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Posts Tagged ‘predictable’

David Braben on dynamic stories in games

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

Gamasutra recently posted an interview with David Braben (notably a co-writer of “Elite” from the 80s as well as other games). In it, he discusses his upcoming game “The Outsider” where they are working on expanding the concept of dynamic story generation beyond the “branching storyline” feel of many of today’s games.

A selection from page 1 of 4 of the interview:

Most of [the companies that have moved gameplay forward] are quite subtle. We’ve certainly seen things like Oblivion where you’ve got all the side quests that make the world feel a lot better.

The Darkness touched on that a little bit as well, and quite a few games have elements of what you might call ‘side gameplay’ that help feed into the richness, but they don’t fundamentally alter the story: games like Deus Ex where you had branching story, and there was some slight branching in games like Indigo Prophecy. So, I think all of those things are positive, but a lot of them felt, to me, like they hadn’t done the trick.

The problem is, I felt they didn’t quite deliver on their promise. Their promise is not actually the fact that you can play it through and have a different story, because that sounds fundamentally irrelevant — you play a game through and think, “So what, I could have done things slightly differently”. That’s not the point. I find that once you try playing games in a slightly contrary way, you end up finding a lot of blind alleys, things that you just can’t do, which I think is tragic. If you offer that promise, you’ve got to deliver on it.

So it’s not so much the fact of the story being able to go lots of different ways. It’s the fact that you can try a lot of different things and you’ll find a way through. It may not be what you anticipated, but there is a way through. I think it’s that sort of thing — being able to experiment with the world in a fun way.

I would agree that there are a lot of things that could be done to move away from the linearity of gameplay in games. Certain titles that offer sidequests give the appearance of this as Braben mentions.

I played through most of Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2 – and did my utmost to complete all the side-quests. But I was well aware of the fact that a designer had dropped these quests into the game all over. They were smaller carrots than the main theme of the game, but they were dangling veggies nonetheless. I was also well aware of when I had completed all of them and had to get back about the business of the main plotline. Sure, I could wander about the cities and wilderness aimlessly like I was out for a stroll, but no one would have anything to do with me unless there was a quest attached to them. So what was the point? At that stage, I was merely procrastinating with what I was “supposed to be doing” as concevied and presented by the design team.

I think that about the closest we have to open game play these days is RTS and TBS games. Civ 4 is my latest obsession research project. All it does is give me the rules of the world and a variety of potential end goals (note: not just ONE end goal). After that, it turns me loose to do whatever I want. There is no string I have to follow through the maze.

The Sims, Sim City, and other “god games” are similar. “Here’s your sandbox – go make something.” But how does this get mapped succesfully over to the RPG – or even FPS genre? Heck, it took years for the MMO world to get over the chorus of “but what am I supposed to do? What’s the story?” The meek answer from the industry was “uh… make your own story…?

Part of the process will have to be making gamers comfortable with the concept. There are many people who want to be told exactly what to do next. They don’t want to think – they want to act. Until that mentality is softened up a bit, any game that lacks that linear component runs the risk of being critically panned by the media and gamers alike.

It looks like Braben addresses this somewhat in “The Outsider”.

The actual problem is, when you start making a story very flexible, you’re putting your hand in a mincing machine from a design point of view.

But also, you have to cater for a lot of different types of play style. There are still the sort of people who want a brain-off experience, and I think that’s a good thing — I don’t think that’s a criticism. You don’t want to have to think, “Oh, what am I supposed to do now,” because that’s the flipside of this, the unspoken problem.

[Objectives] should still be really obvious, but there’s something nice about when you go through doing what you’re told, and you think, “Wait a second, this isn’t quite right!” And it’s that same element with Outsider where you’ve got corruption, that it’s really quite interesting. Now, you can play through the [straightforward] route, and you end up with quite an interesting ending, but you can also break off at any second, and start questioning why things are happening the way they’re happening.

So really I like where he says he’s going with the game. It will be interesting to see how the implementation plays out (so to speak).

Level Designers trumping AI Programmers

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

I hate glomming on to a blog chain, but I’m going to link to AIGameDev’s article on an article (which may very well be about an article.) The title is Watching Level Designers Use Scripts to Disable Your Autonomous AI: Priceless – which just about covers it. Alex does a nice job of not just reporting on it, but explaining the mindset and even the things to watch out for.

Regular readers of my other blog, Post-Play’em will know that I talked about the idea of scripts over-riding AI behaviors in Call of Duty 2 in a post entitled Call of Duty 2: Omniscience and Invulnerability. Specifically, this was in reference to one of the behaviors mentioned in the other article where an AI agent takes on a temporary god-like quality of invulnerability until such time as he finishes a scripted event – at which time he is no longer important to the level designer’s wishes and is cast back into the pot of cannon fodder so that I can mow him down properly.

Getting back to the initial topic, my thought is that part of the issue between artists/level designers and programmers may very well be that the level designers don’t have a trust in the capabilities of autonomous AI agents… or even and understanding of what could be done with them.

For example, with the use of goal-based agents such as those found in F.E.A.R. (related post), rather than a designer saying “I want the bot to do A then B, then C on his way to doing the final action of D.” he could simply tell the goal-based agent that “D is a damn good goal to accomplish.” If constructed properly, the agent would then realize that a perfectly viable way of accomplishing D would be via A-B-C-D. The difference between these two methods is important. If C is no longer a viable (or intelligent looking) option, then the scripted bot either gets stuck or looks very dumb in still trying to accomplish D through that pre-defined path. The very nature of planning agents, however, would allow the agent to try to find other ways of satisfying D. If one exists, he will find it. If not, perhaps another goal will suffice.

The problem is, while AI programmers understand this concept (especially if you are the one who wrote the planner for that game), level designers and particularly artists, may not have an intuitive grasp on this. They are cut more from the cloth of writers – “and then this happened, and then this, and then it was really cool when I wrote this next thing because I wanted the agent to look smart, and then this…” That is being a writer - and is why many games continue to be largely linear in nature. You are being pulled through an experience on a string of scripted events. (See related post on Doom 3′s scripting vs. AI)

So, can the problem of designers trumping AI programmers be solved? It will always be there to some extent. But education and communication will certainly help the matter.

Working towards better MMORPG AI

Friday, December 7th, 2007

According to this blog posting on an MMORPG blog, a development team working on “The Chronicles of Spellborn” has some ideas on how to make mob AI a little more engaging. The post points to an entry in CoS’s development journal. I need to do a bit more reading on the game and their ideas (the article is a little sparse on details) but at least their hearts are in the right place.

One interesting point that fell out of the comments on that journal is that people are actually worried that the behavior will become predictable. That was startling to me since the concept they were proposing actually makes the behavior less predictable. One example cited was that most MMO mobs will attack the player that attacked them ad nauseum (predictable and shallow). The CoS mob will break off that one player that attacked them and go after the weakest player in the raid group. Yes, that’s somewhat predictable, but only because it makes sense.

One of the comments in the journal responded that the idea was “brilliant”. To me, the idea is bloody obvious. And really, it’s not all that hard or computationally expensive to implement. I just don’t see why MMO AI hasn’t advanced beyond where it is right now. *sigh*

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