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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Golem Interview

I was interviewed recently by the Golem magazine. They were researching for an article on procedural generation. The article is in German. 

Only 7% of ProcWorld readers come from Germany. For the English readers I though it would be nice to post the original round of questions I got from Golem, along with the answers:

What are you working on at the moment? What are you most proud of in that regard? 

Right now I am working on real-time architecture. Buildings are generated as you approach them. It is challenging for many reasons. First you need ways to teach the system how to generate interesting buildings. Then you need to make it happen really fast. It is the worst combination possible: a hard problem that needs to be solved in very little time.

I am proud of the potential. It is not obvious right now, but as the hardware continues to grow this platform could produce incredibly rich environments.

What does procedural generation mean for artists? How will it transform their job - and how will they have to adapt to benefit?

Robots are coming for our jobs everywhere, even journalism is being automated (you could be a robot for all that I know). The key question is how creative your job really is. If you perform unimaginative tasks, even as a "creator", odds are you will be replaced by some technology. Artists are no exception. How to adapt? Be more human, less robotic :)

What makes procedural generation important for the future? What will it enable?

It helps looking at the past first. I see three ages in procedural generation. The first coming was when storage and delivery was very limited, so there was an advantage in generating stuff on-the-fly. This is when games like Elite first appeared. We were very forgiving as an audience back then. You could throw a few points on screen and call it a galaxy.

Then hardware grew to a point where more realistic representations could be stored and rendered. At this point it became possible to pack quality artwork into a product. This gave us the second age, where most content was hand made. We are still in that era. Consumer grade hardware, like current console generation, is not able to produce content that is rich enough to challenge human-created content. There is some proceduralism there and there, but it is relegated to the background.

If Moore's law continues to hold, we will enter a third stage. Hardware is growing at a faster pace than artist output. The industry needs to keep moving the new hardware, but it is becoming prohibitively expensive to do it in the traditional model. Automation is the only choice.

What will be the future? You can think of a variation of the Turing's test: A human plays a game without ever realizing most of it was created by a computer.

In what way could it make gaming better? Or worse? ;-)

I think it will produce a lot of horrible games. Look at what the auto-tune has done for music. But then it will produce some unique experiences.

I also think we should not worry about that. Imagine a house is burning and the people inside are wondering whether it is sunny outside. It does not matter because they have to come out anyway. Automation is inevitable in the games industry, otherwise the whole industry will stagnate and burn like the house. Whether it will be worse or better, makes no difference.

What are the worst problems - from a programming and an artistic standpoint?

Let's say you were building a game the traditional way. You would have one guy doing the story, some guys do concept art, some other guys do the actual environments, level design, others will create and place props and so on. In theory all of these tasks can be automated.

The reality is some of these tasks are a lot simpler. For instance the guy modeling rocks can be easily replaced, but what about the one doing the concept art or the storyline?

There are some tough problems there. They are on the fringe of AI and we have no solutions for them today. But then once you look at what we can do with automated translation, self-driving cars, and so on, we may not be far from that. There is also the advent of "the cloud" as a computing device. I think that changes everything.

What do you think has been the most important progress to procedural generation during the last years? An what can we expect from the future? And how important are hardware and 3D engines for the further advance of procedural content?

The hardware has evolved to a point where some cool things are now possible. We have known about them for many years. It was just too slow to try them.

There has been a lot of research in synthetic reality, for a long time now. The real bottleneck has been and continues to be the hardware. Look at the movie Avatar for example. It is a procedural world what you have there, still it costed millions to generate. This has to come to the point where an equally rich world could be generated by your home console or computer, or by cloud services you can afford.


  1. That is definitely interesting!
    I think I can not really disagree on anything that you answered XD.

  2. This is awesome, I'd love to get into the topic of procedural game design. Since you made significant progress in the area of creating 3D-worlds an interesting task would be to generate stories, characters (incl. relationships), quests and objects. Hope I have some time on christmas to do some research!

  3. "but it is becoming prohibitively expensive to do it in the traditional model. Automation is the only choice."

