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And the award for Best AI goes to…

(This is a repost from my Gamasutra Expert Blog)

At the last GDC, I attended a session by David Sirlin entitled Balancing Multiplayer Competitive Games. Being an AI designer and programmer, this session may seem like somewhat of an outlier in my typical GDCfare. However, a simple strikethrough on the title could yield Balancing Competitive Games – which falls squarely into the AI and simulation programmer’s purview. While the session was interesting in its own right, there was one comment that really broke through the noise for me. Forgive me for paraphrasing somewhat (the audio or video on this session is not up on the GDC Vault), but one of the comments that David made was along the lines of the following:

“If 1% of your art assets are not perfect, not too many people notice. If 1% of your audio assets are not perfect, it doesn’t hurt too much. On the other hand, if 1% of your game balance is off, it can potentially affect the entire game.”

This is remarkably true. If we garner thousands of players who play hundreds of iterations of the game each, the combinatorial explosion of in-game interactions is fairly impressive. That’s a lot of exposure that each and every portion of our game gets. People are remarkably adept at discerning the proverbial “golden path” through the mechanics of our games. Add the communicative nature of today’s internet and the gaming community as a whole can “solve” our games in a matter of days if not hours after release.

Of course, they aren’t really “solving” our games as much as they are finding the weakness(es). That’s like saying a thief is “solving” a lock by picking it. While he may view it as a success, the maker of the lock sees it as a failure. What’s more, the owner of the lock is going to be disappointed that the lock did not serve its intended purpose. If our players manage to, on their own or with assistance of the hive mind, “solve” our games quickly, we are depriving them of the longevity of gameplay that they are paying for. The game is essentially “broken” for them. While there may be transient amusement in finding the magically exploitive combination that works every time, this is soon replaced by a sense of loss at the experience that “could have been.” Remember how funny it was when someone discovered the concept of a Zergling rush in Starcraft? It got annoying quickly, however; no one could play a game that lasted more than 5 minutes.

The unfortunate problem is that this phenomenon is not limited to multi-player games. This is an issue that we face in AI design and programming all the time. Looking at the above quote again – with a twist:

“If 1% of your art assets are not perfect, not too many people notice. If 1% of your audio assets are not perfect, it doesn’t hurt too much. On the other hand, if 1% of your AI is off, it can potentially affect the entire game.

The “AI” in the above statement could be behavioral AI, squad tactics, strategic management, or an underlying simulation model. The bottom line is that those components — “AI” for convenience’ sake — have the potential to make or break the experience of a game.

And now for the irony…

Most game review sites, if they break down the games’ “score” into multiple components at all, usually include the usual players of visual, audio, controls, lifespan, and the somewhat obscure “gameplay.” Notice that there is no hint of AI or balancing in there. I suppose that AI could get wrapped up into that nebulous “gameplay” category… but only because AI affects gameplay so significantly as we noted above. Many people use that gameplay category to herald/rag on things like the story or the pacing. The only time that AI gets mentioned is in the text section of reviews… and then only rarely is it addressed.

We could ascribe some of this oversight to the fact that reviews and players are not as familiar with what goes on “under the hood” of games. Certainly the people inside the industry know how difficult it is to build, tweak, and tune a game so that the last 1% is polished enough to not “break” the game, right? To address this point, I turn to the list of award categories from the Game Developers Choice Awards. May I have the stack of envelopes please?

  • Best Game Design
  • Best Visual Art
  • Best Technology
  • Best Writing
  • Best Audio
  • Best Debut
  • Innovation
  • Best Handheld
  • Best Downloadable
  • Game of the Year

Hmmm… no “Best Artificial Intelligence?” No “Most Balanced Simulation Mechanics?” No “Deepest Character Personality?” No “Most Convincing Squad Tactics?” Even “Most Life-like Animation” would be nice – although that tends to get swallowed up by the visual art category.

For a discipline that can make or break a game with that dreaded “sub-optimal 1%,” there isn’t much in the way of representation in the GDCA. Sure, these issues could go into the categories of game design, technology, or innovation… but do they? How much attention to we really pay to benefits of AI in our games? Or do we only notice it when it becomes the proverbial “squeaky wheel” and makes the game look bad? Even then, there is no award for “AI Good Enough to Help Us Avoid a Bad Review.”

The Rise of AI

The problem is, AI is now becoming the focus of a lot of game studios. Now that the visual aspect of games is asymptotically approaching the grail of photorealism, orchestrated game soundtracks are available on Amazon, and game writing has finally achieved acceptance as a viable art formrivaling Hollywood and the fiction literature industries, the AI of games is more exposed. Players (and somewhat later, dragging their feet like a petulant toddler, producers) started noticing that AI was not up to par with the rest of the industry.

The result was that AI “departments” went from one person (or less!) to entire conclaves of programmers dedicated to the behavior, animation, and simulation of those very pretty, very impressive-sounding characters. There are now even sub-specialties in the AI arena because there is simply too much for any one person to keep up with. Rather than being an afterthought before ship, AI people are now invited to sit in with the designers at initial pre-production meetings. There is even a growing number of “AI Designer” jobs being created to sit in that gap between pure designers andthe hard-core AI programmers. All of these AI designers and programmers are increasingly becoming part of the “critical path” to the success of a game. The pressure is on them to make sure there isn’t that 1% fissure through which all of the hard work of the rest of the team can fall through into the abyss of “a broken game”.

And where is our cute little trophy? Where is our faux-wood plaque stating, even to people who come into our humble office, that (being all out of bubble gum) we kicked some serious algorithmic ass?

Who are Those Geeks?

Last year, I was part of the formation of the AI Game Programmers Guild. Our first, and most self-serving, mission was to be able to exchange ideas with each other. We also wanted to eventually have a place where we could recognize each other’s successes with our own little awards ceremony. For what that’s worth.

Our first public act was to organize the 2-day AI Summit at GDC. This event was so well-attended that the fire marshal had to stop people at the door. My impromptu poll during the welcome session showed that the demographics of the 220+ people was mostly existing AI programmers (many of whom are now in the guild), and soon-to-be AI programmers.

Oddly, and somewhat to the amusement of the programmers in the room, there was only one “media” person in the room. This, despite the fact that the Summit showcased some of the people responsible for the best and most innovative AI ever created in the game industry. If I was only marginally more cynical, I would interpret this as the collective media saying “bah… who cares about AI?”

On the other side of the equation, many of the Summit presenters (including myself) were accosted repeatedly throughout the week and thanked wholeheartedly for what the attendees viewed as a messiah-like arrival of AI to GDC. To be fair, GDC has had AI sessions in the past, but it has not kept pace with AI’s place in the industry. I believe that is why the Summit was accepted with almost rabid enthusiasm by the attendees (which, if true, would have involved Animal Control in addition to the Fire Marshall). It is also why the GDC folks have already invited the AIGPG to run the AI Summit again next year. (Note to GDC… a room for 220 isn’t going to cut it next year.)

So, after a heady two days on the second floor of Moscone West, we all wandered across to the Game Developers Choice Awards… only to feel a let down. Does anyone really care about what we do? We know we make a difference. A BIG one. The industry knows we make a difference. But where is that recognition? Where are the accolades? We can only hope that is going to change; that someday wegoing to hear…

“And the award for Best Artificial Intelligence goes to…”

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