Procedural content isn’t really a new thing. The earliest example I can think of is Elite for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron. I’ve not really tried playing it but it was an impressive concept, particularly for the time.
These days procedural generation is back in vogue with notable examples like Minecraft acting as figureheads for the concept. More recently there are efforts to make more stylised worlds such as in Sir, You Are Being Hunted:
Something that bothers me when playing such games is the lack of desire to explore. The world is entirely generated by an algorithm and my mind can’t get past that. I don’t feel I’m exploring a world I just feel I’m wandering through the output of a glorified random number generator.
This shows an interesting parallel with how I feel about multiplayer games that use a fixed map. The world feels dead to me; little more than a paper-thin set on which to experience game mechanics. They were carefully constructed by a person but in some way they become nothing more than butterflies pinned to a board once the development process is finished.
Nevertheless the maps don’t feel as dead as the endless worlds that can be procedurally generated due to the human touch. Human players swarm all over them leaving a distinct impression of life. Once the server is empty the place goes back to being cardboard.
To me the pointlessness that overshadows procedurally generated worlds for me is diminished somewhat if there is a distinct narrative or path to follow. Wandering endlessly until the player character dies or quits through boredom doesn’t sound like a satisfactory end to a play session to me.
Beating a final boss after a following a mostly linear path helps, I feel (like in the game The Binding of Isaac).
Something I’d like to see is multiplayer versions of this using procedurally generated content. Players could only leverage experience with the games mechanics under those circumstances, rather than intense familiarity with the map, to gain an upper hand against new players.
I also wonder what impact humans instinctual desire to make a mark on the world they habit will have on this kind of play style. Presented with a fresh world and some suitable play tools I would expect users to customise the space in some way. Letting them do precisely that in addition to other game mechanics could make for a much more “lived-in” place and I would love to see it.