Can We Talk?

Bill DeSmedt and Don Loritz

What will it take to get non-player characters talking in computer games? It’s not just parsing any more! Here’s a preview of the next wave of authorable, knowledge-based conversational agents, and what it'll take to get there. At the Amber Consortium we see conversation as the next wave in the confluence of AI and game development. This is not to say that AI will cease contributing advances in the tools for fabricating ever more life-like bodies, behaviors, and movements. But games themselves (and gamers, too) are evolving beyond their early fixation with non-stop action and eye-catching 3D graphics, in the direction of greater depth and involvement. 'And as game developers grapple with the challenge "to give people the widest possible means of exploring that you can get" (as Roberta Williams puts it [1997]), they are increasingly turning to modes of interaction beyond the (virtually) physical -- to "a dimension, not of sight or sound, but of mind..." That’s because endowing non-player characters (NPCs) with more, well, character -- in the sense of possessing and expressing memories, beliefs, and opinions -- turns out to be one of the most cost-effective ways to meet players’ demands for a more immersive experience. Scott Watson of Walt Disney Imagineering reports [Watson, 1996] that one of the star attractions (unexpectedly so) of the Aladdin’s Magic Carpet ride was a conversation between two NPC rug merchants haggling in the street. Surrounded by millions of polygons worth of expensive, labor-intensive eye-candy far as the eye could see, patrons still stopped to listen to this (canned) dialogue. Imagine what it would be like if the users were able to take part in the conversation as well. Their involvement in the characters’ "inner space" would not only make possible a new kind of gaming experience, it might even reach the point where game developers could ease up on the 3D animation--at least for the duration of the dialogue


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