Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

GDC 2010: Procedural, There is Nothing Random About it

Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 19, 2010

It’s starting to wind down, but here’s some more notes! These are from the session Procedural, There is Nothing Random About it by Eskil Steenberg. Eskil is working on the indie MMO Love, which is going to go live very shortly, and his talk comes from the perspective of integrating many procedural techniques into his work. It worked well both as an overview of the concept and as an explanation of specific techniques. This talk had a bunch of valuable visual aids (he opened the game live at several points) so these notes are not as useful as a video would be. Sorry. Anyway:

History of Procedural

  • Procedural content generation started as a purely practical pursuit, because many old systems were severely lacking in memory. Games like Rescue on Fractalus and Populous (Eskil said the high selling “Mission Disk” addon was purely a list of random seeds) generated their procedural data in engine, but that solution is fairly pointless in today’s world.  We now have tons of memory and storage space.
  • The next type of procedural content generation is offline generation. One early attempt at this was the Massive crowd simulation tech created for Lord of the Rings. It’s also been used in a variety of modern games such as Far Cry 2 or Eve. This technique is valuable because an imperfect procedural tool can be fixed up in post production to iron out the kinks. This is a valuable way to save time.
  • Last year Eskil told everyone to fire their designers, this year he’s telling everyone to fire their artists. The way you make a good game is to make a bad game and fix it, so you need as fast an iteration as possible. This means you need a super fast art pipeline, and procedural tools are a huge help for this.
  • Ken Levine has said that filmmakers get to make movies while game developers get stuck having to make the camera first. “Ken, I love you but you’re wrong”. Many of the most artistically interesting films have been made by filmmakers who DID make their own camera. Technology is not purely a means to an artistic end, but can in fact inspire new and interesting artistic expressions.
  • Eskil demoed his modeling tool. He showed how it allows artists to make fragments and then use “deploy” to recursively place those objects over any mesh or surface. It’s an example of how you can set it up so artists get to art direct, instead of just make tons of individual custom pieces.
  • In today’s game industry, Art is what is stifling innovation. Design, tech, and innovation and held back by art constraints. Destructible environments are easy, but the high visual requirements mean we can’t do them. “Chris Hecker, I love you but you’re wrong”, there are still interesting tech issues to solve.

Procedural Generation Back In Engine

  • The solution to the issues with the stifling art pipeline is to put procedural generation back into the engine. Ragdoll may not look as good as hand animation, but it reflects the player actions in a stronger way. This feedback and responsiveness is what is missing.
  • How would you procedurally build a labyrinth? You start with a block, carve out a solution, and then add embellishments once you’re sure it works. The traditional way to make a locked house is to make exactly one door that can be opened by exactly one key.  The emphasis is on logically correct structures.
  • But, how about we take a statistical solution? Perhaps we make a house that can be opened in any number of ways. You find a key, and then maybe you find the house. Life is lots of keys and lots of doors, and can be about improvising. Why can’t games be about this kind of improvisation?
  • If Eskil were an assassin, he could pickpocket the entire room and gain hundreds of possibilities. Games can be like that. Instead of enforcing logical consistency, we can build a house with 5 doors, and randomly placed keys. It will be statistically consistent because the odds are functionally 0 to have all 5 keys end up in the house.
  • To build interesting statistically consistent systems you need to take advantage of spatial dependencies. Applying series of what are basically image filters can be used to handle these relationships. Stochastic sampling is a good place to start.
  • Disney said to Pixar that Pixar would fail because computers can’t understand emotions/wants of consumers. But, the designers of said computers can. If a rule can be taught to a designer it can be taught to a computer.
  • As an example, Eskil had an algorithm to place bridges in his world. At first it made way too many bridges, so he kept refining the algorithm. Instead of just reducing the frequency he made the requirements more strict until he arrived at the best bridge he could think of. The bridges made by his algorithm where more interesting and logical than ones he would have hand placed, because the computer didn’t come into it with any biases.
  • Love is basically complicated systems of hierarchical filters, that can construct objects of any type, such as buildings cliffs etc. The world is a grid, but subsections of the grid are replaced by custom artist assets as appropriate, so the world ends up not looking like a grid.


  • Last year, Eskil felt alone. He didn’t share any of the problems of the rest of the industry. The PC is dead, except for steam (but that doesn’t count). Free to play MMOs are all that matter, except for WoW (that doesn’t count). Eskil doesn’t want to count: that’s when you succeed.
  • Finally, Eskil wants us to all go out and explore. He wants us to say next year “Eskil, I love you but you’re wrong”.

3 Responses to “GDC 2010: Procedural, There is Nothing Random About it”

  1. […] 3:00PM: Zero to Millions: Building an XLSP for Gears of War 2: After running into some horrible XLSP-related pain I’m curious what Epic did to solve various issues. (I ended up going to Procedural, There is Nothing Random About it instead. Here’s the notes I wrote) […]

  2. […] demanded equal media coverage for all games in his excellent rant. Eskil Steenberg explained why procedural is not randomness. Jonathan Blow did a tech talk about the implementation of the rewind feature in Braid. Semi Secret […]

  3. […] the literal feedback of players, but never proposes lying to them in a competitive PvP environment. Eskil Steenberg’s whole talk was about moving Procedural Generation away from it’s long history of deception […]

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