Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Trials of Designing Procedurally Generated Adventure Games

Clara Fernández-Vara, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, gave a presentation about her procedurally generated adventure games. Her work concentrates on adventure games and narrative in simulated environments.

  • Procedural content generation has existed in video games since early maze games and rogue-likes. Even the shuffling of cards from a card game can be considered procedural generation.
  • Will Wright's presentation of Spore at GDC focused on letting the users do the work of creating content. Procedural generation is focused on letting the computers do the work.
  • Clara's primary genre of focus are adventure games. Her influences include Heavy Rain, Machinarium, and Phoenix Wright.
  • Her goal is to look for innovation in adventure games. She wanted to create a system based on psyche and recreate the logic of dreams. Dreams happen to be unstable and random, so it fits perfectly with the somewhat random results of procedural generation.
  • The initial system that she designed involves creating a puzzle structure -> populating it with puzzles -> creating object combinations out of a list of NPCs, properties, and items -> and selecting and placing the objects in a specific order.
  • The puzzle generation system she used was inspired by GRIOT. She created Symon in 2010, in which the player is trapped in the dreams of a paralyzed patient.
  • The designer's role in a procedurally generated game is to figure out the puzzles and objects that provide insight into the narrative. She focuses on adventure games as simulation, thus it's important that generated puzzles have to create narrative. In Symon, for example, there's a puzzle involving a carnivorous plant, which signifies gardening. Symon doesn't like gardening, but he's been doing it for the last couple of years for his wife. The plant blocks Symon from progressing, but he can choose to kill it or give it something so that it leaves him alone.
  • The development of Symon had several problems. The design was dependent on the code, so whenever the designer wanted to make a change, she needed the programmer to implement it. Secondly, the process and iteration was slow due to the programmer being a bottleneck. Finally, there was only one type of puzzle with one variation (fetch quests).
  • Many players don't expect to replay adventure games, so a lot of the procedurally generated nature was ignored by the audience. There was a big challenge to write walkthroughs as every player experienced a different game with different characters and puzzles. However, once the game was played through a few times, it was very easy to figure out the system and the game got boring.
  • Many tools were built to help the designers such as a tool to create puzzle patterns, a puzzle map, and a database editor.
  • Generating puzzles procedurally doesn't mean it's playable. There's a lot to add to make it an actually meaningful experience such as giving hints to the player when they're stuck.
  • Clara worked on Stranded in Singapore in 2011. It took place in the real world instead of in a dream. With this game, she had more control over the design and was able to add more puzzle patterns, although the generation algorithm still needed work.
  • Randomness can be an enemy of believability. For example, there was a puzzle in the game that involved finding ice cream and two slices of bread, combining them into a literal ice-cream sandwich. This is an actual food found in Singapore that the designers wanted to include in the game as a means to expose Singapore's culture. However, many players thought it was a random result of the procedural generation and didn't believe it actually exists.
  • Stranded in Singapore had a problem reconciling fiction with the mechanics. In Symon, the procedural generation made sense in the dream world since dreams are random and wacky, but it was odd in Stranded in Singapore.
  • Stranded in Singapore was focused on food, bargaining, and commercial transactions.
  • Lessons of designing procedurally generated adventure games are to focus on simulation, design relationships that generate narrative, and ensure that the game premise and fiction complement each other.
Question and Answer
  • The environments of Symon were generated based on the characters that were randomly selected to be in the game session.
  • The variation of objects is the biggest factor to give more narrative range and better replayability.
  • Clara's games are designed to not let the player get stuck. In order to do so, the games allow an undo or reset ability.
  • Her games are basically parodies of adventure games.
  • To generate the game session, the game has to generate the puzzles in backwards order.

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