Hakon speaks

I am sad. Or maybe not. I am empty, and I feel something is missing. I am a merchant. I have my own stall. I sell weapons. I buy whatever… even stupid stuff that I shouldn’t be buying. I don’t know why.

Actually, I carry weapons at my stall, but I never sell them. Some nameless guy is the only person to ever ask about my wares, but he doesn’t buy either.

So I stand, I continue to stand, for several hours a day. At night I go for some smokes, and afterwards I sleep at the inn. Then I get up and do the same thing the next day… the EXACT same thing at the exact same time.

Its ok that I sell nothing at all, because I don’t need to eat. I have no wife or children or home to support. My room at the inn is free. I never get sick, even standing in the rain. I never talk, except to the nameless hero.

I do a lot of standing… in truth I do a lot of the same few things. The other merchants around me seem to be very similar… no customers, few actions.

Has it always been like this? I can’t say… I have no memory of my entire life up until the last several days. I’m beginning to think that having no memory is a good idea.

I get new inventory occasionally… I’m not sure how, since I receive no shipments. I just open my inventory and the stuff magically changes. This is often closely followed by the nameless guy showing up and opening my inventory, then running away (doesn’t this guy ever walk?). He seems to have a better idea than I do when these magical inventory changes happen.

I talked about some bandits to the nameless guy, but I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve never left the city walls, or at least I don’t remember ever leaving them.

I don’t have any idea what the nameless guy does since I have no way to communicate with anything outside my own very narrow domain, but he’s the only one here who shows any variety, any liveliness in his actions. He actually runs, and he changes direction when he runs sometimes!

Me? I sit once a day, and lie down once a day. But mostly I just stand quietly, waiting for some nameless guy to open and then close my inventory.

Maybe I’ll ask the nameless guy why he seems different from the rest of the people here… maybe I’ll take the initiative for the first time in my remembered life. Somehow though I think that won’t happen.

Hakon is a city merchant from the game Gothic 2. Or actually, he stands around, sits, or sleeps, and is only a merchant with respect to buying stuff from the nameless guy and potentially occasionally selling a weapon to the nameless guy.

Umm… so will Oblivion make this a little more entertaining, what with the more dynamic needs solving that NPCs are equipped with?

I sure hope not. The first time I go to buy a weapon and the shop owner isn’t there cause he’s out banging a whore, because he had a ‘need’ to ‘get it on’, I’m going to be pissed.

I’m going to be excited… not quite as excited as he is at that time however.

Hey, that’s why merchants have open and closed hours and can hire people to run their shops… so they have time to “take care of business”.

Even VSOGs could really use some more developed NPCs, and single-player games are in dire need of it. The types of gameplay excellent AI can open up are staggering.

You explore a shallow world right now in an RPG. With great AI, you explore the AI as much as you now explore a world.

Its a long road ahead. One of the challenges is determining just what types of AI would be fun and rewarding for the player to experience.

A lot of AI talk that I’ve heard focuses on the small-scale… like the woman setting her dog on fire. Bear in mind though that AI covers a very wide range of NPC-actions… eventually perhaps an NPC who begins as a common soldier can lead an army against you in battle… that NPC has gone through “quests” just as you have and you appreciate him all the more for it.

But absolutely, if all you want is NPCs to be shallow, serve your immediate need, so that you can move on to your next shallow experience to serve your immediate need and move on to the next one, and at the end of these feel that you’ve accomplished something, you’re not going to like deeper AI. Its useless to you.

The big philosophical issue is whether the player is king, a supreme godlike being with unlimited time travel or whether the player is just a regular human in a world with other regular (albeit varied) humans.

I think you’ll find in the end that you’ll prefer the latter, but humans today have so much confidence that their vanity will carry them through the former that they often don’t believe me. Even today they don’t believe me, much less what they believed 10 years ago.

VSOGs prove I’m right, that people want to be in a world with either people or reasonable facsimiles thereof.

