The beginning of the end
Imagine a game to end all games. The only game you’ll ever need. Each press of the “new game” button leads to a wildly different adventure with worlds, stories, and characters created anew. Each world acting as infinitely expansive with a brilliant experience around every corner and, again, all in a single game. It sounds fanciful, yes? It is now, but No Man’s Sky represents a real step forward towards the creation of a true infinity game.
Plenty of games promise “a whole new game” every time a new round begins and, to a certain degree, they’re right. Turn based strategy games, such as Civilization 5 or Master of Orion, have long delivered on creating new experiences by messing with computation heavy aspects of game design. Many of these games create maps using a random number generator and build on the ever changing set of map creation variables to force new and interesting interactions. This is an old template, but it shows the power of randomization in developing replayability in games. It is, unfortunately, also very limited. These games generate maps that are composed of contained variables. A mountain in Civilization 5 always has the same characteristics regardless of the game. Developer Firaxis may add additional requirements to the mountain tile placement (not near deserts, limiting the number that may be contiguous, etc), but each of these modifications are still fixed changes. These kinds of map making algorithms are still limited by the simplistic variables they rely on.
No Man’s Sky appears to overcome that limitation. Rather than rely on combining a selection of predefined traits, No Man’s Sky creates entire planets off of a formula that accounts for a far wider variety than the randomly generate maps of old. In No Man’s Sky, a mountain can take on any number of traits and is different in key ways from every other mountain around it. This removes random map generation strictly from simplistic turn based strategy maps and expands it into the far more complex world of 3D map generation. Open world games can auto generate their maps rather than meticulously craft each piece. To be sure, games like Minecraft already do this to a certain degree, but never to level that we’re seeing in No Man’s Sky. This is a major step beyond.
Of course, world generation is only a part of the puzzle. An infinity game would also need procedurally generated content to truly provide continuous unique experiences. We’ve already seen some advances along these lines such as item generation in many loot based games. Again, these are comparatively easy as they rely on a discreet set of variables that can be mixed and matched to provide new items. The difficult part of procedurally generated content is always those parts of a game that don’t provide that set of variables. No element is less well defined and more important than the narrative. Unlike an item, good narratives rely on fuzzy variables such as complex characters, well written dialogue, and an interesting plot. While elements of the narrative can be broadly categorized, they are never so well defined as to make for easy combining. They exist in a subjective space that relies on personal preference as much as any ironclad rules of creation. Even if we could come up with those ironclad rules, their repetition would make them boring and, therefore, no longer suitable. Success in this area means reliably creating and mixing a host of elements that defy the consistent rules that most procedurally generated content relies on.
The next great challenge is to overcome those hurdles. We’ve already seen a few hesitant steps. Skyrim and Fallout 4 create auto generated quests to augment existing stories. These quests fail in the areas we’d expect them to. Where creativity, characters and plot are required, these quests fall flat. Still, the rewards are substantial for whomever can resolve these problems. With both randomly generated maps and stories, developers can create an infinite number of games within a game. That sounds like a goal worth pursuing.