Authored Content

Rock Paper Shotgun makes the ironic claim that Spore's user-created creatures are "more interesting than anything procedural generation can yet create." I respond by exploring players' perception of authored content and its effect on game design.

Following up on the endless rhetoric re: No Man’s Sky and the role of procedural generation in the game design ecosystem, I stumbled upon this quote from Rock Paper Shotgun in a call to make a Spore 2 sequel:

“Yet the sum is more than the parts, mostly due to the ability to subscribe to curated lists of creatures created by other users. Tick a few boxes [and] your world will then be populated by wondrous species. It inevitably leads to a planet (and eventually a galaxy) populated by creatures more interesting than anything procedural generation can yet generate.”

This is truly an incredible claim from the editor-in-chief of a website that writes about video games, and speaks volumes of the state of the procgen debate generally.  Spore is one of the most procedurally generated games of all time, yet the output of this generation is attributed solely to the users who turned a few knobs on that generator?  What’s going on here?

It seems that there’s a general divide among players wanting designed content vs procedural.  That statement seems very obvious now that I’ve written it, but what I mean is, a majority of people want (need!) their content to be tailor-made specifically by a human and they implicitly reject anything procedural — at least internally, beknownst to their conscious mind or not.  And there’s lots of good reasons for this.

Neal Stephenson summarizes this perfectly in his brilliant essay “In The Beginning Was The Command Line” when he says, “Americans’ preference for mediated experiences is obvious enough.”

But later in the essay, I feel, Stephenson unknowingly presents us with a paradox:

In this world, artists are like the anonymous, illiterate stone carvers who built the great cathedrals of Europe and then faded away into unmarked graves in the churchyard. The cathedral as a whole is awesome and stirring in spite, and possibly because, of the fact that we have no idea who built it. When we walk through it we are communing not with individual stone carvers but with an entire culture.

Wait, who is he talking about here?  The indie roguelike player or the mainstream AAA player?  If people generally prefer grand works of art whose origin can’t be attributed to a specific person, as Stephenson posits, doesn’t that sound very much in the realm of the procedural generator?

Spore is kind of an interesting test case for these ideas.  Going back to the RPS article:

“If you want to play a game where you can create a giant testicle that rules over the universe then this is the game for you,” begins a user review posted by someone yesterday who has played the game for 65 hours. It’s time to create a second game where you can do that.

I guess I was playing Spore wrong, because the most interesting aspects of that game to me were the procedurally generated parts.  (Which, BTW, was the whole game! Even the music!)  But I already know which side of the fence I fall on.  The fact that EA Maxis expended such an enormous amount of effort to create an entirely procedural game engine only to use it to promote the creation of authored content tells me that most people are on the other side of that fence.

I don’t mind that procgen will likely always play sidekick in support of intentionally designed gameplay experiences, but of course I prefer procedural games whenever possible.  A non-procedurally authored work can be greatly enjoyed but soon gets catalogued into the back of the mind and rarely evoked from then on, whereas a particularly well made procedural algorithm can dominate the motivations of a player for decades — and yet most players prefer the former.

Noting how roguelike players seem to be the most fervent and dedicated fans of their genre vs anything else I’ve ever seen (truly without exception), I wonder if the way in which a player perceives authorship is at the core of the schism between players who prefer procedural-first content and those who don’t.

I have to also wonder then, what does that say about roguelike players?  Why do we seem to prefer specifically UNauthored content?  Who is the author of a machine-assisted work anyways?  And who really owns a piece of content, the artist or the audience?  I think exploring these questions can perhaps lead to deep insights in game design.

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