The reason AI is so important, that developers shouldn’t just throw up their hands and be rid of NPCs altogether, is that AI is integrated into every world regardless of whether its a mountain or a human-like character being programmed, that AI, unlike humans, is what developers can directly control, and that advancements in game design will not come from players (except insofar as those players are designers), they will come in part from AI.

Developers will never merely create “chat rooms with graphics”, populated worlds are still the order of today and tomorrow.

It means very little for a supreme godlike being, given every advantage by the game, to become Level 40 and win the game.

It means a huge huge amount for a regular human, given no advantage by the game, to become Level 40 and win the game.

If you’re excited, truly excited, about the Epic, about exploring and even if you’re so inclined Conquering the game, then being treated by the game as a regular human should be very exciting for you.

Its impossible to win most games now, because they are so easy that “winning” means little other than a lot of time spent.

I like a game to tell me “Enjoy being a farmer, that’s what most people are” and me saying “fuck that” and being something else. Winning on MY OWN terms too, not just winning in the artificial pre-set way of current games.

It means a huge huge amount for a regular human, given no advantage by the game, to become Level 40 and win the game.

Ya, it means they have a lot of time. That’s about it.

Not if every NPC has the same amount of time and is treated equally by the game.



Not if every NPC has the same amount of time and is treated equally by the game.[/quote]
All that’s going to do is inspire everyone and their grandmother to go grab their cheat device of choice and turn the AI off. Y’know, because there’ll probably a debug switch to do that.

The AI is programmed by the same team that programmed the game. They know things a player does not. And programmers have historically been Very Bad at predicting how a first-time user will react to their systems.

I mean, what if somebody’s out appreciating the majestic beauty of the fjords and suddenly Dark Lord Doombringer completes his AI’s directive and destroys the world?


If the player and other AI agents consider that bad, then they failed in not stopping Dark Lord Doombringer.

Compare this situation to the current one, where a player merely Reloads until he “wins the final fight” against Dark Lord Doombringer. All of his leading up to this “final fight” was arbitrary or relatively so against “Doombringer’s minions”.

In a good enough AI system, Doombringer really does have minions, since those minions can be tied to him through enthralling, domination, mercenary payment, etc. Unlike current games, it won’t be necessary to kill the minions… if they are mercs you could just pay them more to come work for you, or if they are dominated you could break their domination, etc.

I would much much much rather fail as a player (or fail in inspiring the other AI agents to stop the Dark Lord) and have Doombringer destroy the world than defeat Doombringer in the current system, where I think “no problemo” after getting killed by him due to my repeatedly used time travel device. “You can’t kill me, Doombringer… you can only delay the inevitable!” Sounds like I’m a villain in a cartoon.

The current system is merely a time sink. With enough AI that will no longer be the case.

The player not only has it too easy in the current system, where all he needs is time… DOOMBRINGER has it way too easy in the current system, where he gets put into the world fully formed, fully powerful, with all of his minions pre-set.

I mean… what the fuck?? Did he spawn from some more of the mating of hydrogen particles? I’m surprised the male hydrogen’s not spent after all of its action in respawning mobs in VSOGs.

You want to be a bad-ass Dark Lord that destroys the world and kills the player? Fine… but you have to EARN it.

What you have to understand is that this type of game is not really about making it more difficult on the player (it will be, though)… its about making it less shallow on the player, and eventually opening up vastly new gameplay options. Also, the degree to which its more difficult is based on the growing complexity of the world… it will be a tough challenge for the player to understand… unlike current games that are all too easy to understand. Right now games are Explore a bit, Conquer, Conquer, Conquer. This type of game design is more Explore Explore Explore then Conquer or do any of 10 other things.

Perhaps a world of emerging powers with unclear agendas, where the player has to explore the various powers and take sides. Even after taking sides, the player has to work with his allies to determine just what actions he wants to take in the world… he gets to apply a morality. Will there be war? A strained peace? Tax levels?

