New approach...

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Ian Badcoe

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Oct 22, 2021, 7:47:50 AM10/22/21
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Hi all,

So I am changing tack, and I was wondering if anyone had any feedback or (freely accessible) relevant reading...


What I am thinking is to turn the problem upside down.

So rather than:

- First construct a PCG algorithm that can create playable levels (then tune for "fun")

I am thinking instead:

- First construct a game where even wholly random levels will have some merit (then look to improve on "random")

--

Details:

I am thinking of games where objects have a rich set of interactions based solely on proximity.  The player will have some sort of objective aided/hindered by those interactions and even randomly deploying objects will give some sort of unique situation (making some sort of sense) that the player must negotiate. 

For example, suppose the objective is a simple as "cross the map and survive":

- Turrets with limited range must be avoided or destroyed.

- Cover objects merely need be within a turret's range to modulate that situation.

- Repair robots merely need be near a turret to make destroying it harder. (And create a secondary objective of "first destroy this robot"...)

- Pairs of turrets get harder to destroy the closer they are together.

- Enemies are like turrets that will chase you.

- Pairs of enemies merely need be close together and they team up forming a harder challenge.

I am also thinking that a varied set of player abilities (both built-in and via pick ups in the level) generate a variety in how the player tackles a particular situation.

- A built in "stealth" ability provides advanced options for "avoid" strategies (and interacts with lights and shadow-casting objects such that it is again modulated by the precise level configuration...)

- Rare invisibility power-ups give an even better option which must be rationed

- And the ability to throw some object as a distraction is another option with its utility highly dependent on the exact positioning of enemies and obstacles


The important concept, I think, is to have each actor in the world automatically adopt behaviours relevant to its context (and arrange that the player can do the same.)  I hope such behaviours can be pretty simplistic, and complexity will emerge naturally from their interaction.

With a model like this, I think:

1) random arrangements will present distinct challenges

2) some configurations will be much more dangerous, but if the map is wide enough these can be avoided rather than overcome with force

3) increasing bad object density will increase difficulty on some sort of exponential curve (because adding separate objects gets linearly harder, but adding objects in proximity adds further difficulty on top of that)

4) increasing good object density will reduce difficulty on some sort of asymptotic curve (because there is a maximum number things you can use at the same time...)

5) modulating relative object density (like reducing the probability of lvl 1 opponents while increasing the probability of lvl 2 opponents) might give a more "nuanced" difficulty curve
5a) and can also provide a degree of "theming" (there are almost no health packs on this level but lots of potions of speed, or swap out the standard "goblin" family of opponents for "trolls" who have different strength/weaknesses but similar difficulties, or "traps, traps, traps!")

--

In theory this can be a playable game with only the most rudimentary level generation.

If I can make that playable then I think it will provide a richer context within which to experiment with less naïve PCG techniques.

e.g.

v1 might drop impassable blocks 100% at random (giving a small chance of impossible levels, increasing with block density)

v2 might just detect impassibility and delete random blocks until the level is possible

v3 might start to look at allocating of "regions" on the map with intended passable/impassable relationships and walls filled-in accordingly

Similarly:

v1 will have a chance of some really difficult configuration of objects, and a lower chance that it is unavoidable

v2 might detect difficult configurations via a heuristic and apply some moderation to them, if required

v3 might map the minimal difficulty path through the level and try to control the difficulty of that, maybe even adding hints as to what the worst areas are (e.g. piles of adventurer skulls)

--

Thoughts?



Thanks!


Ian

Peter Mawhorter

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Oct 22, 2021, 9:33:24 AM10/22/21
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Sounds like an interesting approach!

My first thought based on your opening premise was "pinball" which has some of the same properties: gravity plus the flippers ensure that whatever arrangement of bumpers there are, as long as there aren't blocked paths things will be interesting. I guess Peggle is an even stronger form of that, where several mechanics guarantee that each ball you shoot will eventually reach the bottom of the level.

I think your premise that this will lead to a different PCG approach is probably right, and it seems like interesting practical results could come out of this.

This is more of an aside, but these days I always try to go beyond combat as a core mechanic, both as a productive constraint and to avoid putting more genocide simulators out there.

-Peter Mawhorter

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Joris Dormans

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Oct 22, 2021, 10:41:43 AM10/22/21
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I think in general the strategy is sound. 50% of good PCG is in clever and flexible design of the the mechanics anyway. That's probably why there are so many roguelike genocide generators. Combat typically quite naturally has many of the traits you are after.

