The GDC folks have put up the main page for the AI Summit at the 2010 GDC. This year, I am listed as a Summit Advisor alongside Steve Rabin. While I helped out a lot last year, I wasn’t listed as an official advisor. That makes for a wonderful honor. I’m so pleased to be working with all the great people in the AI Game Programmers Guild to put this event on.
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 â€“ 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 â€śbrokenâ€ť 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 â€“ 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
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 â€“ 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…”
Well, I’m back and somewhat recovered from GDC. (It always helps to have a day of downtime built into the end of the week.)
From the comments that I and the rest of the participants received, the inaugural AI Summit was well received. I know that all of us were very pleased in not only the presentations that we each delivered but in all of the other ones as well. Apart from a false start at the beginning due to my laptop being under the proverbial weather with a virus, the rest of the two days went off smoothly.
I will post more on my reflections on each of the Summit sessions throughout the week. I did want to touch on a couple of high notes, however. We were very proud (as a group) to be able to deliver such a wide variety of topics. From animation to pathfinding to behavior to knowledge representation to layered goals and multi-threaded architecture, we hit a lot of the key topics. I think this was one of the comments that I heard the most… that there was a little bit of everything. Additionally, many people commented on how we mixed some past techniques with cutting edge stuff and then even some blue sky ponderings (“Human AI” and “Photoshop of AI“. Additionally, people liked the sessions that weren’t specifically technical such as the one on how to get along with designers.
For those that want to take a look at one man’s views on it, Dan Kline did another of his “live blogging” exercises over at his pad, Game of Design. (Day 1 | Day 2)
In other GDC news, After the Summit, much of the week was anti-climactic. There were the 3 normal AI roundtables as well as one run by Alexander Nareyek. I will be posting pictures and audio from the roundtables on this page. You can also check out last year’s stuff here. Eventually, I will have the pictures up from the AI Game Programmers Guild dinner (Sunday) and the regular annual AI Programmers Dinner (Friday) up as well. (Once I saw how dedicated to taking photos Petra Champandard of AIGameDev was, I figured I would let her do most of the shooting. I will link to those pictures as they become available.
Other than that, I only went to three sessions – one of which could actually be co-opted into an AI session. It was on balancing multi-player games. I figure this is an important facet of constructing AI as well for obvious reasons. I went to a roundtable hosted by Ben Sawyer about exploring emerging markets in games.
Peter Molyneux’s lecture on how Lionhead explores experimental stuff was surprisingly lame for a Molyneux talk. I was just really hoping to see more of where they were going right now. I thought it was going to be a sneak peak session. (I should have suspected something when his PR handler was nowhere to be seen.) The only amusing moment was when he almost let out the name of the project… although it is likely no one would have gotten much out of simply a name. Oh well.
I did spend a lot of time on the Expo floor. Much of that time was spent nosing around my publisher’s booth. I guess I sold quite a few books. The GDC store sold out of the 12 that they brought. Additionally, my publisher sold quite a few from their booth. Many of those sales happened while I was there. It took me by surprise to have people ask me to sign their copies. To be honest, it was more of an honor for me to be asked than I figure it was for them to receive a little of my ink. All I asked of them was to post a review out on Amazon when they got done. That would mean a lot to me (and the other people who might be interested in buying it).
Anyway, I plan on writing a bit more after I finally get my laptop cleared up. (Not looking good right now.) If you are coming into this post directly, you may want to check the tags below to see if I have written anything further about the Summit or GDC 2009.
I have been busily preparing all sorts of stuff at the last minute for the upcoming AI Summit at GDC. Having been involved since the initial discussions started at theÂ last GDC, it has been interesting watching it grow.
The Summit is being put on by the newly formed AI Game Programmers Guild. As such, there are plenty of really sharp people involved. What was very striking, however, was how many times we all made comments expressing how interested we were in going to each others’ sessions! Theoretically, we would put this Summit on for our own benefit even if there were no attendees at all! (Although I believe that the GDC folks would not be terribly pleased by that prospect.)Â Seriously, we could easily have filled the entire week with the information that we wanted to exchangeÂ I, for one, know that I will be at every single AI Summit session with rapt attention. I am even looking forward to hearing what my own co-lecturers, Phil Carlisle and Richard Evans, have to say in our session, “Breaking the Cookie-Cutter: Modeling Individual Personality, Mood, and Emotion in Characters“… and I have already looked at their slides!Â
One takeaway from that observation is that we will be talking about a lot of really nifty AI stuff. That much is obvious. Another takeaway, however, is that none of us… even the alleged “experts”… knows everything there is to know about AI. We all want to experience, learn, and expand. That desire comes from the somewhat discomforting awareness that there is a vast expanse of potential laid out before us. As the saying goes, “the more I learn, the more I learn how much I have to learn!“Â
I think that will be the underlying theme next week… not just at the AI Summit, but at the entire conference. Sure, there are students and… *ahem*… n00bs at the conference, but there are plenty of seasoned veterans sitting in the audience rather than standing behind the podium or sitting at a panel table. Why? There is plenty more we can do to advance ourselves and, by association, our trade.
CMP/Think has posted more of the sessions for the GDC AI Summit that I am part of along witht he AI Game Programmers Guild. You can find the current list of sessions here. Both of my primary sessions are up now as well as my bio for what that’s worth.
Session Description: AI characters can be beautifully modeled and animated, but their behavior rarely matches their life-like appearance. How can we advance the current state of the art, to make our characters seem more believable? What kinds of human behaviors are still missing in our AI, how can we implement them, and what challenges stand in the way? This session will discuss practical approaches to pushing the boundaries of character AI, past successes and ideas for the future, with an experienced panel representing a wide range of perspectives and games.
Session Description: As game characters engage in deeper interactions with the player, subtlety of behavior becomes more important. However, in worlds that feature hundreds of characters, the homogeneous ‘cookie-cutter’ approach of modeling those characters becomes evident, leaving the world feeling repetitive and shallow. Everyone acts the same. Using examples from games such as The Sims 3, we will show how characters can be algorithmically endowed with distinct personality differences so that every one acts as an individual. We will also explore how personality, mood, emotion and other environmental factors enable individual characters to select from a wide array of context-appropriate choices and actions. We conclude with how these behaviors can be expressed through animation selection so as to be more engaging and immersive for the player.
For those of you that are planning on heading to GDC, make sure that you get a pass that allows you to attend the Summits and Tutorials.
Ok… I’ve known about this for about 6 months (since I was in on the original planning phases) but, because things are finally official, I figure it is time to make the announcement here.
The new AI Game Programmers Guild–of which I am a founding member–is putting on a 2-day AI Summit at the 2009 Game Developers Conference. We have a lot of great people putting together 14 hours worth of lectures and panels on the current state of game AI as well as our vision of its future.