Reposted from the blog over at: Mindflock.com
I read with great interest the recent leaks of details about EA's "Project LMNO" over on Rock Paper Shotgun.
Although I'd heard of the game before, as a fellow AI Game Programmers Guild member (Borut Pfiefer, who is now an indie working on Skulls of the Shogun had worked on it). It was interesting because it seemed to bear many similarities to my game Damzel.
At the core of my initial concept for Damzel lay the idea that I wanted to explore the relationship between the player and an AI character. My motivation was to try and make the player feel in some way emotionally attached to the character. I described the game as ICO meets Syndicate to myself, because ICO was one of the few games I'd seen that actually tried to make the player empathize with another character. Also, it was interesting because I loved the aesthetics of Yorda, with her frailty and innocence. The reason why I view it as a melding between this emotionally charged character partnership and what is essentially a bleak futuristic view of a dystopian future ruled by corporates is because I felt that the characters needed a driver to make them interact. Plus I was thinking about the issue of how to engage the player in a risk/reward cycle that didn't necessarily involve direct interactions with the AI girl.
LMNO is interesting, because it seems like it was exploring this very ground. Ground that is very dear to me, both academically and from a creative viewpoint. LMNO from what little information I had heard, stood in the ground that was laid out very well by the likes of academics like Michael Matteas and the team at Carnegie Melon University, when they were working on the "OZ Project", the papers from which you can see here. For those interested, there is a very good position statement laying out the motivations by Michael here.
Fundamentally, LMNO spoke to my desire to create "believable agents". That is AI based characters that feel "alive". A subject that has gotten me animated for several years now. Frankly, the believable agents idea has never really been explored commercially in the same immersive environment I'm used to. I play FPS games a lot, because I feel that I often start to lose that sense of self. I am immersed so deeply in the game that I am not the me sat in front of the computer screen anymore. I always envisioned the types of environments that could work if they were actually populated by characters that reacted to me in a lifelike manner. How much more immersive if the game world actually had some inhabitants?
Clearly, I was not alone in that idea. Sadly, the academic version of this wish is somewhat less that compelling due to the sheer lack of production budget. Which is why LMNO honestly offered a clear chance to explore that notion with the same high production values that modern games can demonstrate.
So why did EA cut it?
That is definitely an interesting question. Could it be that ultimately trying to create a truly lifelike AI is simply not feasible yet? I don't think this is the case, because I happen to have seen some pretty convincing non humanoid performances in game AI agents. An extrapolation of the techniques used in World of Zoo by Bruce Blumberg (MIT) would seem reasonably capable of at least a cursory illusion of life.
So it seems that something else may be at play. Which got me thinking about potentially the failure being a design issue. That somehow the developers were unable to craft a gameplay experience based around the notion of two characters interacting. Certainly, I understand from my own efforts that embedding that character interaction as a core design element of the game is challenging. Indeed it could be this that ultimately made the game get cut. Somehow, it needs the character interactions to be meaningful to the player in the game world, whilst not simply turning those interactions into the equivalent of button presses or tasks the player performs by rote in order to activate the behavior of the AI. If the character interaction essentially becomes a mute version of a dialogue trigger, then nothing has been gained with the production and animation effort involved.
So I have a reasonable amount of faith that the failure was not simply a design issue.
So what do I suggest ultimately spelt the demise of LMNO?
I speculate, that ultimately the project failed, because EA is at its core a "traditional" game publisher. It understands game development enough to be able to create products. It understands production processes and management of budgets. It does not understand experimentation, failure, iteration and ultimately it doesn't understand creative risk. I can imagine a project so risky as a game involving emotional ties between a player and an AI character was simply too different to its normal way of doing business. The fact that EA actually undertook the project is testament to the power of someone like Speilberg to attract greater than normal acceptance of risk. But ultimately when push comes to shove, EA is a business founded on making money as its main goal. If the business side cannot understand a game after two years of development, it is quite likely they will consider the risk of trying to sell a game they don't understand too high.
Not that I blame them. The overall concept is highly speculative. It requires a leap of faith, where big business is stoically atheist.
So where does that leave the concepts behind LMNO and how does it relate to Damzel?
My own feeling, is that the only way this kind of game is going to be proven, is when an indie does it. I feel that the risks are high, but the creative rewards will be potentially higher. The closure of LMNO has at least given the public at large a chance to consider the possibilities of an empathic AI experience. The feedback on RPS and other sites seem to indicate that players are receptive to some of the concepts shown. In a way LMNO has pre-validated my own choice to work towards creating a game that truly explores the possibility that empathic behavior might bring. Of course there's no way I can possibly spend the same amount of budget as EA on an indie game, but I don't think it truly matters. I think players are capable of seeing past potential constraints if the overall experience is compelling enough. I believe that Damzel will ultimately prove to me that either I'm right, or I'm completely barking mad. My life savings and much of my next few years will prove the concept one way or another. Although the experience wont be as well produced as LMNO, or likely as polished, it will at least explore that design possibility space.
So, maybe this is one clear cut case where a small indie developer, with all its myriad constraints, has an advantage over the behemoth publisher. In that we can explore complex and game-changing concepts without the shackles of tradition, business opportunity or egotism.
Hopefully sometime soon we will all know if I'm right.