Weak limited AI is holding back developers in every way, The usual solutions are “fuck AI, lets do better graphics!” or “fuck AI, lets make 2 changes to the interface!”

If developers start exploring AI improvement, even while taking just small steps, new gameplay will emerge, and current gameplay may improve.

Can somebody remind me what Brian means by the term “VSOG”? Because he seems to be the only person in the Universe who uses it.

When I look at the term, I get it confused with “V.S.O.P.” and start thinking about cognac. :)

Koontz is always right. It is just that sometimes we are not up to his level of understanding.

“Village-Sized Online Game,” because he feels that the scale of current MMOs is not truly “massive,” but more on the order of a… well, you know.

I sure hope not. The first time I go to buy a weapon and the shop owner isn’t there cause he’s out banging a whore, because he had a ‘need’ to ‘get it on’, I’m going to be pissed.[/quote]

In Ultima V merchants closed at night and stopped for meals during the day. It was a verisimilitude/convenience tradeoff but IMO one that is worthwhile. Of course, in Ultima V time moved very quickly – you just had to hit the spacebar a few times to get to the next part of the day. Some kind of time-acceleration or “rest” feature is helpful, maybe essential, in any single player RPG that incorporates full NPC scheduling.

I agree that unpredictable behavior can be annoying, and can lead to frustrating gameplay moments. Maybe one way to go is to have essential merchants and quest NPCs be on believable, but predictable schedules; and allow a separate class of “free flowing” NPCs who interact with each other and the environment and you in a less scripted way.

I continue to maintain that this is a worthwhile avenue for CRPG design which has advanced in the areas of graphics, interface, and (sometimes) story but has stalled in the living-world dimension for many years. I’m looking at the long term, not just of the cosmetic NPC scheduling (oh look! the NPC went to sleep in a way that has no impact on gameplay! how cool) but eventually something along the lines of the faction interplay and trading/piracy/spontaneous battles of the better space sims, and the independent behavior of the hero units in Majesty, and maybe something beyond that. To a point where it is actually concretely affecting (even creating) gameplay, rather than just creating a more realistic Disney Fantasy World Simulation.

I believed 10 years ago, and wrote about it in HRose’s blog.

Just a practical example of better AI…

Lets say there’s a more realistic economy in a game like Morrowind. So farmers now actually farm, have to get their seed in some cases, plant their seed, tend them, harvest.

The gameplay difference here for the player is he can now take part in this process… selling the seed to the farmer, working to plant, working to harvest, raiding the farm.

The farmer also has to transport his stock to town, or sell it to a middleman warehouse or trader.

The gameplay difference here for the player is he can now take part in this process… acting as a bandit and stealing the goods, act as a guard for the transport, raid the warehouse, be the trader.

For the farmer… no seed means no crops. If the crops get stolen and the farmer has little money he may not have money to buy more seed.

If the farmer is successful and profits he may spend his money to hire guards for the farm, or buy more land and hire more farmhands.

If the farmer goes broke he might sell the land and get a job and home in the city.

Introducing a realistic process makes the agricultural world come alive, and the player has a real effect on that world by his actions.

As a gameplay example, lets say the player walks up to the farmer and engages him in conversation, and the farmer insults the player. In current RPGs the player works some conversation tree or does some quest that might turn the farmer’s attitude around or shallowly injure the farmer. Now the player has much more realistic options at his disposal… he can cause the farmer’s bankruptcy by repeated raids… he can ambush the wagon transporting the farmer’s goods. He can make his own “quests” from inside the enhanced world AI.

Extended further, the city’s agricultural AI can also be improved. Townspeople would have to eat on a realistic basis, so they would have to buy food at the market. If the supply of that food is reduced due to your raiding of the farms, any farmers or traders with food would be able to charge higher prices to the city merchants, who would pass that cost along to the townspeople.

If you were identified as the cause of the high agricultural prices and economic trouble, the city’s police would go hunting for you to bring you to justice.

