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Post-Play'em - Observations on Game AI


Dragon Age: Origins – First Look

Just sat down with Dragon Age: Origin for a while. I know I won’t get too far into it anytime soon because, for a Bioware game, that usually means a commitment of a few months. I plan on blasting through more soon, but the 360 is on the same 43″ HDTV that the wife wants to watch Olympic stuff on. (I can’t begrudge her that since she usually doesn’t watch enough TV to get in the way of my gaming.)

To give a frame of reference of how far I am, I started as a City Elf and am only just about ready to roll out of town with Duncan. That has, at least, given me plenty of opportunity to go through both peaceful and combative encounters. Also, I haven’t yet dealt with the NPC behavior customization. I imagine that will be more important as I go foward, but for now I just wanted to live by the defaults.
Well Lookie Here!
One of the first things I noticed was when I was in a conversation. While I like fact that people’s eyes move and blink, I would like to see a little more movement. There is so much that can be said by breaking of eye contact, turning the head while still speaking, etc. I have written about this here and there before (and really should write a formal article about it). The point being, what they have done is a start, but it isn’t enough to really sell the character. As an example of dialog scenes that are well done, I point you to Assassin’s Creed (the original at least… haven’t seen AC2 yet). Previously, I wrote about how I liked that, in Assassin’s Creed, not only could you walk around during conversations, but that the NPCs did as well. They looked down, away, etc. I would like to see more of this. The walking around isn’t even quite as important as the head and eye control. Some of those can even be randomized — especially with parameters — so it’s not like it would take a lot of work or resources.

On the subject of head movement, however, one thing I noticed the first time that I was in a conversation with two people was that their head turns are NOT animated by hand but are automated. The reason I know this is that there is a very distinct start and end to the turn and that the turn rate is entirely constant during the whole turn. Put another way, if someone turned from looking at me to the person standing beside them, that 90° turn would go from a rotation rate of 0 straight to n, rotate that 90°, then change rate from n to 0 again. The rate, n, was always the same throughout one turn and on every turn. The overall effect made it look like one of those audio-animatronic characters in a Disneyworld exhibit. It was very mechanical-looking.
While I like the idea behind the technique, I believe a better way would have been to randomize the rate, a rate of change into the turn, and a rate of change out of the turn. This not only changes things up between one turn and the next, but also smooths out the starts and stops so it doesn’t look like little servo motors kicking in.
… one of those audio-animatronic characters in a Disneyworld exhibit.
Also, you don’t always have to look directly at someone. If someone standing next to you is speaking, you can turn your head part of the way and do the rest with your eyes. In fact, it is very common for humans to “split the difference” and look somewhere between the two speakers in that arrangement. Toss in the occasional look at other objects of interest in the environment (especially if you’re nervous, wary, etc.) and you can really sell a conversation without a lot of extra work.
Don’t Mind Me
She never acknowledged that I was even there.
While I appreciate that not every denizen of a place should attack you, I would at least like them to acknowledge my existence. For example, I was a little startled when I was storming the castle. In a couple of the rooms, I came upon a woman scrubbing the floor. She didn’t look up when I entered (if she was a servant, shouldn’t she care to see if it is a boss?), she didn’t look up at I moved around, she didn’t look up as I stood with my boots under her nose. She never acknowledged that I was even there. She didn’t do anything other than scrub the floor. It was a little startling, especially when everyone else in the place (friend or foe) recognized that, as an armed elf, I was seriously out of place. (Incidentally, I got a kick out of the fact that this matched up nicely with the theme of AIGameDev‘s AI Marmelade – their twist on the Global Game Jam. Their coverage of it was sub-titled “on little old cleaning ladies in stealth games.”)
I admit that this is likely a content issue. Developers would love to add more background characters to an area, but then you run into the issue of having them react in meaningful ways. Also, if those reactions are going to involve custom animation or sound, the expense goes up significantly. It would be nice to have a general list of generalized actions and interactions, however. Put people in there moving from place to place, carrying things, tending things, etc. When I come in, at least have them look at me. If I try to engage them, make them politely dismiss me. If I do something flashy like attack people, make them run. That much, at least, puts a little life into the place. Oh well… no one can ever say Bioware skimps on content. They just put it into length of the experience rather than the depth of it, I suppose.
Combat AI – So Far…
I was a little wary going into this first play session because someone I trust on AI commented that he was frustrated with his party members. As I said at the top, I haven’t gotten too deeply into the game and haven’t messed with the customization yet. However, there was nothing that I saw yet that was really “pants-on-head retarded.” I was a fighter as was my buddy. He attacked when I did or when we were attacked. I was too busy trying to do my own gig to see if he used a healing option when he should have. I don’t think he did because he “died” a couple of times during our great castle adventure. I didn’t think to give him a ranged weapon to see if he would switch at appropriate times, though. And now, of course, he is no longer in my party (taking some cool gear into the abyss of retirement with him). My next play session will have me leaving town with Duncan and likely teaming up with some dudes. We’ll see how things go then.
… it looked a lot like a tool that an AI programmer would make for a designer.
I only briefly looked at the customization system. From what I could tell, it looked interesting if you are an AI programmer or a designer. In fact, it looked a lot like a tool that an AI programmer would make for a designer. I would lay money that it’s origin is not too far from that. I can see how it would tend to quell the inevitable gamer uprising that would like more control of the autonomy of their party-members (is there a contradiction in there somewhere?). However, it was said by a few people that you actually have to tweak this system by hand to get people to work together properly. I really don’t like this idea. In my opinion, if it doesn’t work intelligently with the default settings, there is something wrong.
From a technical standpoint, the system looks like it is a parameterized rule-based system of some sort. I’ll have to play with it… for all I know, it is tweaking a behavior tree behind the scenes. Much of my conclusion on what is going on would be based on whether you can sort your rules in a particular order of consideration. Like I said, I only just glanced at it. More on this after I play. In the mean time, I refuse to look up any technical documentation on it just to see if I can figure it out on my own.
The enemies were pretty much standard “fight to the death” fare so far. They were all castle guards and punks, though. That would be right up their alley. I’ll have to see what other types of enemies offer later on.
Anyway, despite their similarities in production, the game is much more enjoyable to me than Mass Effect was — at least for now. I’d be pleased if that stayed the case.
Definitely keep an eye on the rss feed here. I’ll be writing more about this game later in the week.

