Friday, July 1, 2016

The Future of AI NPCs

In this article, game designer Sande Chen describes what happens when players have a supercomputer for a mentor and what this development means for games in the future.

Showcased in last week's session "Playing Medical Minecraft with IBM Watson" at the Games For Change Festival, Medical Minecraft is more than just a student mod of Minecraft transformed into a first-person shooter with disease enemies like malaria.  Players get a strong ally in the form of a NPC powered by IBM Watson. IBM Watson is the computer system known mostly for beating its human competitors on "Jeopardy!"

IBM Watson By Clockready via Wikimedia Commons
Using AI for NPCs has been done before, most notably in the game, Facade, whereby the player can interact with a couple on the brink of divorce. YouTube is littered with examples of players messing with Facade.  The funniest tales are when the players refuse to role-play the domestic scenario and instead type in outlandish inputs such as impending global thermal nuclear war or a grisly car accident.  The couple continues on with the conversation without acknowledging the dire circumstances.

In Medical Minecraft, players can quell their curiosity about various diseases.  IBM Watson playing the knowledgeable mentor character answers the questions not by doing a massive brute force search of the Internet, but by relying on its training in determining what is the most likely answer.  Moreover, players do not have to confine themselves to certain phrases or words as in previous computer games.  They can carry on a Q&A conversation with IBM Watson.  It isn't like the classic game ELIZA at all, where the computer played a psychotherapist and tended to repeat words back to the player. 

What does this mean for the future of games?  Instead of a limited script from a NPC or a database the player must search through for information, the player can interact with a NPC in natural language.  Although the example above is limited to medical knowledge, it very likely could be expanded for history or other sciences.  And that's truly exciting stuff.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


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