Enjoy a guest post from freelance contributor, JBM...
Procedural generation doesn't always define genre. Sure, in order to be labeled as a Roguelike, PG is a requirement, but only because Rogue did it in the past. Cool. Other than that, PG is one of many branches on the design tree. How similar are No Man's Sky and Spelunky? They are both games...I think that's it. Yet whenever they come up, procedural generation is the most talked about feature for both games. The point of all this is to say that procedurally generated games often get lumped together, but there isn't really a genre-based reason. Should all pixel throwback games be nestled together? Is every FPS to be lumped in with FP games that have to weaponry at all? No way, bud. So let's briefly compare Spelunky with a game that's actually similar: Wizard of Legend. And then let's bring in Hollow Knight as a comparison that's similar in gameplay and level design, while being the opposite of something procedurally generated.
Spelunky and Wizard of Legend are fast-paced action games. Short goals in the form of each level, and long goals in the form of larger bosses and more difficult enemies, or "don't die and in time you will progress further and further the better you get, but always starting from the same point." Some might argue it's not the same point, since the levels are new each time, despite moving toward the same goal. The balance of successful PG games seems to be in the small design vs the larger scale of the game--beat these ten levels and their ten bosses and you win, then do it again but. The value in a PG game seems to be in its replayability, but not like, Skyrim levels of replay, but old arcade replay.
Spelunky is a game that offers a unique challenge in that you cannot memorize the level design, despite many users putting in hundreds of hours. Hollow Knight, on the other hand, features tons enemies and bosses with established movesets, and learning these movesets is sometimes the only way to defeat a boss. It's tough to say if one feels better than the other, but really, they're just different, but also more similar than I first thought.
Many players are tired of memorizing movesets of enemies in order to defeat them. Maybe it feels like studying, or learning a song on the piano. But there is obvious enjoyment for some players. Hollow Knight's success shows this, as well as any of the Soulsborne games. A detail worth noting is RNG (random number generator)--RNG is how your enemy or boss will use their moves that you've memorized. In a sense, true level memorization ends at enemy location, and while a player can enter a battle knowing exactly what moves to expect, they cannot predict the frequency or rhythm of the moves. So it's like being as prepared as possible--you know your combos, attacks, blocks, heals, spells, rollz, and whatever else, and your eyes watch closely for that first telegraph of your enemies frames so that you can react quickly. A good boss fight from Hollow Knight looks like an animated movie more than a real-time battle. Is that good or bad?
That explanation applies exactly to the levels in Spelunky as well. You master the moves, the mechanics, the tools, and the enemy types, and are ready to react as quickly as possible to all the threats you've learned over hours and hours of practice.
So are they so different? Well, yeah--but not as much in actual playing of the game as it might first seem. The difference is in why people keep coming back. Spelunky might never get old for some, because they always get to try their skills in a new arena. In many ways it's the same, but it's like going on a run everyday, and you can either run in circles over and over in your backyard, or try a different trail each day. Getting better at running, but always a different challenge.
Maybe that sounds good, but that analogy makes it sound like any game that's not procedurally generated is like running in circles. NOPE. Hollow Knight would be like running back and forth through a forest multiple times, using different routes. People come back to Hollow Knight to continue the challenge. You beat this boss? Cool, that one's dead forever and there are still tons more that behave differently, plus you have new places to explore, and old places with new areas you can reach now that you've progressed.
There's no way to say one style of design is better than the other, and that's a good thing. Games are games and guess what? If someone enjoys it, BOOM success. For me, procedural generation feels like playing an arcade game that you play over and over until all the other quarter babies are in awe of how easily you deal with every enemy and boss. Also for me, long and intentionally-laid out games offer a feeling a real progress, but there are highs and lows in the speed and feel of the games--which is also a good thing. Whatever, I love them both... But Hollow Knight more.