AIIDE 2008: Day 2

Man I find conferences so professionally refreshing.  Thanks to all the people today who were so inviting and open to discussion – I admire the work you all do greatly.

I’m still checking on those notes.  Today the highlights were the discussions about game design formalism through formal logic.  It seems like a really neat approach to help develop the science of game design, and give game designers more demonstrable tools.  There was a lot of agreement (among AI programmers anyways) that game designers need to be able to think on a rules-based level, not truly code, but in a specific scientific  sense, something that certainly fits my experience.

Oops and feelings of dread, I just discovered I left my fiance’s laptop cord at the conference.  I hope I can get that back tomorrow.

The big topic of conversation was Steve Rabin’s talk tomorrow on the Future of AI.  I recall Chris Hecker’s similar challenge at GDC.  We covered the main obvious areas – animation, environmental interaction, more believable humans, etc.  But Steve ultimately was most excited about the next improvement not in development process but in gameplay.  As he put it: think of Portal, a successful game built around a new technology that was fantastic.  It had a new technology and a new gameplay at its core.

Steve is far more qualified to talk about this subject then I, but I’m not sure new gameplay is the most important role AI can play.  Sure, there will be new genres future AI creates.  Facade and Far Cry 2 are leading examples of this.  The difficulty is that Portal, while fantastic, isn’t fantastic because of portals.  Narbucular Drop and several other games have had portals, but were hardly impressive.  Portal was fantastic because of its narrative experience.  Portal was fantastic because it was polished.  This is the true challenge in modern game development.  You look at all the top games, and they take half a decade.  Blizzard.  Valve.  Bungie.  Maxis.  Popcap wins at casual games in large part because it’s dev cycles are 5x longer then everyone else.  Braid and Castle Crashers took somewhere around 4-5 years.  The irony is that the ideas for these games came in around the first 20% of the time.  They had to, because no team will work on a game for that long that doesn’t have something to build on.  to prove the trend, the reverse of this also holds reasonably true.  Games that spend little time on polish consistently do worse in both reviews and the marketplace, certain factors such as franchising withstanding.

This is a serious problem because there’s really no sense in creating a fantastic game today, and then spending 4 years of your life getting people to play it, all just to justify the idea you had in the first place.  Being good isn’t enough, being marketed isn’t enough – you have to be polished.   If you aren’t polished someone else will just copy your rules overnight and put the game up for free.

So what makes a game polished?  I can think of a few key things: design core iteration, design variation, content quality, content quantity, and technology.  A game has to polish each of these facets to varying degrees to turn out a great product.  How can AI help the games of the future?  By making these tasks easier, so polish can be completed in a more reasonable amount of time.

AI, like most code, is fundamentally about taking repetitive things and making them procedural.  But it’s also about modeling and predicting behavior.  For example, to improve content quality and quantity, modeling creator behavior could be very useful – making easier interfaces or automated tools.  Testing is a key part of design iteration, so automated playtesting could be very useful.  And once you’ve identified problems of a particular class, automated solutions could be very useful – things like patching collision mesh, fixing animation transitions and sequences, moving spawn points, or even elongating stream signals.  It’s tricky to say if any parts of these systems would be automatible, but each such step builds towards a major time savings and quality improvement.  Design variation (mapping design rules onto understood patterns and then selecting new longer-term games or mini-games that best build a deeply interesting game) could benefit from tools that construct and balance new rules and rule interactions built on the core experience.  And finally there’s technology, where middleware is helping keep standard functionality simple, along with helping AI research techniques be generally applicable.

Is this at all practical?  I don’t know.  I’ll be pleasantly surprised if there’s substantial progress in 10 years.  But it is important.  Polish is almost soul sucking – the cost to the industry as a whole is incalculable.  Certainly, parts of it are not only necessary, but important and even engaging.  But current project time frames are excessive in every possible way, and they are trending worse.  Just as Maya makes art more achievable, we need comprehensive tools and techniques that make the overall construction and polish of games straightword and mind engaging, rather then mind numbing, or we risk drowning our medium in a sea of repetitive grunt work.

(link to Day 1)

3 thoughts on “AIIDE 2008: Day 2

  1. Hey man, don’t knock the mind-numbing games! I play way more mind-numbering games now-a-days then the ones that make me think! Don’t forget it’s all about entertainment, not reality simulators.

  2. Hehe, I would never knock mind-numbing games, particularly done well! I was knocking mind-numbing game creation! Including (much of) what you’ve had to go through for the past few years.

  3. Pingback: AIIDE 2008: Day 1 Live-blogging « Game of Design

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