AI programmers struggle to makes games 'imitate life'

Engineers propose solutions to some of the biggest problems in artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence, a field of programming employed by video game developers to make characters smarter and improve their decisions, still has a ways to go before it actually yields intelligent characters.

"There are AI games with very little 'I' in them," said Brian Schwab, senior AI and gameplay engineer at Blizzard Entertainment, which has published the hugely successful "Warcraft," "StarCraft" and "Diablo" series of strategy games.

The problem is that the characters programmed into today's video games, whether they are diplomatic teammates or malicious enemies, know very little about the person who is actually playing the game, Schwab said Monday to an audience of gamers, developers and programmers during a panel session at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in downtown San Francisco.

"I want recognition. I want a game where everybody knows my name," Schwab said, likening many of the characters in today's games to the door greeters at department stores who robotically recite the same greeting to every customer who walks into the store.

More human enemies with personal flaws that the protagonist can exploit, companions who actually assist the player rather than just annoy him, and mentor figures with advice personalized for the gamer, those are all Schwab's wishes.

If those remarks sound like nothing more than an off-the-rails rant, it's because they were made during GDC's annual "tantrums" panel, an event giving industry insiders a soapbox to vent on any topic of their choosing within the field of artificial intelligence.

But underneath the vitriol some common themes were voiced by the panelists. Many agreed that the game play in video games today, as advanced as they are, could still be much more realistic.

One possible fix to solve the behavior recognition problem: PC- and console-based game developers could explore ways to connect or partner with mobile game developers to mine the data that those companies have on their users and incorporate it into characters' interactions with the gamer, Schwab said.

"Obviously there's a little bit of a privacy issue there, but there is data to be had that AI systems could be using to get to know us on a deep level," he said.

Others identified gamers' lack of understanding of characters' thinking processes as a problem. Referred to in the industry as "feedback," the issue plays out in games when the player does not get any useful information to relate to the characters they encounter.

This is a problem because "if a player doesn't understand why something is happening, then it isn't happening," said Daniel Kline, a software engineer at Maxis, publisher of the simulation-based "Sim" game series.

"This is the holy grail of gaming," Kline said. "We have to solve this problem."

One game, however, that got it right in terms of feedback is the action adventure game "Dishonored," which lets players teleport at any given time and also see through walls, giving them instant access to enemies' behavior at any given time, Kline said. "You had all this information you could react to," he explained.

Less dramatic solutions may include automatically pausing the game to freeze-frame and emphasize a particular facial expression worn by a character, or change the lighting to focus on a particular behavior while filtering out the surround "noise," Kline suggested.

"We need to look for new, simpler, clearer ways of getting the player's attention," he said.

Still others suggested that programmers change their thinking on "emergent behaviors," which are serendipitous events or behaviors that manifest themselves in video games that were not the intent of the developer. For example, the scenario in which a player is barricaded in a room and enemy guards start throwing grenades at the barricade to destroy it may appear to be intelligent behavior, but if the scenario was not the programmer's intent then he should try to grasp how it came about rather than just "letting it be," said Ben Sunshine-Hill, a software engineer at Havok, a physics software engine employed by other game developers.

"This emergent behavior is not your friend," he said. "What if you were asked to change it from three grenades to two grenades? You can't do it," he said. Instead, programmers need to be in control, and to think more about how their code may be unintentionally affecting a game's AI, even if it's for the better, Sunshine-Hill said.

Similarly, others called on audience members to incorporate more robust, "adaptive architecture" into their games' AI, so that more stored information about the player, such as saved gaming history and statistics, could be used to adapt the AI based on the player's own decisions.

Because, after all, said Steve Rabin, of the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington, "as AI programmers we are trying to imitate life."

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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Tags gamesconsumer electronicsentertainmentgame softwareGame platformsBlizzard EntertainmentPC-based gamesMaxisHavok

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