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Programming Believable Characters for Computer Games (Penny Baillie-de Byl)

Posted by Michael on April 25th, 2006, in Books

With a title like that, it was hard to resist this book in the context of Drama Princess.
The enthusiasm tempered somewhat, after reading the first quarter of the book, because the target audience is clearly programmers, and not designers. Also, the focus is on NPCs as opponents to the player rather than elements in a narrative.

The book goes on to summarize the diverse techniques that games have borrowed from A.I. to build NPCs without becoming overly ambitious anywhere. It really is not much more than a very comprehensive first step towards programming NPCs the traditional way. The book virtually exclusively focusses on characters in games that behave like the player, either as opponents or partners. It also exclusively deals with classic A.I. concepts and not with any from the more “behaviorist” side of the A.I. spectrum, which seems more suitable for our goals.

That last chapter of the book deals with something closer to home: Creating Believable Non-Player Characters in which finally the distinction is made between provable intelligence and the perception of intelligence, or believability. Which is ultimately the only thing that matters, in my opinion.

Disappointingly but not unexpectedly, the writer immediately jumps to the common conlusion:

To truly create an NPC with believable autonomy, interaction, and presence we must focus on the development op the NPC’s mind because it is the essence of behavior that needs to be captured.

Obviously, we disagree. Not necessarily with her conclusion but with the supposed obviousness of it. Since all we care about is the perception of the player, surely expressing is more important than capturing. And why would the mind be the essence of one’s behaviour anyway?

Next she quotes Loyall’s requirements for believability in an artificial being (also quoted by Michael Mateas):

  • personality
  • emotion
  • self-motivation
  • change
  • social relationships
  • the illusion of life

Overall, this is a very interesting book for programmers who want to create NPCs for contemporary games. It covers all the tried and true systems and you can sort of pick what you need. It lacks optimisation routines and cheap tricks. So, despite of the exercises, it still remains very theoretical.

For designers or programmers unsatisfied with NPCs in contemporary games, this book doesn’t have much to offer, apart from giving one a sense of what’s out there. There’s no new ideas in the book or inspiring points of view.

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Posted on April 25, 2006 at 10:23 am

[…] Penny Baillie-de Byl summarizes the reasons why we do thing we do as a force of nature. Nature (which almost sounds like “god” in her exposition) wants us to do certain things (namely survive as individuals and survive as species). To make sure that we do these things, nature rewards us when we do them. The rewards come in the release of chemicals in our bodies that make us feel good. A long time ago, and for a very long time, hunting and gethering were necessary for survival. This is why nature rewards us when we hunt or gather. While hunting and gathering has disappeared as an activity for most people, the natural reward system is still in place. This is why we experience pleasure when we play games. […]

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