Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

In 2012 why is stealth AI so poor?

Is it me or is the AI code in dishonored deeply disappointing? I think the game is pretty good, even if it feels like nothing especially new (although I do like the possession mechanic, and I have to confess I’m not far into the game, just completed my second mission), and I’m sure it is extremely profitable and win awards etc.
However, I’m probably it’s worst critic, because not only do I fondly recall the original Thief game, and how long ago it was, but I’m also an ex AAA industry AI programmer.

Unless I am MUCH mistaken, the AI in dishonored is extremely basic. Agents have extremely restrictive, predictable scripts, possibly with some branching based on alert levels. There are essentially 4 AI states, and so that the player doesn’t have to think too hard, a big phat GUI broadcasts that state through angry icons so we are never in any doubt as to if we have been detected.
This strikes me as pretty lazy. The problem is, I really care about AI, and it seems 95% of gamers just do not. I guess if people want to play against decent AI, they play online FPS games against people.
Which begs the question, on a tangent, as to why there isn’t an online thief multiplayer game where some players are guards, and some are thieves. A system of varying transparency for the thieves to represent how hidden they are could work pretty well surely? Maybe some proper representation of human eyesight done with a lens effect for the guards, so we don’t have A1 perfect peripheral vision as we do in most games? I digress…

The AI in dishonored could be so much better, if they wanted it to be. There should be no visual cues as to if guards are alerted, apart from maybe a change in their conversation or facial expressions. Different floor coverings should cause different volume sounds. Guards patrol routes should be AI-driven with multiple routes, choices and variable pause timings, not the simple scripted stuff they have now.
Any change in room environment should cause alarm to guards. Things left open or unlocked, or moved. Opening a window should cause a detectable breeze. Strangled guards that drop a sword should make a loud noise…need I go on?
None of this is rocket science, and what’s more it;s really fun to code. I just wish other gamers, and therefore publishers, gave a damn about realistic AI. I hope Monaco is the game I wanted dishonored to be…

Democracy 2 released on steam!

Ok, I have a new game released on steam right now. But hold on a moment? what’s this? why haven’t I talked about it yet? Because it’s actually an older positech game, Democracy 2.

What is Democracy 2? essentially it’s a political strategy game, although I prefer to think about it as a government strategy game, because it focuses much more on the ‘how do we run the country?’ question than the ‘how can we get elected?’ question. It does *have* elections, but the focus of the game is achieving your objectives in terms of economics and social policy, rather than just collecting votes. Here is a brand new trailer for the game:

Democracy 2 is different to almost any other game you have played. It’s a strategy game, but there is no map or board or pieces. It’s a simulation game, but not of anything physical. It’s essentially a great big stonking huge neural network designed around the politics and economics of fictional nations (the US is also in there). The visual representation of the system is quite unusual, and although it can look very complex and confusing at first glance in a screenshot, it’s actually a simple system once you have got your head around it.  basically, everything in the game influences other stuff, and is in turn, influenced by many other items. Every link between items is a fairly complex equation, rather than a simple linear scale. This makes for some very subtle effects, and strategies.  Hovering the mouse over an object shows what it affects, and what affects it.

Here is another brand new (isn’t this exciting?) video of me talking about the game:

So how come Democracy 2 has been released on steam now? Well basically they asked about it very recently, so I was happy to say yes. The game has been around a long time and sold very very well. It continues to sell well to this day from its website which is here. It has had a pretty active modding community over the years, and the game is very easy to mod, thanks to all the data basically being in spreadsheets.

This is NOT the kind of game you would expect from the developer of Gratuitous Space Battles and Gratuitous Tank Battles. (Until GSB, people used to tease me about not being able to make graphical games :D). It’s a very cerebral, very strategic, and fairly serious game. You can, of course, just play the roll of evil fascist maniac and create a nightmare country just for giggles, if you prefer, but try to play it to win (to stay in power) and I think you will find it interesting.

There is a free demo, and the game is on Mac and PC.

I’m hoping it’s new visibility on steam will introduce Democracy 2 to a new bunch of players. This is the game that enabled me to quit/storm-out-of my job and go full time indie for keeps. it’s the game that PC gamer described as ‘an important game that should be taught in schools’. it’s the game used in at least a dozen colleges and schools all over the world to teach politics (educational site licenses are available, email me for details). It’s a game you might want to take your frustrations out on when you hear Mitt Romney or Barack Obama talking over the next few weeks.


Is social networking creating flashmobbed success?

This is a difficult concept to describe, or rather, a difficult one to describe without giving the wrong impression. I’m not attempting to criticise any content creators whatsoever here, just offering a perspective on how I see various marketplaces.
I think there is a relatively new (or to be more accurate, a suddenly hugely influential) phenomena of sudden, almost random, and fairly inexplicable popularity of individual pieces of media, which I’m going to try and call ‘flashmobbed success’.

