Dr Mark R Johnson is a Lecturer in Digital Cultures in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on live streaming and Twitch.tv, esports, game consumption and production, and gamification and gamblification. He has published in journals including “Information, Communication and Society”, “New Media and Society”, “Games and Culture”, and “Convergence”. Outside academia he is also an independent game designer best known for the roguelike “Ultima Ratio Regum”, a regular games blogger, podcaster, and commentator in newspapers, television, and on the radio.
Procedural Content Generation and Game World Immersion
FROG 2021 – Talk
Procedural content generation (PCG) is a method for game design that generates distinctive or even unique game elements on each new playthrough. It has become well-known through highly successful “indie” games such as “No Man’s Sky”, “Dwarf Fortress”, “FTL”, “The Binding of Isaac” and “Slay the Spire”, as well as having smaller roles in blockbuster games including 2018’s “God of War”, “Bloodborne”, and “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim”. However, it has generally been limited to the design of physical spaces and the placement of important game elements (e.g. enemies, items, NPCs, etc) within those worlds. In “Ultima Ratio Regum”, a work I have been building incrementally for the past ten years, the game instead procedurally generates almost everything, from political beliefs of civilizations to the appearance of individual books within the game world, often with billions of possible permutations. One of the core design goals here has been to mimic reality – especially in a roughly ~1700s fictional setting, largely before the precise mass-production of products – and give everything in the game a sense of uniqueness and distinctiveness. Drawing on examples from the game and examining practices and the history of procedural content generation more broadly, the talk will explore how PCG techniques can be used to create a deep sense of immersion in a game world, a sense that the game world is “lived in” beyond the actions of the player, and the – accurate! – perception that a player’s world is genuinely unique, and will never be produced or seen again. I will conclude with a number of design suggestions for game makers looking to capture this sort of “magic”, and a number of academic research directions in this area which merit further exploration.