AI programmers struggle to makes games 'imitate life'

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

By Zach Miners, IDG News Service |  Personal Tech, AI, 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."

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