Go Farther: Procedural Media

(Last week I suggested spontaneity and surprise were elements that people making media could use to add value and increase interest.  I wanted to explore that more.)

As I've suggested before, spontaneity and unpredictability is an element of a media product (a story, a game, etc.) that can get, maintain, and expand people's interest in the product.  Spontaneity, combined with relatively fast access to the spontaneous content, is a unique way to add value to a media product as its un duplicateable and plays on our love of the unknown and novel.  Getting that spontaneity is thus important – but varies from media to media.

Every kind of media has its different advantages and disadvantages in adding spontaneity to it.  Changing technology has also altered how this can be done, and changing expectations have altered what people expect.  I'm going to take a look at the different kinds of media and how spontaneity can be added to them.

But first, I need a term to call these kinds of media incorporating random, spontaneous, and feedback-driven elements.  Thus, in a bit to create a new piece of language, I'm calling them "procedural media", taking from the term "procedural content" in games.  I find it fits as there's a process by which they grow and change unpredictably.

With that done, onward to ways I think media can become Procedural Media . . .

It sounds hard to add spontaneity to a book, considering that even with print-on-demand there's ramp-up time – and spontaneous/procedural content goes stale quickie.  However, in an age of eBooks, where the time from your computer-to-distribution can be measured in hours as opposed to weeks and months, one can get out uniquely generated content quickly and make a book a form of procedural media.

The length of a book is also a factor – spontaneous content is nice when you see it's impact.  It's not as interesting when it's part of 300 pages of other content (or other spontaneous content).  The size of the released book cannot conceal the spontaneous elements.

To add these more random, spontaneous, or user-generated elements to a book, I feel a book should be done in chapters or novellas, released as eBooks.  These can come out quicker, incorporate whatever the spontaneous content is faster, and thus the spontaneous contents relevance is increased and obvious.

The release of "micro e-books" also improves the ability to get and use user feedback.  If one is incorporating user feedback, or monitoring reactions, smaller, quickly-delivered content means faster feedback.  That feedback is also given about smaller units of media, so the authors can judge the effects of their works.  Smaller and faster means better data gathering.  If a book heavily uses user feedback to navigate it's continuing plots, this feedback is vital – a true part of the "procedural" process.

I also see that in world where some stories are procedural media, there will be physical releases of the chapters in book form, probably with extra content (such as writer's notes).  This makes more money, further immortalizes the stories, and draws people in.

Games have been using procedural content – both user generated and random/process driven, for decades.  Random content has been part of board games for decades, with randomized boards or user-generated modifications to gameplay.  In the realm of computer games, I still recall Demon's Winter and its randomly generated magic item, and the huge amounts of mods Blood had.  Games in this age of heavy internet connectivity, DLC, and expansion packs have made procedural content the norm – along with the usual randomized content some games use.

Certainly as we've seen with Minecraft, a game that mixes random content, user-generated content, and regular upgrades, procedural content pays off.

There's not much to say about gaming as procedural media, except that it seems to be on the right track.  I can see gaming as being used as an example of procedural media in the near future ("Why can't we be more like this game?").

If there's a danger, it's that gaming won't embrace the potential of being procedural media, and will actually hold itself back, or embrace a limited vision.

Video content shares much of the same challenges as a book – ramp-up and resource times, a format that is based on delivering large chunks of content, and of course, habit.  I still see potential for Video content to be procedural, and again, much of it is similar to the challenges faced by books.

First, size of content delivery is a factor – can those making the video deliver a large enough "chunk" of content to keep people's attention, while making sure the size of said content is something they can put together, and incorporate whatever spontaneous/generated content they have.

Secondary to size is speed.  My general impression is that video (and audio) content is something that people expect to come to them, updated, pretty fast.  We're used to daily news, soaps, etc.  If you're going to play the procedural media game and make it driven by other factors, you're going to want to keep people engaged.  I can see animation, etc. being a poor choice for procedural media.

Third is delivery – which of course would almost certainly be done via the internet/streaming/future and current TV technology.  That makes it easy to promote, though I imagine it'd get lost in the shuffle these days.  Delivery has to be reliable so people can be involved – and video delivery is a crazy-quilt of options.

However I see video as procedural media also having a big advantage – it is compelling.  We respond to visual stimuli and a good, engaging procedural video show/news/etc. product would likely draw people in and keep them.

So my thoughts on Procedural Media.  I see great potential for it, though it varies by forms of media.

What about you?  What do you think the future of Procedural Media is – and isn't?

Steven Savage