But What Do You Do?

Mechanical Ideas for Turning a Cool Generator Into a Compelling Game

By Prophet Goddess (Website,Twitter)

An experience that I — and maybe you, given the demographic of this zine — have had often goes as follows. I have an idea for a generator. “I’d like to make a planet generator”, or “Let’s make something that generates islands”, for example. Then I spend way too much time working out an algorithm to generate this thing I want. Then, upon exploring my new creation, I realize I have no idea what this generator is for besides being kind of neat.

Now, generators that are just kind of neat are fine! This isn’t a manifesto against games/non-games where you just explore a space created by an algorithm. Yet, I like to aspire to more. A good generator becomes so much more appealing when paired with mechanics that encourage the player to interact in ways that show what’s most interesting about the space. This isn't just true of procedural games: all games enjoy design decisions that force the player to see what's cool about them. With that in mind, here are a few mechanical ideas for encouraging players to explore your latest generator:

#1: Photography

To explain this let’s talk about a game that isn’t procedurally generated: Dead Rising. Dead Rising is a 2006 action-RPG about zombies who overrun a mall. You play as photojournalist Frank West, who has covered wars, you know. Frank’s occupation leads to one of the game’s oft-overlooked mechanics: Frank can take pictures with his camera, which awards the player with experience points based on how well they fit certain criteria. The fact that nobody has, to my knowledge, made a procedurally generated game based around this concept baffles me. No Man’s Sky comes close, rewarding you with money for scanning new plants and animals you discover, but that’s far from the core of the experience. It also doesn’t encourage the player to engage with the space in quite the same way as an actual photography mechanic. Photography mechanics can give players guidance while still letting them set and complete their own goals.

#2: Delivery

Let’s talk about another game that isn’t procedurally generated: American Truck Simulator. For the unfamiliar, American Truck Simulator is exactly what it says on the tin — a game where you play as a truck driver making deliveries in America. It’s a sequel to the also much-acclaimed Euro Truck Simulator 2, which is also exactly what you think it is. The Truck Simulator games are a perfect example of how very minimal structure can transform an experience. In American Truck Simulator, you get loads to carry from point A to point B, and that’s about it. The main draw of the games is experiencing the lovely sights along the way. A procedural version of this idea is fairly easy to imagine, but it doesn’t need to just be a game about road trips. One could also imagine a game where you fly your spaceship between planets making deliveries. Or you could be sailing a boat between islands. Or walking on trails through the woods. The beauty of this mechanic is its simplicity. It’s easy to implement to work with your specific generator concept compared to the trickier task of systemizing what constitutes a good photograph. Like photography, though, it doesn’t bog the player down with systems to draw their attention away from the real star of the show. It also provides opportunities for procedural narrative and character.

#3: Archaeology

Have you played Caves of Qud? Again, given the demographic of this zine, I’m willing to bet you're at least somewhat familiar with it. There’s a lot to love about Caves of Qud, but one of the most compelling aspects of it is its procedural archaeology. Qud is, in large part, a game about exploring the ruins of ancient civilizations, piecing together the past through the fragments left in the present. If you’re committed to your experience being without such extrinsic motivations as points and quests, archaeology provides some light structure that allows maximal freedom for players to choose how to engage with your game. It is, however, much more involved to implement a consistent and compelling procedural history than it is to implement photography or deliveries.

This is not a conclusive list of non-violent mechanics for encouraging player exploration. I encourage you to think about these as starting points. You can borrow them wholesale for your game, or you can use them to spark inspiration for similar mechanics all your own. What matters is taking advantage of the power of game design to show what makes your generator special.