    It's not the only choice.
    At the moment a lot of time is spent on optimizing.
    Artists often model highpoly models to extract information from even now.
    If you could skip making the lowpoly mesh, baking normalmaps, LODs and that whole bit, which takes 1-2 days and go straight into the game engine from zbrush you would save a lot of time while still get better looking art.
    Voxels could really help with that bit. Tesselation looks quite good but doesn't really speed up the workflow.

    1. Actually, if you have systems which optimize models for you (as opposed to doing it yourself), is also a form of Automation, he didnt say what type of automation is the only choice XD.

      And if you meant just throwing in high poly models... Well, lets just say that if the extra polies dont add to the shininess (read, graphical quality) of the model, then a few important developers will shake their heads and tell you to optimise, cause people want to cram as much stuff into a game as possible.

    2. Yes, I agree better tools can help with this. Also tools will be increasingly procedural, like a brush that does rocks or town houses for instance.

      There is little point in arguing about predictions. It is just a matter of time whether they will be proven wrong or right.

      My point is, it is very possible the games industry will not continue to grow like before. We already hear talks of the next generation of consoles being not very much powerful than the current generation. There is a chance the industry's hardware has peaked.

      If that scenario becomes real, there will be an end to consoles and gaming PCs as old generations will be able to run any new content. The sales will be driven only by their obsolescence. Also old content will remain entertaining for much longer.

      I am not sure if this industry needs ever-growing hardware. After all look at the music, movie and book industries. Their hardware peaked long time ago. That did not kill them. The question is, should they take that bet?

      Now, in contrast to this scenario, imagine the industry found a way to keep pushing new hardware and new games which are only possible in that hardware. That would be ideal. I think automation can do that.

    3. Actually, not sure about music, but the movie industry keeps getting better hardware, we are just not on the receiving end of that hardware, but the hardware is used for tools to create better looking movies, we just need a television, and every 10 years we need to buy a new television because a new gimmick was invented and became common. Books became digital lately.

      As for games, I agree that the end-user hardware does not necessarily have to improve constantly, however the hardware in general should. I would love to just have something like a television, and just be able to play any game on it. I believe this is what people are working towards right now. That way, only one large place (A game channel?) could hold the big computer hardware, capable of playing hundreds of games at the same time, and then just streaming the output to the user at home.

      But I do disagree that we dont need better hardware, better hardware, atleast in games, will always allow for more possibilities.

  4. I guess i should have added that I'm a believer in procedurally generated worlds too, especially for certain types of games.
    Hand made assets that's placed procedurally, combined with some generated content would probably be best.

    1. But then you have the same nice buildings everywhere, which is the main problem with big sandbox games. For example, Minecraft's villages can only generate about ~6 types of structures, which get old pretty quickly.

    2. This very blog disproves that, since it too contains hand made objects (The small detail, nitty-fitty thingemethingies such as window frames etc.) and a large quantity of procedurally generated content.

  5. or just proceduraly generate all the textures ?
    (CPU willing)

  6. I definitely feel like procedural generation will play a large role in the future, but I don't think it will be the only way games are made.

    a) At some point, the hardware will be "good enough". Look at the Wii, for instance. Compared to other consoles, it's severely underpowered, and yet it has some of the best games -- both gameplay-wise, and, arguably, graphics-wise -- of this console generation. Sure, some companies will continue to focus on making their games better and better, and maybe some of those rock-modelers can be replaced by software, but I think we're rapidly approaching the point where it just doesn't matter anymore in the general case.

    b) There are plenty of games today that sell millions and yet don't use their hardware to its fullest. Just look at the blooming indie games market.

    c) Depending on who you ask, we're talking about an emerging artform here. If most games in the future will be generated by machines, then what's the point? A machine doesn't have the capacity to integrate emotions and ideas into a work like a human can (barring some HAL-like intelligence). I mean, nobody's really pushing for procedurally-generated movies, music, or literature, right? Why should games be different?

    With that said, I love playing procedurally-generated games, and I can't wait to see what they'll look like in a decade or two! I just hope they won't be the ONLY thing out there.


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