John Carmack recently said procedural techniques are nothing more than a crappy form of compression. This is while he was asked about the Unlimited Detail tech. To be fair, this should be taken only in the context of that question and runtime-engines, which is anyway a bit strange since Unlimited Detail is not really using anything procedural, it is mostly tiling instances of unique detail. Still, is he right about that? Is procedural generation just crappy compression?
Others have said that procedural generation in games inevitably leads to large, bland scenarios. Or maddening repetitive dungeons and corridors. As they put it, humans can only be engaged by content that was created by other humans.
I actually agree with them. And yes, you are still reading Procedural World.
Despite of what we naysayers may believe, procedural techniques have seen a lot of success already. It is not really in your face, not a household name, but it has been instrumental producing content that otherwise would simply not exist.
Take a look at this image:
Well thanks, it does looks like the shinny things I'm trying to do, but this is Pandora from the Avatar movie. Now, do you think this was entirely handcrafted?
Pandora is mostly procedural. They have synthetic noises everywhere, L-systems for plants and ground cover, it is actually a textbook example for procedural techniques. A lot of people went to visit it, and it made heaps of money. If you define success on those terms, this baby takes the cake. And it is thanks to procedural generation. Without it Pandora would have looked like this:
So clearly proceduralism can help creating appealing content. As Carmack says, it is some form of compression. What got compressed in this case was not information over the wire, or over the bus to the graphics card, it is the amount of work artists needed to do. Instead of worrying about every little fern, they could spend their effort somewhere else.
What is wrong with this? Now imagine it was a game and you were marooned in this huge Pandora place. You would probably get bored after a while, besides staying alive there is not much to do. If there is a thing we humans can do is we can get bored anywhere, all the time.
We need this sort of battle-is-brewing, storm-is-coming thing lurking in the horizon. We need a sense of purpose and destiny, or a mystery for the lack of it. Is this something that only other humans can create for us?
At this point it becomes about Artificial Intelligence. Think of a variation of the Turing Test, where a human player would not be able to tell whether a game was designed by another human or by a computer. This is the real frontier for pure Procedural Content generation.
In the field of physics there are two theories that are very successful in explaining the two halves of the real world: Quantum Physics and General Relativity. They don't get along at all. There is a discontinuity where one theory ends and the other starts.
A similar scenario can be found in Procedural generation. On one side you have the Roguelike-Dwarf Fortress type of games which can generate compelling experiences, but lack any visual appeal. These games use text or ASCII screens. It is like never jacking into the Matrix and keep staring at the floating text. Can you see the woman in the red dress?
Then any attempt to visualize the worlds they describe, the magic dies. You realize it was better when it was all ASCII, which is sad cause only weirdos play ASCII games.
The other side is rich visual worlds like Pandora. With the advent of computing as a commodity -the cloud- bigger and richer worlds will become available, even for devices with limited power like mobiles and tablets. But they lack the drama. Even a Pocahontas remix is beyond what they can do.
Triple A studios have realized this. It is better to use procedural techniques at what they do best: terrain filler, trees, texturing, and leave the creative work for the humans. They do not have a reason to invest in this type of AI, they won't push this front if it was up to them.
I do believe it is possible to marry these two opposed ends. Someone with an unique vision into both fields will be able to come up with a unified theory of procedural generation. And I think it will be the Unlimited Detail guys.
(EDIT: OK, OK. I'm kidding about Unlimited Detail. Their next bogus claim could be they made procedural content generation 100,000 times better. It is surprising to me they still can be taken seriously.)