Procedurally Generated Art – Good or Bad (or Neither)?
A friend who’s really new to the game industry recently let me know that something I’d said struck him as not supportive of video game artists. Having many artist friends, I was more than a little curious to find out what it was I might have said. I certainly didn’t mean to offend anyone.
“What did I say?” I asked.
“You supported procedurally generated art,” he replied.
I had to think about the ins and outs of it for a while before I decided to write about it here, and I am curious about your view on it. I think mine comes with the perspective of having worked on a number of projects that used procedurally generated art and content.
In my view, procedurally generated art doesn’t ask artists to leave the party. Rather, it invites programmers to it. In a nutshell, I support procedurally generated anything since it allows us to make bigger and better games if the code is doing the work for us. In my experience on teams, the procedurally generated content that we worked with never once displaced a team member, be it artist or designer (I’ve worked with procedurally generated content, too). Rather, it freed these individuals to do other critical things on the game and allowed the game to be bigger than it otherwise would have been.
But if there had been no procedurally generated art, wouldn’t there have been more artists working on the team? Well, no. There is a finite amount of artists that any game team can support and still be profitable. For instance, consider Spore. It is well known for its goal of producing procedural and user-generated content. Does this goal displace artists? No. If someone had suggested creating a game with the amount of paid, human-created content that Spore hopes to have, the elevator pitch would have ended right there. The game would not have been sustainable or profitable, even with Will Wright’s name on it.
Beyond what the paid artists can create, everything else is gravy. Procedurally generated gravy. There would be no games with 1000+ levels, each created by an individual artist that never sleeps. Instead, there would be a smaller game that fit within the possibilities allowed by the team. The much greater danger to the practicing video game artist is outsourcing, unless that artist is located in Malaysia, Singapore, India or any of the other outsourcing hot spots.
Procedurally generated levels did not kill off level designers or the need for them. Motion capture didn’t starve animators. Zbrush didn’t put hundreds of artists out of work because now fewer artists can do it faster. Procedurally generated content didn’t kill off game designers. Rather, it allowed the guys who would have created content to focus on game balancing way earlier than they otherwise would have.
This is an industry dictated by dollars. Technology – procedurally generated art included – allows us to do more within our constraints.
Or so I think, anyway. Am I missing the boat?