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We Can't Think of Everything!

An examination of why what people THINK is bad game AI might not really be the fault of the AI programmer. (Yes, it is about Skyrim.)

I admit that, despite it being 11/11/11, I haven't played Skyrim. I don't even know if I will be able to get to it for a few weeks. However, that doesn't stop the barrage of information from people playing it. I am trying to avoid most of the breathy reports from my friends and colleagues around the internet. However, this one kept popping up on my Twitter feed so I figured I would take a look.

The title of this YouTube video is "How to steal in Skyrim." When I clicked on it, I really didn't know what to expect. I figured it was going to either be a boring instructional video or a blooper reel. I suppose it goes in both categories, for whatever that's worth. However, it is an instructional video for game AI developers and designers alike.

What you are seeing is an attempt by Bethesda to mitigate a problem that has plagued RPGs since their inception -- that of rampant stealing from houses and shops. Usually, one can do this right in front of people and no one seems to care. One poor solution was to mark objects as being people's possessions and alert that person when they are stolen. However, that pretty much eliminates the notion that you could steal something when that person is not around.... kind of a "page 1" lesson in the Book of Stealing, really.

What Bethesda obviously did here is perform a line-of-sight check to the player. If the player grabs something that isn't normal, react to it. In the case of the lady at the table, she simply queries the player about what he is doing. In the case of the shopkeeper, he reacts badly when the player takes something of his. All of this is well and good. However, when the line of sight is blocked (in this case by putting something over their heads), they can no longer see the player taking something and, therefore, don't react.

But what about the reaction that should take place when you put a bucket over the person's head? Are you telling me that every person in the game is completely cool with me just placing large objects over their head? It certainly looks that way!

The lesson here is that we either can't think of every possible action the player could perform in the game or we simply do not have the resources to deal with it -- for example, by having the player protest and remove the ill-designed helmet.

In the past (and I mean >10 years ago), when the player's interaction with the world was simpler, many of the faux pas would have stemmed from the former reason. We just didn't bother to think about the possible actions. The pervasive mentality was simply, "but why would the player want to do that?" Of course, players did do things like that -- but given the limited worlds that we existed in, the ramifications weren't that huge. We were far enough away from the proverbial "uncanny valley" that we simply accepted that the simulation didn't model that sort of thing and we moved on.

More recently, as games have allowed the player even more interaction with the world, there is a necessary exponential explosion of possible results for those actions. That is, simply adding one mechanic to the game could have hundreds of different possible applications. When you figure that game mechanics can be combined so as to intersect in the world, the potential space of resulting interactions is mind-numbingly complex. The problem then becomes, how do I account for all of this as a game developer?

One game that began simulating this stuff on an almost toodeep level was Dwarf Fortress. I admit going through a DF kick last spring and it almost killed me. (It was like experimenting with powerful drugs, I suppose.) Pretty much everything in that world interacts with everything else in a realistic way. The rulebase for those interactions is spectacular. However, pretty much the only way they can pull it off is because their world is represented iconically rather than in the modern, 3D, photo-realistic, way. For DF, creating a new visual game asset is as simple as scouring the text character library for something they haven't used yet and making a note of the ASCII code. In Skyrim (and all modern games of its ilk), the process of creating an asset and all its associated animations is slightlymore involved. Or so the rumor would have it.

Given the example in the video above, DF (or any other text-based game) could simply respond, "the lady removes the bucket and yells obscenities at you." Problem solved. In Skyrim, they would specifically have to animate removing things from their head and hope their IK model can handle grasping the bucket no matter where the physics engine has placed it.

So there's the problem. What occurred in the video isn't necessarily a failing of AI. We AI programmers could rather simply model something like, "your messing with [my body] and I don't like it." It just wouldn't do us a lot of good if we can't model it in an appropriate way in-game.

This bottleneck can apply to a lot of things. I could represent complex emotional states on finely graduated continua, but until the animation of facial expressions and body language can be modeled quickly and to a finer degree of realism, it doesn't do anyone any good. No one will ever see that the character is 0.27 annoyed, 0.12 fearful, and 0.63 excited.

In the meantime, rest assured that the hive mind of the gaming public will think of all sorts of ways to screw with our game. Sure, they will find stuff that we haven't thought of. It's far more likely, however, that we did think of it and we were simply unable to deal with it given the technology and budget constraints.

And to the gaming public who thinks that this is actually a sign of bad AI programming? Here... I've got a bucket for you. It looks like this:

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This post originally appeared on IA on AI on 11/11/11.

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