We’ve come a long way from the rigid lifeless NPCs of the past to the current breed of realistic and responsive AIs in games such as Grand Theft Auto, Assassins Creed and Far Cry. Bots have become more and more fun to play and interact with over time. Any improvement in a game’s AI can vastly improve the replayability of a game, especially in open world/sandbox games.
The award-winning HBO series ‘Westworld’ is a very interesting reference point for us to understand how AI can affect gameplay. In the series, players interact with humanoid robots (hosts) with advanced AIs in a futuristic theme park where players can live out their fantasies. The hosts each have their very own scripts and improvisations and are programmed to be more humanlike in every successive interaction. They provide a source of endless permutations and combinations of behaviours suiting the psyche of every player.
In Westworld, the hosts are always ‘active’ irrespective of a human presence. They keep learning from each other and polish the mannerisms, quirks and idiosyncrasies that make us human. This kind of self-learning AI could revolutionise the way we play games. The game can learn our unique play style and customise itself to offer a truly unique experience each time a player logs in.
This moves away from the linear narrative path that most games follow, they allow the player to immerse themselves in a world that gives them endless quests and experiences. If AI does manage to reach such a level of complexity, then it becomes more than just a means to an end. If NPCs can make the players pause and think, then they become more than just the background, they become the game itself.
The creators of Westworld drew inspiration from popular videogames such as BioShock, Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption. In a case of art imitating art, if we were to create a game on the premise of Westworld it would be focussed entirely on our interaction with the ‘hosts’. If we could move beyond scripted character trees and dialogues to real conversation, then it gives us a whole new way of looking at games.
The premise of interaction with NPCs or AIs being the core of a game is not a far-fetched concept. The 2000 era superhit by EA ‘The Sims’ proves that there is an audience for such ‘social simulations’. The smashing success of the franchise (They sold close to 175 Million copies) makes it apparent that players do care about AI especially when it leads to entertaining and unpredictable outcomes.