Archive for June, 2009

How far has A.I. in games really come?

Monday, June 1st, 2009

There was a piece on Kotaku this weekend looking at the development at AI in games, It specifically set out to ask leading figures what they thought of the development of virtual “beings” in games,

“Kotaku set out to ask experts in the fields of Hollywood movie magic, theme park creators, robotics experts and AI specialists to answer the question: Do the AI-controlled characters in games qualify as robots or some other form of artificial life. Are those creatures who are at the player’s mercy in Lionhead Studio’s Black & White games truly virtual beings?”

Inside the article was a rather worrying quote from self declared futurist Thomas Frey, executive director of the DaVinci Institute,

"In short, our games have indeed evolved into crude life forms," said Frey. "Innovations in the digital world are happening exponentially faster than in the material world, so the digital beings in games will soon become far more lifelike, and will eventually step out of the screens and exist as 3D avatars, interacting with us, much like other people."

I always get a little upset and slightly concerned when people from places like the DaVinci Institute (from their "about us" page: "Launched in 1997 as a non-profit futurist think tank, the Institute has emerged as a centre of visionary thought, attracting both a national and international following of idea junkies and business leaders alike.") start to talk about things like programming and AI.  I always feel like these kind of think tanks highlight a bit of a problem with the development of new technology.

All you learn is that "futurist thinkers" actually have no grasp on the practical implementation of the technology.  I’m all for creative thinking and speculation, but somehow implying that very simple game mechanics are going to develop rapidly and with little to no point into some Skynet like Ai is simply absurd. 

Thankfully the Kotaku article actually asked someone with half a clue (Chris Darken, conference chair for Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment and an associate professor of computer science at the Naval Postgraduate School) who equated videogame AI to an expert system.

In all honesty it’s a stretch to even call them that.  The problem domain that your average game AI lives in is so rudimentary small that I’d rather use a phrase closer to "novice system".

Game AI is nowhere near close to simulating human behaviour, near all "humans" are scripted, and the most simulated behaviour comes from games like Spore or The Sims where the actual behaviour is so generalised (eat/sleep/mate/die) that any nuance of actual behaviour is lost and what results is little more than a general abstraction to suite the purpose of game mechanics; which is utterly perfect for the task at hand, because honestly, developing something more sophisticated would be a huge undertaking with no practical benefit to the game project.

I’m honestly perplexed as to why some gamers seem to think building “AI” is appropriate for a game.  The term AI is exceptionally misleading and would likely never be appropriate unless you were working on something that wasn’t as strictly defined as your average “regular” game environment.

Imagine playing a game where a key NPC suddenly decides that they just weren’t into the plot anymore and just stopped playing, a “real AI” of this nature just isn’t for purpose.  I’m not suggesting that what we perceive as “AI” in games doesn’t have room for improvement, far from it, I am however suggesting that games will never lead to developing a “true” AI, simply because it’s not an appropriate avenue to approach game design from.

People need to realise that good path finding is not the same thing as intelligence, and that they probably wouldn’t actually enjoy a game where the AI attempted to simulate sentience.  It’s work enough dealing with other players in a multiplayer game, let alone having to contend with a simulated intelligence in a single player oriented experience.