I’m a big fan of chips and salsa. I have my favorite salsas — some off the shelf and some at restaurants. It’s only a slight stretch to say that I could actually select a salsa based on my mood at the time. But the chips? To be honest, I don’t care so much. The chip is only a means of transportation for the salsa. It is a delivery mechanism only. A means of conveyance of what is really important… the salsa itself. The only time I think about the quality of the chip is when it is really bad. At the point, there is something about the quality of the chip that takes it out of its role as a content provider and becomes a distraction. It’s not meant to be the focus. That’s the way of the chips and salsa world.
Given that… no one probably goes out and designs the chip first. Even restaurants that serve it as a focus probably didn’t say “Ok. Now that we have this really cool tortilla chip, let’s see if we can find some salsa around here someplace.” You would think that they spent a lot of time designing just the right salsa, making sure that every nuance of the flavor sensation that they wanted to express, and then turned to the chip dudes and said “Look… all we need is for you to get this masterpiece up to the person’s face. Don’t screw it up.“
And yet, unless you are willing to eat your salsa with a spoon, the chip is, indeed, a required component of the “chips and salsa” experience. If the chip is not right — especially if it is distractingly poor — then the salsa is compromised by association. And that makes the salsa guys a little grumpy.
But what if the situation were reversed somewhat? What if someone decided to design the salsa to match the chip? What if a bunch of chip designers got together and said “we are sick of the chip being simply a means to an end! We want to make it the focal point of the experience!“? They may even decide that the salsa should be crafted specifically to highlight particular taste features of the chip. Heck, how thick should they make the salsa based on the surface characteristics said corn-based masterpiece? What changes if you design the delivery mechanism first and then design what is normal the focal point to match? How different does the experience become? (Note: I’m going to eject from my metaphor before it breaks down completely. I’m also getting hungry.)
Putting the AI Out Front
At this point, it may be a bit obscure as to where I’m headed with this. (Unless you are exceedingly clever and read the title of this week’s column.) However, there is a thread floating around in the AiGameDev.com forums under the subject “Game designs that showcase AI.” The concept of that thread is slightly obscured by the vague wording of the title. Forum member JamesFord42 wasn’t looking for existing games that showcase AI, but rather for game design concepts that have, as a notable feature, an AI technique or concept that is “out front.” Examples he gave of the games he had in mind included Creatures, Nintendogs, and Façade. There were a few other suggestions in the thread — but it really hasn’t had a chance to mature yet.
What got me thinking, however, is what would happen if you set out on a game development quest by designing the AI first? I suppose that you can make the case that Creatures was likely done that way. There are some obvious, little-used AI techniques in play there. For example, I can see the conversation that would include “if we were to make a game using genetic algorithms, would it make sense to use it for… uh… genetics?” (For an in-depth analysis of the AI of Creatures, see the AIGameDev article, “Evolving with Creatures’ AI: 15 Tricks to Mutate into Your Own Game“.) Façade is similar in the sense that the game grew out of a specific, new-fangled AI concept that the developers were trying to showcase. (Façade Specifics) But I want to set those cases aside for purposes of this premise.
Putting the AI at the Core
What I want to think of is what would happen if you took the standard game concept — as standard as the ubiquitous pairing of chips and salsa — and designed the AI first and only then fleshed out the game? I’m sure that there are loads of pitfalls along this road I’m staggering along here. However, often a mental exercise such as this isn’t necessarily logistically feasible. It does make one think. And I suppose that is what I’m trying to accomplish.
There are certain genres that lend themselves more to this idea than others. For example, it is rough to do this sort of thing on a story-based game (Façade aside). Something along the lines of an RTS or TBS would be more conducive to this exercise. For example, Warcraft and Starcraft likely created the concept, created the units, designed their abilities, did much of the initial balancing of stats, and… in the process of all of this… the AI of the individual units and enemy player AI sort of falls out. Only then did they probably work all of the above into the the single-player campaign as a way of introducing the units via some semblance of a story.
The evolution of the Civilization series has touched on this as well. While Sid may have had a concept of the game at first and then set about designing AI that served his needs, much of the progression of the series was driven by changes in AI. In fact, Brian Reynolds gave an excellent GDC lecture in 2004 entitled “AI and Design: How AI Enables Designers”. In that, he explained how observations of gameplay in one game would lead to an AI fix in the next installment. More importantly, he spoke of how the AI advancement actually led to new and different design features. And that is where we get close to designing the chip first and letting the salsa follow.
What’s the Payoff?
Probably a decent way of approaching this is to ask the question “why?” What’s the payoff in doing things this way? I would like to think that by designing the AI, it would be an effective way of determining the boundaries of what could be performed in the game. That is, “what is the maximum that can we pull off here?” By answering that question, it sets up the parameters for the experience much as a painter needs to see what colors he has in his supply before he can decide what he is going to paint. (Or alternately, much like how, while I was in college, I decided what I was having for dinner based on what I happened to have in the cabinet and all the, uh… creative ways I could combine them.) For example, if you decide after a massive brainstorming session that you can really do some nifty stuff with subtle facial expression of emotion, you may want to flesh that out (so to speak) and see where it leads you.
Speaking of “where it leads you”, I really don’t have any idea where I’m headed with this. Thankfully, the premise of this column is “developer discussion”. I just whip up whatever I have available and see where you guys take it. (Which reminds me of a particularly sensational dining adventure based on shrimp-flavored ramen, Velveeta, and oregano.) I guess what I want to suggest this week is that perhaps we have been spending too long thinking of AI as only a content delivery mechanism — the tortilla chip as it were. Our role for so long has been to only serve up the main course that the designers whip up. And that may not be a good thing. Maybe we haven’t considered what we could accomplish if we were to push the limits of what is truly a powerful component of interactive entertainment and then design a game around whatever AI masterpiece it is we come up with.
(Final note: Never mix Velvetta and shrimp ramen. On the other hand, it may work well with the chips.)