Question: can a machine do a level designer’s job? Answer: no, but it’s able to get close. Really close. In fact, a new theory is giving machines another leg up.
At its core, the theory is very simple to explain. Usually, programs tasked with creating levels typically think in straight lines. Which makes sense, the player needs to get from A to B. However, a human level designer typically does not think in straight lines. Intentionally or not, they design levels thinking in circles, in loops. Intuitively adding a shortcut back to the main path just after a key, adding a secondary path to the same goal with a different type of challenge, those kind of touches.
And that’s the simple but far reaching and fundamental change coming to computer generated levels in the near future: cyclic structures instead of just branching paths. One of the first games to fully embrace this theory is the upcoming dungeon crawler Unexplored (now on Steam Greenlight: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=656180592).
Being the brainchild of game researcher and developer Joris Dormans, Unexplored provides some great examples of cyclic level generation. See for yourself:
A level like this would be impossible to generate using the existing methods of branching paths creation. However, “The biggest and main advantage of a system like this”, says Dormans, “is the fact it makes games with computer generated levels just so much more compelling and fun to play.”
Although Unexplored, which started as a proof of concept but evolved into a fully fledged dungeon crawler, may be one of the first of its kind, it definitely won’t be the last. Dormans: “Every time I play the game myself, I’m surprised about the complexity and hand crafted feel of the levels. After release we will share everything we’ve learned about the cyclic creation process. We fully expect, and hope, other developers will take advantage of this.”