I’m Sorry I Can’t Do That, Dave.

Posted: June 19, 2007 by Kendricke in 38 Studios, General Game Concepts, The Gaming Industry

David Lightman: What is the primary goal?
Joshua: You should know, Professor. You programmed me.
David Lightman: C’mon. What is the primary goal?
Joshua: To win the game.

-“WarGames”, 1983

As long as humans have been envisioning the concept of robots and computers, we’ve been imagining intelligent automatons who could do more than just our bidding, but eventually think intelligently.  Volumes of plays, scripts, texts, and scientific papers are published on the subject every year. 

Long before there was a Deep Blue, Alan Turing was  dreaming up his Turing Machine concept.  We could even glance back as far as ancient Greek clockwork computers or even the ancient Jewish legend of the golem.

This morning, I came across a rather interesting article in the Boston Globe by Scott Kirsner, where he explores the subject of artificial intelligence research, as conducted by game designers. 

I was particularly intrigued by this passage, which included quotes from 38 Studios’ own Brett Close, describing MMO monthly subscriptions and how it applies:

“It’s like the gym subscription model,” says Brett Close, CEO of 38 Studios in Maynard. Once players have built a character and “leveled it up,” acquiring skills and weapons, they’re unlikely to cancel a subscription — and sometimes they even forget about it.

But even though most game developers may be eager to shift to that kind of business model, there isn’t a sense in the industry that massively multiplayer games, with their hordes of human-guided characters, will necessarily render the pursuit of better AI irrelevant.

Close and others envision a hybrid, in which AI-driven characters help advance a story. While massively multiplayer games have been successful, he says, “nobody is successfully delivering episodic content, and a compelling story, so that you understand that what you’re doing in the game is affecting the story.” More realistic AI characters could serve as guides, he suggests, “taking you through certain situations,” or act as wily opponents. 38 Studios, with 40 employees, has as its major investor Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, an avid gamer. The company’s first game will be based on the stories of fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore.

If this is a hint at what’s going on behind closed doors in Maynard, then we could be in for a treat.  If taken at face value, it could indicate a game which goes quite a bit further than SOE’s voiceovers in Everquest 2, and a step beyond NPC henchmen such as we’ll see in Gods and Heroes.  We could be looking at full blown interactivity in our quest lines or more.

Let’s take our imaginings even further shall we, and think about other possibilities.  What about raids where NPC allies and villans fight against each other (think of the next generation of the 10th Coldain Ring War from old Everquest)?  What about escorting caravans, merchants who haggle, and more involved basic combat situations.

It’s the Holy Grail of MMO’s, really.  How to integrate intelligent NPC’s and monsters without destroying minimum requirements and server resources.  Every year, designers seem to get just a bit closer, but after all is said and done, we’re still left with speech bubbles and standard conversation trees.  Year after year, it seems someone left the grail shaped beacon on again – naughty Zoot!

But what if…just what if someone finally managed to crack the MMO equivilant of the enigma code.  What if a studio managed to find the grail and bring it back.  Would it make for a more compelling story after all, or simply get in the way of gameplay.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall at 38 right now, when the ideas are still flying and nothing’s firm in the public’s collective mind’s eye.  But it’s a long way from now till release, and this could just be some general theorizing on Brett Close’s part.  After all, we’ve all learned our lessons on listening to Studio heads who talked big long before release, right?

Time will tell if 38 Studios picked the right spices for their “sekret sause”.  Till then, I do enjoy imagining what might be going on over there.

  1. *grumble* *grumble* We don’t even get decent conversation trees right now in MMORPGs, which is insulting to me considering that we at least had those in CRPGs from TEN YEARS AGO.

    Why even give NPCs names if they’re going to be speechless, personality devoid androids that occasionally double as vending machines?

  2. Also, to prove my point…

    What about escorting caravans, merchants who haggle, and more involved basic combat situations.

    Fallout 1 had all of those things. In like 1995. They’re in no way difficult to transfer to an online setting.

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