I See the Future of the Games Industry and It's Procedurally Generated

May 07, 2011

Being in the game industry I see how much effort goes into content generation. You could say most games are content glued together with a thin layer of programming. Yet creating content is a labor intensive and thus expensive process that only grows as technology allows (and customers demand) more complex and richer games.

I am amazed at how rich the environment appears in iD's new game, Rage and wonder at the supposed 20GB of data backing it up. The amount of effort required to generate such a AAA title must be staggering.

Star Wars The Old Republic is rumored to be approaching $100 Million in cost. Unbelievable that games now rival Hollywood in how much it takes to build a major title.

There are also millions of games developed by small teams or individuals, most of which have at least some art and other content. For many it's fairly minimal, such as a word game for the iPhone like the one I've written. For an MMO like the one I work on the content can be pretty large (ours is a small team but the game has been live for 10 years) and for something like Rage enormous.

Of course content is a broad category: it begins with art, from 2d painting to 3d object creation, to animation, story, level design, ai and even web and marketing design. It's the stuff the makes the game what it is. Programming (my part of this) can be anything from simple scripting in an existing engine such as Unity Pro or Unreal to building your own engine and technology like iD does with Rage. Without content though the programming is an empty shell.

If a top level AAA title involves tens of millions of dollars to build and generates gigabytes of content how does the developer/marketer/publisher make enough money to justify the cost? Most AAA titles generate the bulk of their revenues in the first few weeks after release. Games which feature solo play generally play for less than 10 hours to complete them. Once the game is finished, a customer might dabble in multiplayer play for a bit before diving into the next title. In such a game incredibly detailed and rich areas might takes weeks to develop and are seen for all of a few seconds.

In traditional MMO games of course the catch is that you pay as you go, either per month or as a free to start but pay to have fun design. Unless the gameplay itself is rich and non-repeating the game company must continually develop and ship new play areas or risk losing customers to the next big thing. Our gameplay is fairly non-repeating and addictive but with our small staff it's impossible to produce enough new content to grow the playerbase. As time passes the content becomes stale looking and no game can attract new players no matter the gameplay.

So content costs a fortune and you can't build enough of it, you can't ship it easily because it is too big, and customers always want shiny new things as if they were human Magpies. What to do?

One choice is to focus on games which require little content, especially art, such as the little games I am working on for the Apple App Store. That isn't much of a solution for most companies though.

Another choice is to build a game where the customers do most of the content creation, like Minecraft. It isn't easy to design such a game but if you do it well the game can grow for a long time. Even then you need to continually improve the game itself and what it allows the customers to create but that is much easier from a cost standpoint than creating the actual content itself. Games which allow customer modding and include level design editors also extend the life of the product, though rarely does that result in additional income for the original developer unless it spurs more sales.

A final and far more complex choice is to write code that generates content either upfront or during gameplay. This is an area still far from mature which many people fear will result in either fewer content creator jobs or bland content. Given the insatiable demand for game content and the inability of the industry to support ever increasing budgets for games automation and generation is going to happen eventually. As in the early industrial revolution hand crafting of everything has to give way to using more machines and leaving the rich details to the content designers.

That paragraph scares the pants off of lots of people in the industry.

In the next article I will generate more content on the details (but I swear it will be hand crafted) and what I think can be done.