Why Dirt 4 has made me excited about procedural generation.
“Procedural generation” Not exactly a phrase that gets people hyped when they hear about its inclusion in a game. It’s normally quite the opposite in fact, we hear those words, and our minds tend to immediately jump to one of the many bad examples of its implementation in previous games. So when Dirt 4 announced that they would be using a form of procedural generation, in the shape of their “Your Stage” creator, I had a mixed reaction, and some immediate worry set in.
While Dirt Rally was often criticised by many (myself included) for not having enough stages, the real world stages that were present though, were extremely well crafted. This was especially true when it came to the surface of the roads, there seemed to be an element of care present in the placement of every bump, jump, rock, ditch, and dip. This ensured that no two runs though a stage ever felt quite the same, and that they still presented a challenge to the player, even once you had gotten to know them.
With Dirt 4 relying completely on it’s generated stages, I worried that the stages may lose a lot of that detail, and would result in somewhat flat and bland stages, that would be far less technically difficult to drive. However, the more I’ve thought about it over time, and with more information, and footage of the game having been released, many of my worries have been eased, and now I find myself thinking that this technology may be a perfect fit for the sport, let me explain why.
“A circuit driver sees the same corner 1000 times, a rally driver sees 1000 corners, one time” - Colin McRae
Rallying is very different from track based motorsports, it’s is about taking a step into the unknown, but a committed step. In rallying you are often seeing a stage for the very first time, and you have to completely trust in what your co-driver is telling you, you also need to be able to absorb that information, react to it, and then make a split second decision, all while traveling at high speeds.
This is something games based on the sport have always struggled with, eventually you end up getting to a point where you begin to know all the stages, and so they become like other racing games, where you are basically doing hot laps. While games like V-Rally 2 tried to to tackle this in the past by including a track editor, the system was clunky and complex to use, you were choosing from a small set of premade straights and corners and then laying them out, similar to a scalextric track, it ultimately ended up being somewhat underdeveloped, and limited in scope.
“Your Stage” aims to take things a step further, while also making it simple for people to use. You just select the country, and then move two sliders, one for length, and one for complexity, and then hit a button to generate a stage. The thing that’s really impressive though, is that the game is not simply picking from a selection of premade pieces to make a stage. When the game generates a straight section of road, it’s also generating how much undulation there is in the surface of that straight, whether or not there is a crest or jump on it, or if there will be ruts, or ditches lining the road, and this is happening with every single straight, and every single turn on each stage. This could be a huge leap for rallying games, one which could potentially lead to having an almost endless supply of unique, challenging and intricate stages.
Codemasters seem not to be content to rest on their laurels with Dirt 4, which would have been easy to do after the almost universal praise Dirt Rally received. When I watched their “Dev Diaries” they seemed to speak with passion, and a true love of the sport, and they seemed intent on wanting to deliver the feeling of what it’s like to actually be in a rally car, facing a corner you’ve never seen before, with only your pace notes to guide you. Of course without getting hands on with the game, it’s hard to judge just how well the system works in practice, but from what I’ve seen the future looks very promising for rally fans, and I for one am very excited about seeing where this new, exciting step takes us.