Thursday, April 28, 2011

Procedural content in MMOs

Blue Kae recently posted about a utterly fantastic interactive procedural music generator called Otomata. One of the things that's really fascinating about it is that simple geometric shapes will produce complex songs that sound almost composed. One can't help but wonder if certain new age and minimalist electronic composers haven't been using tools like this for years and selling us the results.

The site got me thinking about procedural content in general, and why MMOs don't use more of it. Some of the most sticky and entertaining offline RPGs to me are Roguelikes, which consist entirely of procedurally generated content. I can't imagine a handcrafted game with askii graphics holding my interest as long as Angband and it's ilk have in the past. Diablo is essentially a Roguelike with graphics, and Diablo III is a game I'm really heavily anticipating. Procedural enemy spawns and loot rewards have also been used in combination with handcrafted environments in a number of online multiplayer RPGs. Borderlands and Phantasy Star Online (the latter of which I was all I played for six straight months!) are the most successful ones that come to mind.

Procedural content generation would seem to have a lot of advantages. If done well it will keep players hooked for hundreds of hours with an endless search for "uber rare loot," potentially serving as a replacement volumes of hand crafted content that would take enormous developer resources to produce. However, for whatever reason, no MMO developer seems to have really harnessed the full potential of procedural content.

In Star Wars galaxies, the procedural content is limited to terminal missions that tend to be pretty much straight up fetch, kill, or deliver missions out on the landscape. They also don't really offer rewards that are much to get excited about. Anarchy Online offers a much deeper procedural content generation system, door missions, with all sorts of sliders you can fiddle with to change the mission parameters. For example, if you are a stealthy type you can generate missions where you sneak into an area and steal something or assassinate someone.

The rewards are also quite good, you can scroll through missions until you get one that offers the precise gear upgrade you want. However, this is probably also why the door mission system in AO isn't as addictive as the systems in PSO or Diablo. Once you have a full set of gear together, you know the system won't offer you any useful rewards until you out level what you have. At that point you either go out into the world and grind on mobs for a while, or you grind door missions for loot you don't care about.

My perfect MMO, or at least I think it would be, would be a quest driven MMO with Diablo embedded in it. Instead of hand crafted instances, or perhaps in addition to them, I'd like to see dungeons be entrances to three or four levels of random procedurally generated content that can be done solo or in a party. Different dungeons would pull from different mob lists and tile sets. At the bottom of a dungeon there would be a fixed boss battle, ala Phantasy Star Online. Loot would be utterly random, and scale somewhat with the level of the instance. To me, a handful of randomized dungeons would make for a much more entertaining and accessible endgame than the PvP/ Raiding models that currently dominate the market.

Maybe I'm missing something and there is already an MMO like that out there. I seem to recall that one of the Everquest expansions experimented with procedural dungeons. It's too bad I'd have to play Everquest to get to them :-/


  1. In Anarchy Onlien you can also adjust the slider in terms of rewards - more money or more loot.

    I think a problem in AO and possibly with MMO procedural content so far is that it is a bit limited in scope and thus also creates regonizable patterns. Once you have seen and experienced some patterns enough times it becomes boring.

    It would perhaps work out in an interesting way if it was applied to whole outdoor/shared zones and everything that may be in there.

  2. I think Sente has it right as far as why it doesn't happen more often. Procedural content can only be as deep as the effort put into keeping it fresh. I assume it would be a gargantuan undertaking to make it worthwhile, although I would love to see it happen.

    Actually, I feel a good combination of hand-crafted and procedural content might be the best solution.

  3. @Sente: oh yeah, I forgot about that. Pretty much all I did when I played AO was run door missions. They lasted me a good three weeks or so before I got completely burned on them. I wonder what randomized outdoor zones would look like? Newer versions of Angband have a randomly generated overworld, but it really only works well because the design of towns is so limited.

    @Anjin: I totally agree, that's pretty much what I was trying to get at with "Diablo imbedded in a quest driven MMO." To be as cohesive and immersive as we'd expect from an MMO, a lot of the content would have to be generated by hand. For example, I just don't see how you are going to get capitol cities that make any kind of sense from a random generator.