The Future of Gaming

The Future of Gaming
There Is Research To Be Done

Michael Cook | 11 Nov 2008 12:32
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Façade sits you down outside the house of your two close friends, Grace and Trip. They've invited you around for a dinner party, and how the one-act drama pans out is largely determined by how you act. To speak, you simply type, and whoever is in earshot will react to what you say as best as they can.

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Inevitably, their best is often not good enough, but what's hard to appreciate when playing the game is just how much work the program is doing to generate an interesting experience on the fly. The relationships, events and, ultimately, outcomes are all a result of your own actions within the game world. Procedural generation of a game's plot is something that, up until recently, has never been seen outside of Façade. And while it might not always work, in the same way text adventures can't cover every option you choose to hammer in, the papers and publications that came out of Andrew Stern and Michael Matheas' attempt to create a "highly procedural, A.I.-based" interactive experience are genuinely innovative, laying a foundation for future work in narration, story structuring and dramatic pacing - all possible with almost no human input whatsoever. Their work marks the beginning of the end for linearity in gaming.

Back in London with his mass-murdering A.I. simulation, Robin's still talking games. "Recently I played Halo 3, and the A.I. is still so stupid. The friendly A.I. is driving around and crashing into you, or into a wall or something," he says with a grin that most Xbox owners would recognize. "Often it's easier to let the A.I. cheat than making it really embodied and restricting its senses. But it's getting harder and harder, with these complex worlds. Now's the time, I think, where research comes more and more into play."

His supervisor, Dr. Colton, is also the head of the A.I. Games Network, a cartel of researchers and academics who are interested in testing the limits of artificial intelligence techniques by applying them to some of the biggest problems in gaming today. Their conferences tackle issues in non-player character realism, automatic avatar control for players who might want a break from their MMO duties and even game design itself. But he's keen to draw the line between his struggle for progress and the developer's desire for an "x-factor" for their game.

"Remember that we're A.I. researchers, and we're not videogames people," Dr. Colton says. "We have to keep telling ourselves that. If we don't find problems in videogame design or NPCs or avatar control which really stretch A.I. techniques, then all we're really doing is acting as A.I. consultants.

"How do we tell whether people are enjoying something more or less? We don't know the answer to that yet. We don't know how to dynamically alter a game to make it better. These are problems that will stretch A.I. as much as improve games. If they make millions out of the games, that's great. And if we get dozens of papers out of it, then it's win-win."

Michael Cook has experiments to run.

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