So you managed to create a “raid the farm” quest, a “ambush the wagon” quest, and a “flee from police” quest, all non-scripted and allowed by a fairly simple AI system that is rarely implemented in the heavily scripted (and shallow when they aren’t scripted) games of today.

Note that GTA is not too far from this… you can run over a pedestrian you don’t care about, and be chased by the police. The difference is that pedestrian is nameless and meaningless… there is no context surrounding the killing. No larger AI system at work. And noone has any memory… the police forget about you. The murdered apparently has no family or friends that care, etc.

The system could be extended much further, depending on CPU limitation… as agricultural prices rise the townspeople have less money to spend on non-agricultural goods, bringing hardship to that section of the economy, etc.

The way to have “real effect” in the games of today is to fulfill a quest that creates an artificial change in the world. The change is kind of magical… there is no process involved… just the DING fulfillment and the DING presto chango.

It would be cool to be walking in town and see some policemen running by, asking them what they were doing and them saying they are chasing a suspect who has been reported as a thief. Normally if this happens in a game its a scripted event with no meaning outside of the policemen running by. In a realistic AI environment, the policemen actually would be chasing a suspect reported as a thief… the whole process of the stealing and the reporting and the police action would be realistic. The results are as you can determine them to be… perhaps you are friends with the thief and you then rush off to warn him… perhaps you fail and then bail him out of jail. Perhaps you were the one to report the thief and are happy that the police are helping.

Current RPGs are about constant movement, constant player development, constant doing something new, but in the end nothing you do is very interesting. The city is boring so you leave the city. The countryside is boring so you kill monsters. Killing monsters is boring so you get loot. Getting loot is boring so you take quests. Doing quests is boring so you win the game and try the next one.

In the end its about a silly kind of ego boost… “I beat game X!”.

Its possible to create a game that is much more than that, and AI is the key in getting there.

Games like Sims 2 are exciting because they are good AI, albeit on a very small scale. More goes on inside a Sims 2 household than in most epic RPGs that span, according to the developer, “thousands of square miles!”.

If only that realistic, sims mindset could be applied to a world instead of a household.

Thousands of square miles… OF WHAT?

The biggest argument for scripted quests is that they allow for a lot of creativity, as shown by the various GTA games. While “raid the farm” and “ambush the wagon” aren’t particularly creative, the value is in the player choice, the player experience of deciding what to do. The player discovering the repercussions of his actions in a truly alive world. The player finally respecting NPCs, as they gain true motivations and start to take intelligent action.

I have no problem with schedules, but a game that goes to the point of having a shopkeeper lose his job because he spend too much time outside watering plants instead of tending the wares, which results in there being no shopkeeper at all, which results in everyone in the village starving to death because they can’t buy food… well, I don’t think that’ll ever make for a fun situation.

If it’s daytime, I should be able to buy shit from a store. If for any reason he’s not at the store, there’s a problem.

Village-Sized Online Game, referring to the number of concurrent users in the same gameworld (non-instanced).

I’m going to help fund the AI Research & Development for Bethesda Softworks by paying $50 for ES: Oblivion. Hopefully a decent game will come attached.

If the player and other AI agents consider that bad, then they failed in not stopping Dark Lord Doombringer.[/quote]

So “Dark Lord Doombringer” started off as a minor guard, let’s call him Isaac, on the frontlines of the AI battle between good and evil in some far-off mountainous region. His only possession aside from the issued armor was the key to his house, a small cottage in the middle of nowhere. He survived the battle by doing what his AI did best - running and hiding, and taking potshots at the weak. He was one of the few survivors, and upon surveying the field was compelled to pick up some innocuous object and take it home. The object, of course, being the soul of the last Dark Lord Doombringer.

The vanguard of the world’s spindle, a powerful good artifact that keeps the world intact, also fled the battle, harried by demons until only one of their number was left, badly wounded. Until the next vanguard could be summoned from the celestial aether, the last survivor decided to hide the spindle in some secure location in the middle of nowhere, then dissipated into wisps of light.