That said, doing it entirely bottom-up will probably make the levels quite noisy and indistinct. I think it will be advisable to make sure that the randomness operates on different levels of scale. For example active themes that vary between levels that limit the choices for otherwise randomly placed elements.

Good luck!
Joris

Ian Badcoe

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Oct 25, 2021, 11:55:12 AM10/25/21
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Thanks Peter,

I also have some concerns about making a game too much a "genocide simulator" but I am uncertain what are the limits on that?  Is it specifically games where you regularly get into wiping out all you meet?  Or can less obliterating combat have the same problem?  I'm uncertain myself...  on the one hand I dislike what a high proportion of games come down to combat, but on the other hand I think it may sometimes be a genuinely good shorthand for conflict which, if you expressed another way, requires way more exposition (e.g. dead opponents need no further explanation of why they left the field, and it's also obvious why they dropped all their gear...)  I realise this is getting beyond the central topic of the group, however...  I'll do some reading when I get a moment...

--

A different formulation of the same idea could work just as well, and not have this problem.  I immediately thought of some sort of nomadic survival game (nomadic to explain why you have to keep on moving...) where the things you meet would be food sources, things that help get food, things that take food, and things that want to eat you...  interactions such as: driving monkeys away from fruit noise that will attract a predator, if there is one -- show how components might synergise just by proximity in this case...

--

Another possibility might be to underline the stealth and make it a burglary simulator, where knocking guards on the head is the least desirable technique (as other guards might find the unconscious body, or miss him on their rounds).  However, this might take a little more sophistication in the basic generation to create e.g. patrol routes.  I am just now wondering whether guards having a base location + random waypoints could generate interesting patrols on a pure proximity basis...

Cheers,

Ian

Ian Badcoe

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Oct 25, 2021, 12:01:52 PM10/25/21
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Thanks Joris,

Yes, I was thinking an "advanced but not too advanced" feature would be some degree of theming that would make individual levels/areas distinctive.  The nice thing about configuring actors purely by proximity is that such theming should need no new generation rules, just altered probabilities (including to/from zero) of individual components.  Layering a graphically distinct look on top is a problem that can be solved somewhat separately...

Actually, I just thought of an existing example of the "pure proximity" approach.  "Dead Cells" has shield generators that just periodically give a force shield to enemies in range.  Just dropping one of those into an area modulates the difficulty with no requirement that the individual enemy deployment rules be changed...

Cheers,

Ian

Peter Mawhorter

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Oct 26, 2021, 5:47:18 AM10/26/21
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I personally don't mind violence in games (I play or have played a bunch of violent games, including FPSes) even though I am starting to look for other things in my own designs. But what I see as the issue is the combination of biological moral determinism (i.e., the goblins are "bad" because of their "race"; this is actually just bad in its own right) and then the aforementioned extermination. This is *everywhere* in games, because it's a staple fantasy trope going back to Tolkien. But if you unpack it, it's pretty dark. In LOTR, we can see ways that the different "races" are analogous to different cultures in real life, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture of Tolkein's world view (I've heard he later regretted his depiction of orcs specifically). Even the different human cultures are racialized, with the "barbarous" southern humans being willing to join Sauron. There's a lot of racism baked into that world, and by creating a world where it's literally true that someone can be stupid and evil because of their race, you make people more willing to believe that message when it's about the real world (this part is perhaps contentious).

When you mix in the imperative to "kill them all" because they're "irredeemably evil" you get something that closely mimics war propaganda in real life, especially in wars of conquest and colonisation, and at this point, I don't want to make any games with that particular combination of tropes any more. Basically, I think there are problems with the "kill them all" part, but they pale in comparison to the "irredeemably evil" part. In general, I think people should pay way more attention not to how graphic violence is, but to what the motivations are behind it in games, and to what kinds of mindsets the political context of the game encourages.

I think there's a larger issue here, which you've pointed out and which I find myself having: combat feels "inherently fun" and it's very easy in my designs to come back to combat as a set of mechanics or theme that feels exciting and easy to design interesting mechanics for. But I do wonder whether that's really "human nature" or whether that's a product of the games I've played and a games industry leaning into a particular angle on a particular audience? Maybe in a world where some totally different set of core mechanics were dominant, I'd be saying that those felt "inherently fun?" I think it's probably a combination of both nature and nurture, but I do think that other mechanical genres are underexplored as a result.

