Are computer games doomed to be violent forever?

Computer games are, it must be said, almost intrinsically linked with simulated violence. With only a very few exceptions, they rely on either violence or other forms of high-testosterone danger (moving fast around a track) to make them work at all.

But will that always be the case? We’ve seen more games like “Dear Esther” in the recent past, which totally eschew violence – and many people believe that as the medium grows up, we’ll be able to get our conflict from more subtle places.

However, Stubborn from Sheep The Diamond has been thinking about this topic recently – and he isn’t so confident that gaming will ever escape violence as a primary conflict

“According to Molyneux, the most immediate problem in game design is a problem of AI. He recounts a story (this is all from The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose) where in an earlier game, Black and White, a God-style game like Populous, his studio created a creature that could be taught how to treat the peasants of the game. However, its prime function was feeding, and they programmed it to eat whatever the closest, most nutritious source of food was. Upon booting the creature up, it began to eat its own legs. This, of course, is a typical AI error, but it gets to the source of the problem: even good AI is stupid.

Since making truly smart AI is so difficult, Molyneux predicts that more and more video game interactions will move towards violence. If you think about it, it makes sense; it’s hard to get realistic interaction in a video game with an AI. Either you present extremely limited choices for interaction with heavily scripted responses, or you simply don’t allow that kind of interaction at all. Consider the top genres in the market at the moment: FPS and MMOs. In an FPS, the only interaction you usually have is shooting the bad guys. There might be some quests pick-ups, like in Borderlands, but for the most part, easily 95% or more of the game, you’re just going to be shooting stuff.

MMOs aren’t much different. Yes, you have more interactions, as in Star Wars, but in the end, most of the conversations are on rails, and a vast majority of the game is solving problems with violence. It’s simply easier, and developers don’t want to struggle to overcome such a challenge when they can just pump out a sequel to Gears of War 2 and make millions with just violence.”

I’ve not heard the “AI is hard” argument for why violent video games are inevitable before, and it’s an interesting one. Certainly it explains why pen-and-paper or live-action roleplaying games have a much easier time escaping the “all violence, all the time” trap – a human GM can simulate complex interactions and give players their adrenaline kick from social interaction.

Nonetheless, I’d argue that it’s already apparent that the AI element isn’t the only way to solve the non-violence puzzle. From stealth games (which don’t rely on very sophisticated AI, as the decade-old Thief proves) to crafting games like Wurm and Minecraft (and even Farmville), to PvP games where the social interaction is provided by other humans (and the upcoming World of Darkness MMO will be interesting there) there are a number of ways to skin the cat without violence, so to speak. As the artform gets older and its players do too, I think we’ll almost inevitably see a larger segment of the gaming world embracing other forms of difficulty and conflict.

Will games always be largely violent, or are other gameplay styles popular enough to take over?

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Why better NPC AI could kill your MMO stone-dead

Ah, World of Warcraft Patch 4.3. How we love you, and your massive reintroduction of escort quests and slow-walking NPCs. And SWTOR, how we adore your companions who stand in the fire whenever possible.

Wouldn’t it be great if our NPC companions were smarter?

Well, that’s the question that the Green Armadillo has been asking over at Player vs Developer – and the surprising answer is not at all necessarily

“As someone who likes to do the occasional group content, I would love to be able to use an NPC to fill a tough-to-fill group slot. The problem is that so many of these “move out of the fire or die” mechanics are so demanding that there is no middle ground – either the NPC never dies in the fire and therefore is a more attractive group-mate than a human (who might screw up), or the NPC is useless because they always die in the fire. EQ2’s always entertaining executive producer David Georgeson spins this as a feature – he claims that NPC’s are intentionally designed to be less skillful than humans to preserve a role for other players – but the resulting NPC’s will likely be worthless for the purpose that players have the most need for as a result. “

He goes on to raise some interesting possibilities – particularly the idea of filling roles players don’t want to fill, like tank, with super-competent NPCs. It’s an interesting thought – but the problem is that the lack of desire isn’t binary. Maybe 90% of the player base doesn’t want to tank, but what do you do with the 10% you just made redundant? (GA comments on this himself from the perspective of a healer.)

