In this blog post, I’ll try to answer three highly related questions:
• What’s your obsession with procedural content?
• Why did you choose the name Amplecti Chao?
• What’s going on in the picture with Zeus and Ares?
First, let’s stop and imagine we’re playing a traditional, single-player, campaign style RPG. After exploring the icy mountains, you discover that your next destination is the alpine forest below. You slog your way through hoards of minions toward giant wooden doors which you assume are the exit and just as you reach them ... [AUTOSAVING...]. What happens next? Boss battle of course. The doors open and there’s an Ice Giant on the other side. Obviously you’re supposed to kill the Giant before you’re allowed to the next area in the game.
When I was twelve, this type of encounter was awesome. After so many years of seeing the same thing it’s grown cliche. Let’s examine the scenario above.
1. The player is supposed to play through the mountain area before playing through the alpine forest area.
2. The player is supposed to kill all the minions before reaching the exit.
3. The game is supposed to autosave before the player starts the boss battle.
4. The player is supposed to kill the boss after finishing the mountain zone, but before continuing to the alpine zone.
Note the phrase “supposed to”. It points out intent. It means that, at some point, somewhere, there was a designer who crafted this area so that all players would have a predictable and controlled experience as they played through this area.
That craftsmanship raises the quality bar of the player’s experience. It allows custom storylines, cutscenes, narrative, and scripted sequences, to all enhance the player’s experience. And I’m tired of it.
A few years ago, I visited a forum where someone posted a Minecraft screenshot showing a hole in a cave floor. You could see a dimly lit area below, but there was no way down. The post asked “how am I supposed to get down there”. Many responses provided solutions to the problem at hand, but one tackled the higher level problem. They basically said “you’re not”. They then explained that in Minecraft, there is no “supposed to”. You’re not “supposed to” go down there. You’re not “supposed to” come out alive if you do. In fact, you’re not “supposed to” be in that cave at all. The game does not create guard rails, does not hold your hand, and likewise it has no expectations of you. It doesn’t give a damn if you retreat to the safety above ground, pillage all the treasures from that cave, or die trying. The game, and its design, are intentless. If there is intention within a Minecraft game, it comes from the player, not the designer. Thus began my understanding and my love of the intentless design philosophy.
Intentless game design is the simple notion that games can be created from settings, situations, rules, and mechanics without imposing an expectation upon the player. It explicitly embraces the notion that a player’s actions change the player’s state and the world’s state in a combinatorial fashion such that they cannot be predicted nor planned for. It does not exclude the idea of a goal state, either for the player or the world, but instead it casts aside all predictability of how a player navigates from their initial state to their goal state.
Why is intentless game design valuable? Intentless game design creates explorability within a game. It could be physical explorability, if your physical world is intentless. It could be magical explorability, if your magic system is intentless. The more game systems which are created without expectation, the more play-spaces the player can explore. Per Cliff Bleszinski, “I now believe there's a direct correlation between how good your game is and how many unique Youtube Videos it can yield.”
Additionally, intentless game design moves responsibility back to the player. Modern crafted experiences come with a notion that the game is holding our hand. If we're allowed access to a dungeon, we (the players) have come to expect that we must be properly prepared for the dungeon, otherwise we wouldn't be allowed access. If we're presented with a boss battle, we assume the boss is beatable. We've even developed an expectation that the game will save itself in case we die. Intentless game design moves all of those responsibilities back to the player. That requires some adjustment in thinking for modern gamers (see the Minecraft example above), but the weight of that responsibility -- that idea that you're not supposed to be here and you're not intended to survive -- it creates a valuable dread that I no longer get when I know the scenario was crafted with survivability in mind.
What does this have to do with procedural content generation? Well, as a technicality, nothing. Technically, any content that was procedurally generated could be crafted. And the reverse is technically true as well. However, crafted content has a strong tendency to weave intention into the design. Procedural content lends itself to intentless design, leaning toward a world where the player is free to create their own intention. I prefer procedural content because it tends to create game spaces I want to play in.
So you think procedural content is superior to crafted content? No, actually I think crafted content tends to have higher production values, more mass market appeal, and higher sales. I’m just tired of it. I'm ready to take responsibility for my own gaming experience, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Why did you choose the name Amplecti Chao? Amplecti Chao is latin for “Embrace Chaos”. It’s a reminder that randomness, while scary, can be harnessed to create things which are awesome. Hopefully it’s an obvious reference to procedural content generation, but it’s also a less obvious reference to me giving up a safe reliable paycheck for the chaos of indie game development.
What’s going on in the picture with Zeus and Ares? In this picture, the gods are creating a new world by throwing dice. It’s a mythological depiction of randomized world creation and it illustrates the values I design by. Mad props to Colleen Wilson for that image, I’m ecstatic about her work.