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January 29, 2012 / jwaxo

Scorched Earth (Procedural Art)

– by Jeff Wax

The Mother of All Games ™.

“Procedural” is a word that is all the rage in games at the moment. What it essentially means is that there are things in the game that are not hand-crafted by the designer, but rather automatically generated by the programmer: something large or small that merely follows an algorithm to create itself. It’s mostly a phenomenon with indie games, who can spit out a quick, experimental game with a low budget and hopefully recoup their losses, sometimes in the “millions of units sold” range. It means quickly generated, unique content that can be thrown into a game system and given a go. It means truly strange, new worlds to explore, or maybe surprisingly intelligent creatures, or music that is otherworldy but still beautiful.

Bigger modern games use procedurally-generated textures, but, in their own way, also have all of their AI procedurally telling the enemies where to move, or giving the unique swirls to particle animations and such. Probably the biggest “big company” game to come out in recent years that boasted “procedurally generated everything” was Spore, which had creatures that figured out how to walk, pick things up, sing, and eat, all based off of the billions of possible iterations of arms and legs that the users could give them, along with procedurally-generated worlds, oceans, solar systems, and even quests. It was too bad that it was such a lame overall game.

The other main game that every gamer worth their stuff should know that has procedural formulae running everything is Minecraft. Every time the player explores a tiny bit further in that cube-filled world, the game generates more and more world for the player to explore.

Either that or a lot of really fast programmers.

It’s not that modern of a concept. Early games features much easier procedures: Pac-Man‘s ghosts moved faster the more levels you went through, Space Invaders‘ levels weren’t all completely made by hand, etc. The first game that we played, though, that used anything procedurally-generated to such an extent that it caught our eye was Scorched Earth.

Like all good shareware games, this one came to our house sometime in the mid-90’s from my brother’s exploits at middle school. He was quite excited: there was something exciting about this game that he couldn’t wait to grind my poor gaming fingers into the dust with.

As soon as the game was fired up, I saw what it was: it was tanks.

Tank are awesome. Let’s get that out of the way. In the mind of the eight- or eleven-year-old, tanks are kind of the ultimate awesome. When we played with army men, whoever had the tanks won. If you got to go into a real tank, you would be king of the little kids. So a game where you controlled tanks, shooting artillery shells across an increasingly pock-marked landscape, was the ultimate game. Especially if those shells might not be normal missiles, but nukes, or cluster bombs, or drop giant balls of dirt.

Just as deadly to tanks as to little kids.

And so we would take turns, sometimes buying more missiles, sometimes stocking up on shields, and take pot-shots at each other or at computer-controlled tanks across the wide, randomly-generated landscape of Scorched Earth.

I did love the shooting, and the breath-taking sight of a big nuclear bomb destroying half of the screen. I loved figuring out just the angle to shoot at, with just the right amount of power to drop my shot right next to my enemy. I loved all of that. But what was so cool about it was the landscape.

Each and every game was completely different from every other game. The ground would be a different shape and color, the sky would be a different hue, and it would all be new and interesting. One game you might all be in deep valleys, shooting over the precipice of another stalagmite at your enemy, in the next you might be in a series of tunnels, trying to make your way through them to get to the opposing tanks. Always different, always beautiful in their own way, and always generated through a series of algorithms.

And then the final procedure was run: a bunch of kids ran through the gamut of weapons to make it even more unique and beautiful. It was this final “step” that was the most interesting, and that stuck with me the longest. It didn’t make it better art, or more beautiful, but it definitely made it much more interesting. After all, a landscape that started out smooth and whole and is now pocked with craters and cave-ins tells a unique and interesting story. The concept intrigued and stuck with me for a long time, and I still look for it in every game I play. In the aftermath of a Counter-Strike match, in the pattern of burn marks around a decimated base in StarCraft. You can find these little pieces of art everywhere, and every game makes them, in their own way.

Just something I learned to appreciate, years ago.

Somehow, my parents did not appreciate their own procedurally-generated art.


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