This is part 5 of a series of posts on procedural generation of content in Idamu Caverns. You may want to go back and read the earlier posts as well.
The idea of procedurally generated plots seems like the holy grail of computer programming. Not only could a chunk of code doing this revolutionize the game industry, but it could put a bunch of script writers for TV and movies out of business as well (especially for a lot of mediocre sitcoms on television).
Luckily for those writers, accomplishing this seems to be very difficult. If you know of anyone doing it, please drop me a line and tell me about it.
While that doesn't mean it's impossible, I expect that it's too difficult for a lonely developer to build on his own. Of course, that makes me all the more determined to do it!
I'm writing this blog post prior to 99% of the code being written, so most of what I'm about to say is speculative planning.
The key to most programming problems is to break the problem down into pieces and solve each piece independently of the whole problem, while keeping the solution flexible enough to be usable even when unexpected things are discovered about the overall problem. Abstraction is key (think about the Map interface in java, and how you can easily swap out different implementations based on the specifics of the problem).
That being said, the part that is currently written is to avoid the complexity of each creature in the game having to track their attitude toward you independently. Instead, each creature belongs to a faction, and reputation and other things are tracked by the faction. Each creature, then, stores only information about what faction they belong to, and some indication of how closely they follow that faction. This quickly allows the few factions to remember extensive and detailed information about the player while each creature (of which there are many) only has to remember two small pieces of data.
Organizing things into factions is only the tip of the iceberg. The complex and interesting part is the code that I haven't even started yet: how do the intelligent creatures react to the player based on faction standing (a large part of this is that I haven't created code for intelligent creatures yet ...)
Like mentioned in earlier parts of this series, completely random information is usually not the best way to do things, and this approach should avoid that. If the player meets the Spider Queen and she randomly decides whether to be friendly or hostile, that's not very engaging or realistic. However, if the Spider Queen is hostile because he's been killing and looting every spider he's met since the beginning of the game, that becomes interesting. Not to mention the fact that it encourages the player to come back and play additional times, perhaps not killing so many spiders the next time through to see what benefits there are to befriending them!
Interactions become more interesting based on this mechanic alone. If the Cat people and the Dog people are at war, and the player has an excellent reputation with the Cat people, she's not going to like the first encounter she has with the ruler of the Dogs, even if she has avoided fighting them.
But are the Cats and Dogs at war? This is a place where random generation is interesting. If each run through the player doesn't know whether there is an uneasy peace or all out war between these two factions, then the replay value of the game goes up quite a bit!
This alone could be considered a procedurally generated plot. If each faction has a randomly generated attitude toward every other faction, and there are rules and code in place to control how factions behave toward each other depending on whether they're allies, or at war; then we have a state of affairs that the player has to contend with that changes with each play through.
Many other behaviors can be the result of faction reputation: Do faction members attack on sight? What kind of prices do merchants offer? What quests are available?
Writing this got me to thinking. Each of the monsters in the game has a hardcoded reaction to the player at this time. Spiders always hate you. Rats ignore you. But what if this were based on faction, and the faction attitude was random? One time you pay the rats hate you, the next time they ignore you. Depending on the other attributes of the factions, this could change up the game quite a bit.
The key to making this work programmatically, is good programming interfaces between the code that handles behaviors and the code that manages creature-specific attributes. Doing that well is a completely different discussion.
This is the last post in this series for now, but I may come back to the topic another time. If you've enjoyed these posts, please share, and consider downloading Idamu Caverns and becoming a Patron.