By Marco Santana
Orlando Sentinel (TNS)
ORLANDO, Fla. — As Central Florida’s video-game community enters the virtual-reality era, specialists and artists who can create fantasy worlds will be in higher demand.
Video games often try to transport players to a virtual world, whether it’s a land of wooden zombies or a virtual representation of Orlando’s Amway Center.
But professionals say the illusion fails if the game’s artificial intelligence doesn’t realistically react to game situations.
“It’s about creating believable characters and believable decision-making,” said Sean O’Brien, executive producer for the NBA Live game at Electronic Arts Tiburon studio in Maitland, Fla. “If it can evolve to match your game-play style and keep you immersed, (AI) can be the most powerful tool we have to actually attempt to do that.”
Last year, Fortune ranked Florida No. 6 in the country for video-game development, and the Orlando area is a large part of that. The city is home to popular video-game programs like the University of Central Florida’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, Full Sail University and DAVE School on Universal Orlando Resort property.
When you add in Orlando’s defense industry, which also uses the same AI principles, the result is a community loaded with AI programmers. The Florida High Tech Corridor estimates that the modeling and simulation industry employs more than 30,000 people in Central Florida.
Giving characters distinct personalities and behaviors is one way artists work alongside programmers to perfect the illusion. AI also helps match the game to a player’s skill level, said O’Brien, who estimated that 10 percent of a given development team at Electronic Arts focuses on AI.
EA’s games evolve constantly as companies offer downloadable content year-round that can update player rankings.
For example, if Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo gets on a hot streak in the real world, gamers’ perceptions of him improve, meaning programmers will likely update his player rankings.
“The expectation is based on the real-world NBA now,” said O’Brien, whose company uses the same statistical database used by the NBA. “If you cannot update content throughout the course of the year, you’re outdated.”
In adventure games, each non-player character — that is, those not controlled by a human player with a controller — is programmed within an elaborate decision tree that governs its actions.
A wooden zombie in Steamroller’s “Deadwood: The Forgotten Curse,” for example, knows to attack the player when he comes within a specific distance.
But if he instead sees a scarecrow nearby, he turns to attack it, creating a strategic opportunity for human players to learn as they play. The game follows a main character who is also followed by a buddy character, which introduces even more elaborate challenges for programmers.
“The more a player interacts with a non-player character, the more important solid AI becomes,” said Keith Lackey, a programmer with Steamroller Studios in Eustis. “So we spend a majority of our effort with our main character.”
As games grow in complexity, so do the capabilities of programmers.
The competitive nature of most game players is the driving force for innovation in the field, said Rick Hall, who leads FIEA’s game production program.
“When you can build in there a decision-making that makes it feel more human, it’s more enjoyable,” said Hall, who worked on games for the Nintendo 64, Playstation and Playstation 2 platforms. “We don’t like to think we are beating a dumb computer. We like to think we’re beating a smart human.”
In the defense industry, beating that smart human could be a matter of life and death. It’s similar to a video game, but the mission is more important.
“When you want to train somebody, the problems you face are very similar,” said Kevin Dill, who is on Lockheed Martin’s group technical staff. “You want to create an experience that will make them learn something or something that will drill home a particular point.”
That means sometimes creating characters who make mistakes that real people would make, offering a trainee a chance to respond to those mistakes, Dill said.
“In simulation, the bar is a little higher,” he said. “It’s very important that our simulations are realistic so we don’t mis-train our soldiers.”
Building an AI decision tree requires programmers to constantly test and reprogram characters.
“It all works together to create the experience of a video game,” said Phil Bias, a 3D artist and programmer at Orlando’s Outhouse Games “It’s fun to make something that makes something else feel like a human.”