I think as a researcher one of the cool things I can do is try to give examples to other designers of new/interesting mechanics, to make it easier to design games in new spaces. After all, the fact that I feel combat-centered designs are "easy" probably does have a lot to do with the saturation of combat-centric games that I've played, and accordingly the wide variety of experience I have access to and my resulting ability to think in hypotheticals about such designs. Meanwhile, if you take some other rich domain, like cooking, for example, even though I can come up with some interesting ideas, they don't feel as exciting to me, and I've got fewer and simpler models to base them off of so it's harder for me to imagine how they'll play out.

Anyways, sorry for a bit of a rant here; I don't have a deep investment in the violent/nonviolent dichotomy, but I do feel strongly about the biological determinism part of things, and wish that more people saw it as an issue. I think the simplest mental check is to imagine: what if we didn't assume that race X was inherently evil, how would the actions of the game look in that light? And even better is to ask "Why are we associating X characteristic with Y race anyways; whose politics does that serve?"

-Peter

Ian Badcoe

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Oct 26, 2021, 9:04:24 AM10/26/21
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Thanks Peter,


This is very much in line with my own thinking on this subject and I don't personally feel it is at all a rant.  Although we're getting a bit away from the core subject of the group, I think it is very relevant as wider context inside which the our interests sit.

Similar to the LOTR/Tolkein angle, D&D, a year or so back, abandoned any idea that there were any inherently evil races, for exactly the same reasons.

--

Can anyone point me at any existing (freely accessible) overview/survey documents comparing combat with other mechanics, or surveying more and less acceptable framings for combat?  I'd be keen to read around this a little just as general background, even if it doesn't change my current project.  I thought that searching for "genocide simulator" would find mostly commentary (I was worried in case it was mostly too critical) but I think I am seeing it is an actual genre???

--

For my current work, I think I'll just try to keep combat the last resort and present plenty of alternatives.  One thing that occurs to me is that a GS playstyle will not be possible if the combat is too even.  If the player gets injured in combats, and injury takes time to repair or health bonuses are rare...



Thanks,

Ian

Mark J. Nelson

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Oct 26, 2021, 3:39:23 PM10/26/21
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"'Ian Badcoe' via Procedural Content Generation" <procedur...@googlegroups.com> writes:

> Can anyone point me at any existing (freely accessible) overview/survey documents comparing combat with other mechanics, or surveying more and less acceptable framings for combat? I'd be keen to read around this a little just as
> general background, even if it doesn't change my current project. I thought that searching for "genocide simulator" would find mostly commentary (I was worried in case it was mostly too critical) but I think I am seeing it is an
> actual genre???

I found this paper interesting:

J. C. Osborn, D. Lederle-Ensign, N. Wardrip-Fruin, M. Mateas
(2015). Combat in games. Proceedings of FDG
2015. https://escholarship.org/content/qt9zj6r5wz/qt9zj6r5wz.pdf

It doesn't really compare to *other* mechanics, but it does discuss
different ways combat mechanics manifest and how they're framed. In
particular there's a discussion in section 3.5 of why combat mechanics
tend not to be used for atypical/artistic/critical purposes, and whether
that's something inherent in them or not.

-Mark

--
Mark J. Nelson
Assistant Professor, Computer Science
American University, Washington, DC
https://www.kmjn.org

Ian Badcoe

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Oct 27, 2021, 9:48:52 AM10/27/21
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Thanks!


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Ian Badcoe

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Nov 5, 2021, 12:40:48 PM11/5/21
to 'Ian Badcoe' via Procedural Content Generation
Hi all,

I put together some boilerplate on this, I didn't get into the actual interaction mechanics, but it currently looks like this:

Inline image

The idea is that the combination of the lights and obstacles will make areas of shadow for stealth purposes.

The tile-base height map has given me some interesting PCG ideas too, since you can imagine flagging the edges between the tiles as "Walkable", "Jumpable", "Low Cliff" (safe to drop down) or "High Cliff" then respecting that when generating the heights to give not only more interesting terrain, but more passable/non-passable options.  If you imagine implementing a "no-one ever looks up" mechanic, it would give another stealth option too.  I would then probably smooth all the walkable edges into slopes bit leave the others as steps...

Cheers,

Ian

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