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10 Responses to “Dragon Age: Origins – First Look”

  1. Andrew says:

    The AI (or "Tactics") is pretty much dumb if statements.

    There's a few behaviour patterns for saying how they'll react to enemies too (ie; either running up to them or blankly staring into space seem the two options).

    I'm disappointed (and will do a full review of this once I finish the game) mainly because of 2 things:

    1. The system won't be used by most people. Selecting "Defensive", "Offensive", or "Support" gives the right spells/abilities and if statements as needed for most people.

    Therefore:

    2. They don't give nearly enough customisation for those who do want to use it because they decided to have a LEVEL UP ABILITY tied to the AMOUNT OF IF STATEMENTS.

    It's a dump skill. I've only got NPC's who are taking it because they have nothing better to take, and I'm still out of slots on the person who has it maxxed out.

    Simply doesn't help when the if statements are so limited in scope. You can't easily have "Is at low mana" AND "Target the nearest mage character with mana" to use a mana stealing spell! I just leave them to use it constantly with the cooldown (since it costs 0 mana, it doesn't hurt except missing one attack).

    Neverwinter Nights or Baldur's Gate this ain't. Tactical and strategic options are severely limited by this – since the pause mode, while workable (on PC) is too time consuming and simply monotonous for normal encounters (the core of the game, which can still kill you just are pretty boring to fight).

    Luckily it just about works on Normal difficulty with my party setup, given I only have 1 real mage and they don't use much in the way of offensive spells (which need the more advanced targeting – ie; "Enemy who isn't held…is a mage…is nearby…has more then 50% health…paralyse them", nevermind AOE spells which I just avoid).

    A real shame to be honest. Could have been a good thing just having unlimited choices – for the people who care – and leave the default AI choices as it is, for the majority of people.

  2. Dave Mark says:

    That's what I am fearing. I guess I'll see.

    BTW, I am playing on "hard". I've got a bad feeling about this.

  3. Andrew says:

    Finished the game last night, I'll write up something on it at some point.

    If you start having trouble with yellow critters on Hard think to turn down difficulty to Normal – although I perhaps found it too "easy" (once I was kitted out at near max level that is…) or at least it was rather repetitive on Normal. I expect Hard's increased HP's and so forth would just frustrate me though, but might try the final bits of the game on hard when I replay for a different ending.

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