Meanwhile, Tobold picked up on this point, and concluded that super-competent AI companions might, in fact, single-handedly kill any MMO that introduced them

“Even without “cheating” (like being invulnerable to AoE), a healer companion could be programmed to not stand in the fire, and heal the group, and do this better than a real player. Now some people would much prefer to play with their real friends than with an AI companion. But 7 years of WoW guilds and raiding are proof that players are often willing to rather take the best performing character with them on a raid than the most likable. Thus if companions played better than players, many guilds would automatically staff half of their raids with companions. Thus the artificial stupidity of your companion actually is a feature, and not due to laziness or technical constraints from the developers.”

I’m not entirely sure. Some roles could certainly be played by computer – but a lot of the top end of raiding demands deep and cooperative thinking, something that a ‘bot would be hard-pressed to do. Or am I just trying not to envision us all becoming MMO-extinct?

What do you think? Would better AI Skynet our MMOs into oblivion?

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Why And How WoW Should Stop Being An MMO

Let’s start the week off with an interesting idea from Tobold which would effectively de-MMO WoW. Ooh err, sounds a bit much like end of the world for a Monday morning, right?

Tobold’s idea is only theoretical of course but it does have merit. He’s looked at Blizzard Activision’s two biggest games – WoW and Call of Duty (CoD) – and has come up with a way to splice them so we’d get the content we want from WoW and sensible mechanics from CoD. He’s christened it Call of WoW. Why do it at all? Tobold’s basic point is it gets rid of all the annoying, problematic bits WoW raiding currently has. Like … other people?

In Call of Duty in single-player mode that is beautifully solved with you being member of a squad of AI-controlled non-player characters. Thus Call of Warcraft should work the same way, and present us with a “guild” of non-player characters, which we can take with us to raid. No more problems with different people having different schedules and real-life obligations and interruptions.

To be fair while Tobold’s idea is centered around presenting Call of WoW as a single player game, he’s included a multiplayer system in the idea. I’m curious that he’s focused solely on raiding, even to the extent that he’s borrowed ideas from CoD to streamline levelling down to a training exercise. I wonder if his idea has room for being a series of games so folks who prefer questing or PvPing have an option, too.

You might say this isn’t much of a stretch from what elements of WoW already are. Question is – would it be the end of the MMO world – what would it do to MMOs as a genre if WoW went down a path like Tobold’s theorizing?

_Quote taken directly from Tobold’s post

You can find Tobold’s MMORPG Blog homepage here_

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Why gold-farming bots might evolve into the first true AI

Something a bit different today, but of great interest to those of us who are already kinda living in a posthuman virtual space, aka an MMO – science fiction author Charles Stross has a fascinating essay up on communication, the growth of the Internet, and the unlikely places that a truly post-human artificial intelligence might come from…

We have one faction that is attempting to write software that can generate messages that can pass a Turing test, and another faction that is attempting to write software that can administer an ad-hoc Turing test. Each faction has a strong incentive to beat the other. This is the classic pattern of an evolutionary predator/prey arms race: and so I deduce that if symbol-handling, linguistic artificial intelligence is possible at all, we are on course for a very odd destination indeed — the Spamularity, in which those curious lumps of communicating meat give rise to a meta-sphere of discourse dominated by parasitic viral payloads pretending to be meat …

But it’s not just spam, of course. As Monday’s link shows, there’s another rapidly-evolving arms race happening exclusively in MMOs – the arms race between bots like WoW Glider, which are deliberately engineered to mimic human behaviour, and the developers who wish to ban them. And even more than in the case of spam, there’s a strong incentive for the predator, the bot, to evolve to be able to pass a Turing test – in other words, to be able to pass for human.

What do you think? Will ever-more-intelligent WoW bots, or indeed gold spam, trigger the Singularity, and the subjugation of humanity by vast and alien intellects? And for that matter, just how much AI would you need to be able to pass the LFD Turing Test? “Lols I cnat sap must be bug lols”?

Quote taken directly from Charles Stross’s post.

Find Charles Stross’s blog here.

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