FPS, then PCG for random map generation will be completely 'solved'."

The only problem you will have solved is how to create a maze with no soul. Quantity and randomization doesn't make quality. Eventually, it only assures variety while having the same player do the same stuff on and on, which actually leads to waste of time and the creation of mirror houses, by likely supporting the addiction in certain genres, giving the player the illusion of playing something new, while it's not.
It makes gaming poorer.

Part VI is rather puzzling, as you build it upon the ending sentence of former article, "I believe the real strength of procedural content generation will be seen in procedural generation of plot and narrative content," and yet cite the skinner box behaviour, then expand on it by saying that "the same set of pattern matching tools are useful for the designer of procedural content generation systems. The semi-randomised output of PCG systems will be picked over by the player's brain, and the underlying systems hopefully understood and enjoyed."

An addict might enjoy his dope, but it does not make his/her drug induced trip objectively sane, nor enjoyable to someone who's actually healthy.

Then you wonder why Johnathan Blow is particularily negative against what you defend. But I think he's particularly spot on regarding this point.

I can see the benefits of PCG in adventure and puzzle games rather easily, but a key element I think you should have considered is that in many cases, possibly the vast majority of them actually, players like to evolve in very familiar environments, and for many games, this means worlds which won't change from a game to another.
Consider GTA for example, which wouldn't be the same without well known landscapes and key locations, because what matters most is not the rather uninspiring city design, but the core gameplay. This gameplay relies on factors which depend on resources, themselves accessibles at those key locations (like the special muscle car). Could you imagine player having fun ever trying to find said car?
Oh but maybe the city would be generated once, when you start a new game. But then, what would PCG add to the level design at all, in terms of content and variety, especially to a game which is already that long?
Well, nothing. Your city would just be different than your friend's San Adreas. That is all.
They expect to meet people on equal grounds, or in environments they know. In certain cases, they'd rather know the environment by name.

You don't even wonder if we might see, post PCG craze, people being tired of fast-food 3D content, and ask for a more noticeable human intervention in their games.

So, well, I hope you do have part VII (or more) ready to roll, to tell me where I'm wrong and why you feel LDs should feel particularily worried about PCG.

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