I reckon there are basically three routes to success, and the flashmob version is the third one. Firstly, we have the traditional old school route to success. People who create something work hard, come up with a good product, put their name out there, and people like it. A combination of word-of-mouth, some movers-and-shakers putting in a good word, a little dash of luck, and some canny re-investing of profits from success into some decent marketing leads to a product that gradually builds up and sells well. Generally, there is critical acclaim for the product, and generally, people think it is a hit based on its merits.#If you’d like what I consider to be a gaming example of this, I’d say World of Goo, also Braid, also Elite, Age Of Empires, the majority of games… The film ‘Alien’ and for that matter ‘star wars’ (the original movie).

The second route is the money/hype/big cynical corporate route. This is where so much marketing muscle is thrown at a product that it becomes successful through inertia. The majority of big budget blockbuster movies go this route, also a fair chunk of the modern console games, which sell millions despite not being remotely polished or original in any way. The vast vast majority of movie-tie-in games follow this route too. Generally, these products are not considered to be critically good, and the assumption is often that the vast media budget is what enabled them to become such a hit. Sometimes, rarely, a huge marketing budget and hype does actually accompany something truly good which would have done well on it’s own merits such as Avatar, but I think that’s rare. I’d say the Godzilla movie, and most of the mission impossible movies and clones fit here. So does ‘Battleship’.

But now we have a new phenomena. The sudden rise to incredible popularity, stardom and sales/revenue which seems to happen for no discernible reason whatsoever. Like the gangnam style video, or a number of PC games. In these cases, nobodies motives seem sinister, but for whatever (probably very innocent reasons), a bunch of well-connected people with a lot of social connections all happen to like the same, slightly random thing. Very quickly, the popularity of it will spiral into self-fulfilling prophecy mode, where success breeds success which breeds success.

Why should we care?
The problem is that this phenomena is the absolute antithesis of the beneficial nature of the ‘long tail’. A system which encourages popularity amongst that which is already popular (and thus least in need of exposure) reduces consumer choice and narrows the range of entertainment available to all. If TV news covered my game ‘Democracy 2’ they could likely treble it’s sales overnight, but of course instead, they will cover the games people already know about, because they have already sold 10 million copies…

It’s frustrating from the POV of a small time creator of content because it both irritates and encourages despair. Realizing your product is not good enough to achieve market success is sad, but encourages you to work harder. Realizing that success is almost random encourages you to just throw more crap at the wall until some of it sticks.

So who is to blame? Maybe the media to some extent by perpetuating the virtuous circle of decent sales = free press coverage = more sales, but in their defense, the press wants to cover what people want to read, and generally, people don’t want to discover new things, they just want validation that what they already like is good.

Is it me that sees this as a new, and worrying phenomena? The extent to which social media connects the whole world so intimately seems to me to be making it worse. We have had annoying and inexplicably popular novelty songs before, but not ones from South Korea. How long before the whole world is truly one entirely homogenous marketplace, with no local variety and a single, all-knowing top-ten list for everything?
I truly hope not, but the signs are not encouraging. It looks to me like the long tail theory was dead wrong. People still gravitate to what everyone else is enjoying it’s just that a random selection of undiscovered media gets picked and thrown in there as the new blockbusters.

Intels performance analysis stuff

So intel sent me a new laptop, because they are wonderful nice people, and one of the reasons for this is to get game developers to use their amazing performance tools, and to see how modern games run on the very latest intel hardware. The laptop in question runs GTB very very well, and the graphics card is apparently an intel HD Graphics 4000 . I have to say, that if I plugged a mouse in, I could probably quite happily use it as a main gaming PC, which is a vast surprise to me.

Anyway, the main thing that impresses me is this intel graphcis performance analyzer stuff. You run a small program on the target PC (the laptop) and then run the analyzer stuff on another PC, connecting trivially by IP address. You run a game, and then you can connect to it on the second PC and view dozens of real time graphs on all sorts of crazy stats as you play. It’s pretty impressive stuff. AQTime can do this after-the-event, and it’s great for really working out exact lines of code that need optimizing, but this is a great way to get insight into the GPU, rather than the CPU.

Clickable full size screenshot below:

If you have a PC with an intel graphics chip, give it a go. Their performance analyzer stuff seems to be free, which is also awesome. I think for the first time in ages, intel video cards may well start to become serious rivals to ATI/Nvidia. Also the contrast between nvidias attitude to indie game developers (totally ignore me, even when reporting a bug), and intels is night and day.

Heres a video showing some of the stuff: