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No end of fun: Make your own video games

September 16, 2011 | Hogan Keyser
endless_possibilities.jpg
Allowing anyone to design compelling video games and characters could open up a new world of gaming

September 10, 2011 by Macgregor Campbell via (Newscientist.com)-- Conquering a video game can be bittersweet: glory soon fades into the sad realisation that there are no more frontiers to explore, no more demons to battle. But that could soon change, with the creation of a game that turns gamers into game developers.

Called Storybricks, the game, developed by London-based Namaste Entertainment, uses artificial intelligence software to allow people to program their own characters and storylines - some of which may continue forever.

The popularity of social games like LittleBigPlanet, which allow players to design their own puzzles, have shown that gamers enjoy manipulating virtual environments and like to share their creations. But building characters at home is difficult because it requires planning for almost endless minutiae. Want to make a character fetch something from a house? First it has to walk to the house, check if the door is open, open it if it's closed, walk in, and so on. Dealing with rules and conditions like these isn't fun.

To get round this, Storybricks splits behavioural software commonly used for games into user-friendly "bricks" that can be connected together. Instead of defining the details of how to walk into a house, for example, a player can define character traits in advance so that a character "wants" to be "inside the house" and the software takes care of the rest.

This is all made possible by behaviour trees, linked sets of actions and conditions, such as "if the character is near the house, hide inside". Behaviour trees are used in many games, like Halo, but Storybricks builds on the idea by giving characters the capacity to "remember" how a player interacts with them, for example, and change their mood accordingly. The more bricks a player assigns to each character, the more actions and behaviours are open to them.

Such bricks include a number of drives that can be programmed into any character, such as "want" or "fear". These are in turn influenced by more general traits that players can assign - such as "dishonest", "flirtatious" and even concepts like "love". All of these modules are then associated with actions - like "steal" or "give" - that become available depending on game events. Players can use these to build specific action sequences and dialogue to drive the story along.

For example, a player might create a scenario in which a queen has left her crown at her lover's house and asks the player to retrieve it. At the same time, the king sends a spy to follow the player. In a typical game, this scenario would be the set-up for a duel, but in Storybricks players are free to create all sorts of ways - like lying to the spy, say - to get the crown back without being caught.

This goes for any in-game scenario. "If you really want to seduce the tavern wench or whatever, you can. We can add depth to characters on the fly," says lead designer Stephane Bura.

The game's designers hope Storybricks, due to launch early next year, will inspire players to devise characters, scenarios and emergent stories that Namaste's staff could never have envisioned. If the concept is successful, it could spawn a vast landscape of bespoke, user-generated games - any of which could be endlessly tweaked by a group of friends.

Alexander Shoulson, a PhD student studying game AI at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, finds the idea intriguing. By hiding much of the detail involved in programming character behaviour beneath intuitive modules, Storybricks could provide a new kind of playing experience, he says.

Playing by social rules
"Social gaming" usually means games with basic interactions, but Namaste Entertainment hopes its new game, Storybricks, will change that. In it players work together to solve challenges that involve social rules - using tact, charm or coercion to gain an item from an adversary, say.

"We're actually talking about social game play here, literally playing with social rules," says Phil Carlisle of Namaste.

Such play could be useful for more than just entertainment, says Justine Cassell of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who has used virtual characters to help children with autism learn to socialise.







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