Procedural level generation is a system which creates a game level by stitching together segments based on rules. This can be used to create a level that changes in layout with each play session. This type of system is very popular in modern game development, since it is an efficient method of creating a long lasting game experience. For small or independent game developers, it is a magic sword of sorts: procedural systems can solve issues of scope simply by using some code (in theory!).
What if I were to tell you that you could create long lasting, interesting gameplay by taking the opposite approach: A static level, that not only stays precisely the same throughout an entire game, but doesn’t change much over multiple sequels of that game?
The Yakuza* series of games is published by Sega under the direction of Toshihiro Nagoshi, who was inspired by popular gangster movies in Japan. Featuring an open world, they are sometimes thought of as Japan’s answer to the Grand Theft Auto series (though they are in fact quite different). The core gameplay consists of brawling with other gangsters, while a dramatic crime story develops in-between the fighting.
*The Yakuza are Japanese organized criminal groups, somewhat similar to Italian Mafia.
The main game map is located in a district named Kamurocho, based on real life Kabukichō in Tokyo. Kamurocho is a red light district, with hostess clubs and bars. It also has the usual Japanese establishments found throughout the country, such as karaoke boxes*, convenience stores, and the ever present Don Quijote chain of retail shops.
*Karaoke boxes are establishments with private rooms, each with their own karaoke machine.
Up until Yakuza 5, there was no driving vehicles. This allows for a gameworld with a relatively small map for an open world game, since everything has to be within walking distance (taxi cabs allow for fast transport to major areas, but they aren’t necessary most of the time).
From game to game, the general layout of Kamurocho does not change very much. Take this example, from Yakuza 3:
Juxtapose this with this map, from Yakuza 5:
Note that major locations such as the Millennium Tower and Yoshida Batting center are in exactly the same location. Entire districts of the city remain the same, such as the Champion District on the Northeast of each map.
Yakuza games are high engagement titles which players can expect to spend a minimum of fifty hours playing. Other games that try to engage players for a long period of time often rely on systems that vary the environments for every play session. Yet in the Yakuza games, it is an unchanging environment that assists engagement.
Think about a town that you are familiar with, perhaps your hometown or a place you’ve lived a long time. Doesn’t it feel good when you visit such a place and you find most of it is exactly as you remembered?
Kamurocho leverages this comfort from game to game, creating a world that has that comfortable, “right where you left it” feeling.
If the main location doesn’t change, how can there be the variety required to ensure fun and prevent boredom? Yakuza games do this with a balance of side stories, interesting mini-games, and smart additions and subtractions to Kamurocho’s geography that vary from title to title:
- Side stories: These are optional quests available in the game. These are acquired by speaking to non-player characters in the world, or sometimes by simply walking into an unexplored area. Mechanically, most are very simple: go somewhere, find something, and return it (with some fist fights in between!). However, charming dialog and a great sense of humor often make these simple missions interesting and fun.
- Mini games: Mini-games in open world titles are nothing new. Yakuza, however, excels at providing unique mini-games that reflect the culture that the game is meant to reproduce. Shogi, Go, and Pachinko are just a few culturally relevant mini-games provided throughout the open world. These games sometimes require looking on the internet to figure them out, but since they are not required to advance the main story, this is not an annoyance. Instead, they help provide flavor to a place many persons in the West have never visited.
- Mild Geographic Variance: While the main city is fairly static, sequels in the series add various special areas that change from game to game: Little China in Yakuza 0, and the underground malls in other games in the series. Each version of the city is just a little bit different, just like a real life location would be in between visits.
The pressure for major developers and publishers both is to make games larger and larger, while developing more and more systems to generate the massive amounts of content needed to satisfy the player. I encourage these developers and publishers to look at niche titles like Yakuza for ideas on how to satisfy this demand in sustainable, smart ways. Kamurocho is a great example of static world design and how it can be used to iterate over the course of a series: familiarity doesn’t need to breed contempt after all. It can instead breed contentment!