Merceron laments lack of progress in AI
Julien Merceron, worldwide technology director at Square Enix, believes that AI has been largely left behind in the current generation's charge towards realistic graphics and physics, telling us that it is such a complex discipline that it will be some time before we see significant advances in games.
"I think for many generations of platforms, people have been saying AI is the next thing," he tells us. "From my perspective, not a lot has happened. I don't think the leap will be as big as people believe, because it's a very complex area.
"It's not that AI's difficult to program," he explains. "It's that AI can screw up so many things in the game. It has dependencies on physics and animation, level design and so many aspects that all the changes you make in AI have repercussions on other aspects."
Part of the problem, he says, is that gamers infer deficiencies in AI from completely different things. "So many people expect so much from AI: to be entertained, to seeing behaviours that feel natural, to seeing good animation," he says. "People are going to say the AI is crap because the animation is crap. Or the navigation is badly generated.
"There are so many things that people attach to people related to AI that it's going to be very complex. It's an area that feels way more complex to address than, for example, taking a big leap in rendering, animation or physics."
Given that Merceron has one eye on the future – he expects AI to be allocated more resources as processing power increases – it seems curious that his personal high watermark for AI is a six-year-old console game. "My reference is always the AI in FEAR," he says. "It was so awesome not because it was the smartest AI, but because the NPCs were communicating so well about what they were feeling and doing.
"So, because you could read through this, you thought the AI was so smart. Not because it was truly smart, but because it was entertaining." It is tricks like these, he says, that we may have to rely on while the complexities are dealt with, and the processes streamlined. "It's about the runtime techniques," he says, "because even if we can make an NPC communicate with a player in realtime, we still need to make sure that the creation of an NPC like that will fit into the timeframe of the project.
"If it requires 50 guys over ten years, we know we can't do it. It's the realities of production and development, as well as having the right tools in place. Frankly, I don't think a lot of progress has been made in those areas so far."