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One of the most elusive goals in game design -- or really in any art form -- is capturing the emotional significance of an action. With the thrill of winning removed, behavior games must have satisfying emotional feedback in their systems to keep players involved.
"My focus has really been on AI as a form of expression," Michael Mateas told me. Mateas is a professor at University of California Santa Cruz's Center for Games and Playable Media and one half of the design team that made Façade, the 2006 conversation game about an awkward dinner with a couple on the verge of breaking up.
"I like to think in terms of playable models," Mateas continued. "A simulation is a model of something -- a model of the world. But a computational model isn't necessarily playable. What makes a model playable is that it presents a player a continuing series of actionable decisions."
"Those actionable decisions can be built into challenges for the player and the simulation provides continuous and juicy feedback on the state of the underlying model and how your actions affect it."
In the world of pass/fail design this concept leads to the problem of better AI not necessarily being more satisfying to play against. This is often posed as a challenge to AI development, but it's more of an issue with objective design. If playing a shooter with realistic and defensively-minded AI can be frustrating it's just as much a result of there being nothing meaningful to do besides shooting.
"I really think AI is the future of creating new kinds of playable models because it can make aspects of games that currently aren't playable playable," Mateas continued.
"Going back to the old storytelling in games conundrum -- the reason that exists is because the story aspect of most games isn't playable, and the reason it's not playable is because there's no underlying playable model of the story itself. It's not able to present the player with a continuous sequence of actionable and interesting choices."
For Façade, Mateas and design partner Andrew Stern (lately of Ngmoco developer Stumptown Game Machine) created a conversational AI that would be able to respond to any line a player might type in. It was imperfect in a way that pass/fail oriented players could instantly exploit, but it also struck a loud note of excitement among people interested in non-competitive play.
In the same way that Call of Duty games only work when you're moving forward and trying to complete the objectives, Façade worked surprisingly well when you acclimated to its limitations and learned to play within them.
Mateas's newest game is called The Prom, a combination of Sims-style planning with the interpersonal melodrama of Façade. The Prom, targeting a March release on Facebook, is about the social machinations in a high school during the two weeks leading up to prom. Players can speak with other characters and try to encourage attraction and budding relationships between different characters and cliques.
"It's almost like social physics," Mateas told me. "In the same way that physics puzzle games don't script a precise solution to a physics puzzle -- the physics engine makes available a number of emergent solutions. This is trying to do that for social interaction with its social physics engine."
One of the keys to this system is the idea of character affinities to underscore interactions. Mateas here refers to Façade and Grace's secret desire to be an artist. He and Stern came up with this story thread in writing her back story and it became a way of communicating a side of her interior self. That idea has mushroomed in The Prom. Mateas is building the AI in The Prom to be cognizant of a whole network of interior affinities that all the players will have.
"Social games themselves are part of the AI," Mateas described. "It knows what an affinity game is. It knows what a flirt game is. It knows what these various kinds of social interactions that are designed to change social states are and we've got thirty of forty of them in The Prom."
"The system's able to figure out dynamically given how the characters are becoming enmeshed in that social game according to their back stories and what kinds of stories to bring up and so on. That makes the space way more generative than it was in Façade."