Well, the conference is over, and I think each day was more enjoyable then the last. Big thanks to Michael Mateas and Chris Darken and the organizers for setting it up. While not all the work was relevant to my interests, a good proportion was, and most invaluably I got to meet a number of insightful developers and researchers and push my thought boundaries further then the everyday. I’m hopeful at least some of the work will make it into my next product. For those interested I’ll hope to post the full 20 pages of notes here, so you can get a sense of the types of work presented and where I personally saw the most utility.
The highlights of Friday were both personal and professional. I was honored that Steve Rabin put some of my ideas on the future of game AI up alongside those of Damian Isla, Chris Hecker, and others. The presentation was a nice way to really bring the goal of the conference home and focused, almost such that it should have been the first speech rather then the last. But the most insightful presentation Friday was Borut Pfeifer, who discussed the AI architecture Project LMNO at EA is creating to try to make believable “Spielburgian” human characters. My notes were quite extensive, and his analysis of Spielburg’s films as source material for character behavior was very useful and contextualized to industry. We do have the groundwork for such AI frameworks already, but there’s a long way to go. His summary of how he intends to move forward was fantastic. But the first challenge (which unfortunately he didn’t discuss) is a design one. How can we make these characters seen? It’s all well and good to do facial anims, create appropriate reactions, and model emotions. But if the player can’t see enough pixels to tell, or the camera isn’t focused on the character, or if the player is incentivized to do other things, then the AI work would be poorly focused. I believe we can solve the character priority behavior problem fairly well, given time. The design solution, though, needs to be proven out and chosen first. Even the 1st person emergent shooter environment that Doug Church is likely making at Project LMNO (give his love of Deus Ex, System Shock, etc), have much to grow to reach the level of manipulation and timing in film.
This was one of my biggest takeaways from the conference. The AI technique development is good, but solving AI problems without the context of solving game design problems is tricky. Ignoring the struggles of game design yields results that are likely poorly targeted. Instead trying to predict the struggles of game design, particularly without the designers in the conference, is paralyzing. AI research is still at this stage where we need the designers to be driving the problems, not the other way around, and yet the designer->programmer->academic relationship is maybe not strong enough or consistent enough to do so yet. I’m not sure bringing game designers to the conference is that solution. Maybe it’s time I went to a serious academic game design conference to find help bridging that gameplay/AI divide.