One hour later, Isaac came home. The door was locked, but he had the key.

And the player, completely unaware any of this is going on, is fetching water halfway across the world when “Dark Lord Doombringer” wakes up.

Game over.

Or in shorter form: how are you going to prevent situations from arising where the player isn’t aware that the world is even in danger, much less how to save it?


Edited to add: an AI working outside the player’s sphere of control is functionally equivalent to a random number generator, except for processing costs.

Is that even a concern?

Super powerful items that create instant world death might want to not be designed into the game. I suppose that’s one solution… too obvious maybe?

In terms of the general issue of player awareness, playing the game without a care, living in a field watching daisies grow etc. might be kind of cool for a while, but you’ll also be subject to the governing forces around you, for better or for worse. Its highly unlikely that any of those forces will annihilate the world, but its not impossible. If it happens, maybe you could start a new game.

If it happens too easily, then its a game design flaw which should be caught in testing.

In terms of the general issue of player control over the environment, then absolutely… this type of design is very difficult for the player since it takes control over the status of the world away from him.

In current RPGs, the player controls everything. The plot is engaged by him, sub-plots are engaged by him, monsters die or not at his hand, shopkeepers talk only to him, etc. Its like Tyranny or Monomania times 1 Million. The world caters in every way possible to the player.

The type of game I’m describing treats the player like just another NPC. Food costs the same for him as everyone else, he can die just like everyone else (I’m always against the Reload Function in design), he has the same limitations as the NPCs except in terms of what the player brings to the table in gameplay.

In this type of game, very few players will do anything major in the world, at least once AI develops much further than it is now. This type of game has to be fun to play from minute 1, where if a player is just a farmer and then dies 50 gameplay hours later from a raid, or 20, or 10, or 5, he’s enjoyed his experience, so much so that he’s eager to start again. Maybe he’ll try being a blacksmith this time. Maybe he’ll fail and the townspeople will throw eggs at him.

One problem with the base RPG design is that it includes both the easy opportunity to die and the vast pain of restarting, due to the time sink of levelling and plot progress. This ensures the necessity of reloads.

If you get rid of levelling, restarting (or possessing another body upon your character’s death) isn’t nearly as much of an issue, and THEN you can get rid of the reload function.

Then you can move to a game that’s more about exploration and discovering ways in which you want to interact with the game then about pushing the attack button, getting kill #1459, looting sword #78, and calling it a day.

If you hear me say words like these, I am quite possibly playing a game similar to what I’m talking about…

“Holy crap where am I?”

“Ah… so this does this”

“Wow… he didn’t take that very well. I’d better get out of here”.

“I now know that an attack will occur at the town soon. Should I stay to defend it or leave?”

“How should I price this sword I just made?”

“I wonder if I can tame this animal”

“This swamp looks dangerous, but I received a commission to explore it. Which supplies should I take along?”

“This merchant told me something, but I’m not sure I believe him. He seemed suspicious”.

“I’m going to ask Lucinda out on a date. This flower should be helpful”.

The problem with the Reload Function is that whatever you do, the worst that can happen is a bit of extra time as you time travel into the past to do something different. There is very little excitement because there is no capacity for success, as there is no alternate of failure. All there is is the difference between a lot of reloads and a few reloads.

If I really get the chance to fight the Dark Lord Doombringer, the last thing I want is for the game to be designed with the understanding that I’m going to be using the Reload Function. I want the fight to be on honest terms… no time travel devices unless they are something built within the world from its own mechanics, not superimposed upon the world with exclusive access given to the “hero”.

No hero can ever use time travel. The reload function is PREVENTING the Epic in gaming.

And if Dark Lord Doombringer kills me and the world is annihilated, then that only proves that the world should have been more effective in stopping him. I am only one human in a world filled with humans. Its not my responsibility to stop the Dark Lord, though it may be my honor to do so.

“What? We built the dungeons. Perfectly balanced them too. Empty? Uh…an NPC did it. Yeah. Totally.”