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Electric Dreams, Part 3: Alien Ideas For Player Expectations

Playing Smart

Whether or not it's taken over the industry yet, artificial intelligence and other experimental ideas have been on the mind of people in games lately. So far in Electric Dreams we've focused on why it's so hard to get innovative and risky new ideas into games, but some games seem to manage to push the limits further than others. We're going to look at a couple of games trying to do this, how they manage player perception, and talk about a new kind of game development that might help risky ideas find their ways into games.

A few years ago I found myself at a London games event talking to someone from Creative Assembly. They had a new project, an incredibly secret new project, that they were all very excited about. All they would tell me was that it involved some kind of creature, and that they had worked so hard on the AI for it that people invited to play would spend long periods in a single room, fascinated by this animal, trying to understand how it behaved and how they could exploit it. It was the game that was to become Alien: Isolation, and even long before it was announced everyone at Creative Assembly knew that this game was selling one thing above all else: intelligence.

Alien: Isolation is the most high-profile game of late to sell itself on the back of 'cutting-edge AI'. There's a lot of misconceptions about the game and just why it's done so well, I think. It's not that the game's terrifying alien antagonist is smart, but rather that every inch of that game is intelligent, from its marketing to its audio. Alien: Isolation sells the idea of artificial intelligence from the minute you hear about the game, even before the first time you lock eyes with the creature on board the Sevastopol. You're primed to believe that the alien is intelligent, and this lays a crucial foundation for the game by inviting the player to trust the developers, and the alien, that there's something interesting going on. It's all about perception.

I work in a strange academic field called Computational Creativity. It's a branch of artificial intelligence that deals with making software that do the kind of thing that software just doesn't normally do - write operas, invent cocktails, or design videogames for example. An important thing we talk about a lot is how people perceive our software, because in our experience it matters what someone thinks software is doing just as much as what the software actually is doing. We spend a lot of time getting software to talk about its process (like explaining why it chose some music to accompany a game design) because people need software to show off a little bit. They need software to make an effort to convince them it's doing something impressive. There's a sense of give-and-take between the observer - in Alien: Isolation's case, a player - and the software.

Isolation is a game that is entirely defined by its artificial intelligence techniques, and so managing the player's perception of the alien is really important. A single pathfinding bug or amusing ragtime number can ruin all the worldbuilding the game tries so hard to provide, and you really only need to have a mistake happen once to sour the entire game for the player. The game consistently demonstrates how dedicated it is to this not happening - wherever the alien has a chance to mess up, other game systems are there to help it out. The level designs provide overhead vents and player-impassable areas where the alien can disappear through, giving it ample ways to retreat without the player following. The audio provides a constant tension, managing the player's emotions and maintaining a feeling of fear without having to have the alien show up and potentially make a fool of itself or become repetitive. The game is a testament to the intelligence of its designers as much as the intelligence of its alien: an enormous amount of effort has gone towards placing your perception of the alien at the center of Isolation's experience.

Lately a lot of researchers have been discussing the potential of games like this, games designed around AI systems, and we've coined a name for them: 'AI-based Games'. In much the same way that physics-based games are about playing around with a physical simulation of some kind, AI-based games are designed to give the player a chance to play with, against or around an AI systemå. We've already talked about some AI-based games earlier in Electric Dreams, like Facade or Prom Week. In Facade the central AI engine is a drama manager that watches what the player does, decides on the story it wants to tell, and controls the other actors in the game so they act out their parts. In Prom Week the game is built around what the developers actually call a 'social physics engine'. It's World of Goo but with emotions: poke someone's feelings and see how the system reacts.

At Dagstuhl, the big games and AI meeting we talked about last time, there was a lot of talk about AI-based games. We even made a few: a smuggling game called Contrabot, and a bad parenting simulator called What Are You Doing? Contrabot is all about 'machine learning': you're trying to slip packages through customs so your smuggler ally can open them and get at what's inside. You have to invent a code that your AI friend can learn and recognise so they know which packages are yours - but customs agents are also learning about the packages that pass by. You get a visual representation of what both people have learned so far, so you can invent new codes that trick the customs agent but your smuggler still understands. It's broken and not very playable at the moment (unless you have Processing installed) but the idea took just a few hours to jam out. Machine learning isn't unheard of in games - Black and White is the most famous example, perhaps - but it's hardly been well explored or understood. It doesn't take much to start playing with new ideas about AI.

By developing games in this way, with the very first step being to place an AI or other experimental idea at the heart of the game, every design decision you make can help support that core idea. You can find weaknesses and redesign your game to encourage the player away from encountering them. You can identify strengths and play them up and draw attention to them. Above all else, the game's story and how you present it to players becomes framed in terms of the artificial intelligence at the heart of the game, whether that's a clever character or an omniscient design system.

One game that does a good job of this is No Man's Sky, the space exploration game by Hello Games, which looks set to be a major technological talking point of 2015. It's generating an impossibly vast galaxy of planets and stars to land on and explore. We don't often think of procedural generation as being very heavily rooted in AI, but the idea of allowing a game to design part of itself requires more than just a generic algorithm - design is a creative task that needs intelligence, and No Man's Sky encourages us to dream about what might be possible if our games could design more and more of their own innards.

I'm very excited about exploring Hello Games' beautiful galaxy, but there's also potential for the game to disappoint, too. Like Alien: Isolation, No Man's Sky is encouraging the player to believe in what the game might be capable of. For Isolation, this was all about the reality of the alien. For No Man's Sky, the expectation isn't terrifying intelligence, but the power of discovery and frontiersmanship. That very first trailer, way back in late 2013, opened with two phrases: 'Every Planet Undiscovered' and 'Every Planet Unique' - two very difficult ideas to follow through on. Like Isolation, No Man's Sky needs careful design to support the inevitable weaknesses that any intelligent bit of games technology will have. Unlike Isolation, however, the galaxy in No Man's Sky can't run away into a vent to hide from the player every now and again. It's right there in front of them, all the time, being looked at and evaluated, and that makes it a very scary problem to solve.

Whether or not No Man's Sky succeeds in meeting these expectations, though, both it and Alien: Isolation deserve celebrating as games which tried to add something different to the medium. They're good examples of how we can still build games on top of risky or broken ideas, by putting that idea at the very heart of the design and encouraging players to come to the game with an open mind. Of course, I'd love it if they worried less about being perfect - a game that doesn't have cracks showing somewhere isn't trying hard enough - but I also know that the demands of capital-G Gamers can be hard to meet in an age where even punk developers are being told they must polish everything to a sparkly shine. I hope that over time we'll worry less and less about polish and perfection, and be a little more willing to embrace spectacularly broken games with big ideas behind them.

Next time on Electric Dreams we'll look at the changing face of today's games industry, and the new opportunities it might offer for games researchers and other experimental work - and we'll come back to AI-based games as one possible example. We'll also talk about how this future relies on the people who play games to be as demanding, unreasonable and annoying as possible. A tall order, but we might just manage it...

P.S. If you want to find out more about AI-based games, researcher Tommy Thompson is talking about just this at the Norwich Gaming Festival next month, and there's an AI Jam later this month about making games with AI techniques in them!

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About the Author
Michael Cook avatar

Michael Cook


Mike is an AI researcher and game designer based in the UK. He's currently a senior lecturer at King's College London, and is best known as the designer of the game-making AI ANGELINA. He is less well-known as an expert on crocheting little Hollow Knight characters.