Forget Skynet. How about an AI that helps you win video games!

This is how I saved my game in the 1980s:

  1. Pause the game, by hitting one of the five buttons on a controller.
  2. Turn off the TV.
  3. Do NOT, I repeat, DO NOT power off the console under any circumstances.

Video games back then were continuous story arcs.  “Saving” the game (as described in

Zork I cover art
Image provided by a Grue at Wikipedia

the function save80s above), risked losing hours of “work” if somebody bumped the Nintendo.  But compared to today’s video games, there was for me, a much stronger sense of accomplishment by beating Super Mario Brothers, or Zelda, or Zork.  So agrees Keith

Burgun, designer of the mobile game 100 Rogues in this podcast.

100 Rogues is “an arcade-style dungeon crawling adventure,” but also, it is defiant to modern games in a crucial way: in a game instance, the player may not win.  Most of the time, the player will die and must restart the game; there is no saving.  In fact, saving in 100 Rogues is very 80s-like in that it can only be paused by nature of switching tasks as provided by iOS.  I’m sure that this is much to the chagrin of the author, who would rather see the game finished by death or victory.

While Keith ideologically stands by a gameplay theory that player skill, not the player’s character skill, must increase for forward game progress, the commercial world designs games to be fun for most users.  Unfortunately for Keith, I believe that most gamers would not find his games fun, mainly because his games are designed to be difficult and require skill.  In this case, skill is how well one can play the game.

So, when I read this Ars Technica article, I was not surprised by the demand for in-game hint systems.  After all, this would have made Myst a lot easier, especially because I can remember clicking each pixel trying to see if there was an intractable object I was missing… UGH!  However, I was surprised in my game AI course to discover that there is significant academic research to solving this very problem.

One such idea involves the concept of the game constructing an emotional player model to detect when the player is frustrated / lost / stuck.  Once detected, the AI offers a hint.  The technically interesting piece here is how to detect when the player is frustrated and how to learn to detect when the player is frustrated through machine learning.  The creatively interesting piece is how to design subtle hints, since some players may not like the fact that the game has declared them “hint-worthy.”

I think this keeps Keith Burgun up at night.  About to die in Halo?  All of a sudden, all sorts of weapons drop in-front of you.  This is game adaptation and it is the next step up from hints.  Does this make the game more fun?  For most, it would seem so.  For those that insist on solving crosswords without glancing and the answers, probably not.  In my current game AI project I’m trying to develop a hint-AI for an interactive fiction (very limited) game.  I’m hoping the players will find it fun, but I hope to design in such a way that it’s still enjoyable and won’t cause the Keith Burguns of the world to send a terminator to assassinate me 🙂

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