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Fad or future: Procedurally generated games

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Procedural generation has grown in use tremendously since the late 90’s and the release of Diablo and Daggerfall, some of the first games to use the coding technique in a big way, although crackers were using it decades earlier to show off their skills. Presently, hundreds of developers procedurally generate at least some aspect of their games. Will the cost effectiveness of procedural generation outstrip the painstaking and expensive creativity of hard coding in the future of game design? Or will these two coding styles find a cohesive balance that elevates interactive media to a new level?

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The differences between the two techniques are quite clear. Hard coding, while time consuming and laborious, allows for direct control over the events of the game and creates an extremely stable platform. Procedural generation, on the other hand, requires a far smaller team and less time but loses some detail and fine tuning in return. However, developers are beginning to utilize both in innovative ways.

The Borderlands series of games are good examples of procedural generation at use. With nearly 18 million weapon combinations, hard coding all that would be nearly impossible. So, each enemy randomly drops randomly generated items. Everything from clip size to weapon strength and aesthetics are procedurally generated and combined, creating a unique experience every time.

In the Left 4 Dead series, procedural generation and an AI called “The Director”, created by Valve, literally controls the flow and pace of the game. Ammo is only dropped when needed and even the difficulty is raised or lowered by the actions of the player. This type of use could potentially point to the future of gaming.

Even with those examples of the flexibility of procedural generation, the creative license capable when hard coding will remain an integral part of game design. A blending of the two, as seen in current games, is more likely to evolve. Developers will create new uses for procedural generation, such as “building” cities or combining “handmade” elements in a random fashion, but hard coding will always be a part of the process.

The positive effect of this marriage is the ability for creators to keep development costs low and games affordable. Using procedural generation will allow coders to focus on creating the most engaging and interactive storylines and game worlds possible while the system controls the mundane or labor-intensive tasks. This will ultimately keep game sizes smaller and costs at a minimum. Regardless of the style, the future looks bright for gaming in general.