Procedural content is hard

When we started on Pirates we tried out two major pieces of procedural content and eventually ditched both of them. What appeared to us to be a panacea of free art was actually a rabbit hole of endless programmer resources. So while I love the idea of procedural content, I’m wary of including it at the core of a game. You have to evaluate your procedural content options very carefully.

We’re making a game that takes place largely on the water. Most of the time the screen is filled with sky and water.These were the two areas where we tried to use procedural content instead of something hand crafted. Neither of them worked out very well.
Procedural skies

Five years ago, or so, Naty Hoffman and Arcot J. Preetham had an article in Game Developer that was based on the work they did on environmental light scattering. The idea was that if you simulated the physical process of light moving through the atmosphere you could achieve the same sort of fantastic lighting conditions that you see in the real world. Read the paper if you want details, but the basic idea was that you could input certain atmospheric constants and the sky would paint itself.

The trouble was that these controls were extremely high level, and it was difficult to control them to get the results we wanted. With massive tweaking we could get results that looked ok in certain circumstances, but once you moved the sun or put in different terrain, it didn’t work so well anymore. And the skies always looked fairly bland because their approach didn’t include clouds, and we never figured out a way to add clouds to it that had the same kind of flexibility. Clouds are a whole other problem that people have tried to solve with procedural content all its own.

When we gave up on the raw formulas, we tried a few other approaches that let us control the lighting more directly with keyframes, but it didn’t really help. The artists still didn’t have as much control as they wanted and nobody was happy with the results.

So we ditched the whole thing and went to three very clear inputs. The artists understand them fully and produce amazing results:

  • A hand-painted skydome texture – We start with panoramic shots of the actual sky, and then an artist removes jet contrails and beautifies them.
  • The distance fog color at maximum distance – All the non-sky stuff fades to this color when if it gets far enough away. These are tuned to match the skydomes
  • A scaling factor on the fog distance – Some environments don’t let you see as far because of “atmospheric haze”, but it’s really just distance fog. This is also matched to the skydomes.

Ocean Waves

We had a similar problem with the ocean waves. Most of the screen is covered with ocean most of the time, so we had to have a wave solution that could extend to the horizon. I can’t seem to find any of them now, but at the time (early 2003) there were several papers floating around that suggested using Fast Fourier Transforms (FFT) to simulate wave motion. We went ahead and implemented such a system that had about ten inputs with such helpful names as ‘a’ and ‘b’. Initially we tried to compute the FFTs at runtime, but even with a small grid it still took tons of CPU, so we started baking them offline and just playing back pre-animated wave sets.

This is another system that didn’t have any kind of reasonable artist control. Maybe they could have worked brilliantly given many more months of development, but we eventually ended up ditching them in favor of something much simpler. Now we’re using Perlin noise in viewspace to render the ocean waves, which is MUCH faster to compute and draw, and has controls that let us get the kind of results we’re looking for.

Make sure your procedural algorithms are ready

In both of these cases we picked algorithms that were not really ready to go into a game. There was no middleware for either one (though some ocean middleware has come on the scene since then), and were really just early academic research papers. These things are difficult to turn into amazing looking screenshots, and are probably just a waste of your time. Tried and true methods (like textured skydomes and distance fog) will get you reliable results in a reliable timeframe, and you would be well served to consider them seriously.

In the end, I’m very happy with the results. The game looks great, and I don’t miss the headaches that these two procedural approaches caused. Take a look at these screenshots and I think you’ll agree. :)

I’m not saying that procedural content is bad. I think it shows great promise as a way out of ever-increasing budgets and spending millions of dollars of artist time on content that any given player is only going to see once. You just have to leave plenty of time to get your algorithms right, and build them with plenty of artist control.

Jason Booth and Danc at Lost Garden both posted on this recently. If you’re interested in procedural content, you should definately read both of their posts. There was also a recent article on Game Career Guide on the subject, but it was pretty light on actual meat.


One Response to “Procedural content is hard”

  1. isildur thought on :

    I think the real lesson is that the actual world isn’t all that interesting to look at; we just tend to notice the bits that are. When you try to simulate the actual world, you get a lot of the not-interesting stuff, so it feels like low payoff for a lot of work.

    And, of course, nothing beats having a great art director.

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