Game developers look beyond polygons

Graphics in games have reached the point where throwing more polygons at the screen has little effect on the quality. The next big thing will be something entirely different, say developers

Computer games are approaching the end of the line when it comes to graphical detail, according to developers, and the only place left to go is character development.

For games developers, it's a daunting prospect that means creating more convincing artificial intelligence for the characters, and allowing players to interact with the characters using plain speech.

Speaking at the Game Developers Conference in London on Wednesday, Jez San, chief of executive of Argonaut Software, said throwing more polygons at games only works to a certain extent.

"We recently mapped the performance leaps in consoles, and found that each generation was 100 times faster than its predecessor," said San. "The thing about polygons is that they don't affect gameplay, just how the game looks." Looks can be a powerful sales pull, however: "You walk into a shop and you see a game with ten million polygons per second next to one that just displays one million polygons per second, and you buy the one with more polygons because it looks nicer even though you have only had ten seconds of exposure to it," he said.

When the next generation of games hardware enables a billion polygons per second, it will allow games developers to seed real blades of grass on the ground, and make characters look more like real people, but that's about it. "It means more layers and more effects, but it won't be such a big jump," said San. "The next 10 times leap in performance will still not get us to realism. It will bring us closer but it still won't quite get us there."

San's disillusionment with the race for more detail is shared by Peter Molyneux, the creator of Black & White. "The danger is that we end up spending 99 percent of the time modeling dust particles hanging in the air and 1 percent of the time on gameplay," said Molyneux. "We need to have balance." Often the balance is hard to find because if Molyneux's Lionhead Studios doesn't model the dust, somebody else will.

It's hardly surprising then that Lionhead Studios is turning its attention to "making things smarter", in the words of Molyneux. And Lionhead Studios is not alone.

Even the games console manufacturers are starting to rethink their direction on more polygons. Sony Computer Entertainment's Colin Hughes, who provides consultancy services and support for PlayStation2 developers, agreed there is a need to "move away from throwing polygons at the screen." As the aids that filmmakers already have begin to move down into the realm of real-time game animation, the challenge will be not to make the models more complex "but to use the processing power to give them life."

According to Frontier Development's David Braben, who wrote the seminal game Elite -- arguably the first true 3D game -- there is one sure way to give characters life. "The next big thing in games will be two-way speech -- spoken conversations with characters," said Braben. This is technically possible now, he added, but is very hard to achieve.

Indeed, the biggest danger with giving characters the power of conversation is that players will realise how shallow the artificial intelligence engines are that drive the games and the characters.

At Argonaut Software, Jez San has a combat-driven game in development based on the US SWAT teams, which allows the player to converse with characters. The game -- called Swat -- allows a limited set of orders, and because they are context-sensitive. San said the speech recognition can be very accurate.

But however good the speech recognition is, the games that currently use it are limited. "In a combat game you don't need great artificial intelligence," said Sony's Hughes. "Good gameplay overcomes the technological limitations -- if a squad member ignores you, can overlook it. It's combat. You're shooting most of the other characters anyway."

The problem becomes much more difficult to circumvent in games that don't revolve around killing, said Braben. "Once you move away from shooting games and you stop blowing the other characters' brains out, the quality of the AI and speech recognition becomes much more critical."

Another former Black & White developer, Demis Hassabis, who now runs Elixir Studios, agreed. "In Swat there is only a set number of responses to any situation. As the technology improves we can begin to make worlds that are more open until we end up without a storyline -- you will just drop a character into the world and let them get on with it."

One thing is for sure: the next steps -- developing better artificial intelligence -- will be much more difficult than voice recognition was.

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