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Podcast: Procedural Content Generation & Spore

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Podcast Description

In an extremely, extremely chaoric duet, Will Wright and Brian Eno give an a series of perspectives on generating content by procedure or algorithm, and letting the effect emerge on its own. They run through generative system basics, SimCity, emergent behaviours in music, DNA strands creating life, and the Sims. The talk culminates in a half-hour run through of the game Spore.

Back in the 1970s both speakers got hooked by cellular automata such as Conway's "Game of Life," where just a few simple rules could unleash profoundly unpredictable and infinitely varied dynamic patterns. Cellular automata were the secret ingredient of Wright's genre-busting computer game "SimCity" in 1989. Eno was additionally inspired by Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain," in which two identical 1.8 second tape loops beat against each other out of phase for a riveting 20 minutes. That idea led to Eno's "Music for Airports" (1978), and the genre he named "ambient music" was born.


"We're trying to come up with very very simple rules that we can decompress into these elaborate worlds."

"We see that a lot with simulations, because we're always looking for very simple rule structures that we build into prototypes, and we just turn them on and see what happens, and then from there we will start modifying them, and it's very much the process of surprise and discovery, and it's so non-linear, it's so counter-intuitive, that it's very difficult to kind of have an end result in mind as a target and then shoot for that."

"It seems like on some level of complexity you wouldn't even be able to determine whether it was random, or there was a complex algorithm underneath."

"It's amazing how humans can see patterns in almost anything, and we're always searching for these patterns, even if they don't actually exist. And we've even engineered things that kind of bring us more into meditative, spiritual realms that in some sense are generative systems for the mind."

"Yes. Yes. You want to be on the cusp, where it doesn't sound random, but it doesn't sound too obvious and too predictable. It doesn't unfold like you would expect it to, but it doesn't unfold in an entirely unexpected and disconnected way, either."

"And this is very much the type of thing where you have no idea what it's going to look like when you build the rules. You turn it on, and it's always just a total surprise. These were actually developed in I think the forties by Von Oyman. Before he even really had fast digital computers to run them on, and another interesting thing about these, is how fragile they are."

"Sim City, which is one of the games I worked on many years ago, in fact is underlayed by just a set of very simple cellular automina like this, you know they have very simple rules for things like crime and traffic and pollution, and on top of that we lay all these nice graphics of cars, and factories and all that. But really underneath, it's a very simple grid system like this, that allows us to simulate things, and it took awhile to discover the rules, but once we actually put together a few simple rules, we got to systems where we were seeing emergent phenomena, we were seeing things like gentrification, just through the simple actions of the crime, land value rules. And stuff like that. And it seemed like it was a much more complex simulation than in fact it really was."

"So I'm going to show you a game that I'm working on right now that relies very heavily on generative systems, and it's called Spore. The rough idea was inspired by the Powers of Ten, which was a book and movie done by Charles Eames, actually done earlier by a Dutch screen teacher named Case Butler, called Cosmic View, but I'm sure you've seen this idea in the film or the movie where you have a guy in a park and it goes down to the cellular level, to the atomic level, all the way down to the quarks, and then it pulls all the way back to the planet, and the sun, and the galaxy. And I always thought it was a very unique perspective, and it was kind of missing the dynamics, I always wanted to see the dynamics on different scales, so that was part of the inspiration behind Spore."

"I can like put one little cell in the wrong spot here, and very quickly the whole thing just kind of goes to crap. That was one cell, and...and now the whole cycle's broken, these guys are going off forever in that direction. We can actually use these things for doing simulation. In fact, a lot of our games are built upon cellular automina at a very simple level, to simulate what seemingly is a very complex thing."

Presenter Biographies

Will Wright

Almost everyone who uses the home computer for gaming has heard of Will Wright. Co-founder of Maxis Entertainment, he is one of the greatest proponents of procedural and algorithmic content generation. Designer of SimCity, designer of The Sims, designer of SimIsle and of Spore, to name but a few. Everything he has created, uses emergent algorithms for the bulk of its content.

Brian Eno

Brian Eno is a musician, composer and producer of audio and visual landscapes. Eno's synthesizer work and electronic manipulation of audio textures was first featured during the early 1970's as a founding member of Roxy Music. His solo and collaborative musical compositions with John Cale, Robert Fripp and David Bowie have been in circulation world-wide over the last 25 years.

Eno has produced records for numerous artists including U2, David Bowie, Jane Siberry and performance artist Laurie Anderson, executive produced the "Help" benefit album, and performed with Pavarotti, Bono and The Edge at 1995's Modena Festival to benefit the War Child charitable organization.

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Size: 313.4 mb

Duration: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Podcast viewing notes

Additional Research Links

The Official Spore Homepage

Conway's life

Powers of Ten

Staff Comments


Untitled Document .