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The Watery Pachinko Machine of Doom: Project Horseshoe's Thoughts On Story
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The Watery Pachinko Machine of Doom: Project Horseshoe's Thoughts On Story

January 17, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 7 Next

Vexing Issues

During the course of the discussion several difficult problems were mentioned that we would not be able to solve, but were worth highlighting. These include scaling high touch experiences, the role of authorial voice, and ethical issues,

Solving the problem of scale

Mediation of player experiences ultimately leans towards creating psychological situations where players choose of their own free will to act in a desired manner. In ARGs and narrative spaces, the most powerful tool available is the puppet master, a human actor who guides and adjusts the experience to the player's current needs. Many years of experience have taught game designers that players will always react mostly strongly to the prods, suggestion and presence of other human beings.

Unfortunately, finding skilled people to fill these mediation roles is time consuming and often futile. It is a new role that most practitioners stumble upon by accident, not one supported by schools or trade organizations. Once you do find a competent game master, you run into problems of scale. A single game master can handle a few hundred players in an emotionally meaningful manner. With games hoping to reach millions of players, all those game masters start costing you big bucks. High touch experiences, mediated by live human beings, are exceedingly costly.

Luckily many puppet master activities are relatively mundane, such as giving new quests or acknowledging the completion of real world activities. Also, they are time limited to a few minutes or less of actual contact with the players. This has lead several participants in the group to attempt to create high touch experiences by building emotionally engaging, highly social NPC characters. General purpose AI is an unsolved problem, but perhaps if we limit the scope of what we are attempting, we can create an effective helper.

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The Shrike: We all need a little AI Jesus to help us make the right decisions

The goal is to have each game master control a herd of AIs that handle most moment to moment interaction with the player. Based on the user responses, computer simulations can be run of the user's mood, and the AIs can adapt their responses accordingly. Extreme situations can be brought to the Game Master's personal attention, at which point the GM can seamlessly take over. The entire time, the person on the other end operates under the assumption that they've been talking to a real human being.

Attempts thus far build on the psychological models of the player we mentioned earlier. Designers build proactive NPCs that poke and prod the player in ways the AI models suggest will result in desired behavior. Current research in this area includes:

  • Building believable personalities that include inconsistency, unreliability, etc.
  • Ensuring that the NPCs are goal-oriented with long-term, deep agendas.
  • Focus on opportunities for influence mechanics rather than combat/conflict.
  • Generating artificial social structures, populated by AIs that create social norms and goals for the player to operate within.
  • Giving AI's knowledge of player's existing social graph in order to inform NPC decisions. For example, the AI might suggest that you, as a powerful guild leader, form an alliance with another powerful guild leader whose group is becoming too isolated and risking dilution. This creates meaningful conflict that adjusts the layout of the social network in predictable ways. The AI is ultimately playing a strategy game that involves manipulating and cultivating the social graph of the player community.

With such tools, the hope is that a game masters can use its socially-aware NPC army to support thousands of players in a high touch, emotionally meaningful manner.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 7 Next

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