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The Future According to Epic's Tim Sweeney
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The Future According to Epic's Tim Sweeney

May 7, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Epic Games has made its fortune with games that feature surly, grunting men whose adeptness at blowing people in half with powerful weapons greatly outweighs their negotiating skills.

In an interview with Gamasutra earlier this year, Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of the Gears of War and Unreal Engine 3 developer, did not seem surly, he was not (visibly) armed, and he did not grunt once. He's pretty much the anti-Marcus Fenix.

For someone so soft-spoken and unassuming, Sweeney gives a fascinating interview, effortlessly opening up about the game industry and the technology that will drive it in the future.

I'm interested about the work dynamic at Epic. Are you just holed up in an office coding all day?

Tim Sweeney: Yeah, largely. The great thing about Epic is that from the beginning I've had a philosophy of finding the best people for all of the key areas of the company, and then one by one, my expertise has been replaced.

The first game I wrote was all my own, and then I brought in an artist who was much better than me, and from then on I was not doing any artwork. And Cliff Bleszinski took over design, and then Mike Capps and Rod Fergusson took over the management of the company and production. Mark Rein took over sales.

And so I'm not needed as a critical path resource on any project at Epic right now, which is really cool; it enables me to go around and participate wherever I can add input. So I've been mainly involved in every team, and direction with Unreal Engine 4, their technical strategy, and making sure all our systems are going in the right direction. Not being in the critical path, I think, is really helpful, in being able to maintain the big overall perspective of the company.

At your DICE Summit presentation in February, you talked about video games simulating life with advanced graphics and technology. Is that some kind of holy grail or ultimate goal that video games can accomplish -- an exact simulation of life?

TS: Well, there are two separate challenges. One is having a lifelike graphical realism, and that's something that we know how to solve given enough computing power. And so largely it's a matter of developing, coming up with innovative new graphics algorithms and waiting for the hardware to increase in performance every year.

The other area of computing [AI] is much, much more difficult. Trying to simulate human intelligence in the game -- realistic character AI and realistic conversations -- something like that relies on algorithms that nobody has invented yet, because nobody knows how to simulate human thought. I expect over the next few decades, really, there's going to be an incredible innovation there.

I expect that to happen because we're seeing some companies really starting to address that -- that core problem of human thought. I can pick up my iPhone now and ask Siri for directions to someplace, or ask it some really complicated query, and it'll parse it correctly and give me a result. So really, computing is on the cusp of grasping the human world, and that's a really exciting thing.

What kind of breakthrough is it going to take to accurately simulate how people think and react? Or is it going to be more of a gradual building-upon of everybody's work?

TS: It's hard to predict. The one idea is that there's going to be this singularity -- that someone in the future will trigger this judgment day where somebody creates a breakthrough in computer intelligence that suddenly changes the world. And that could happen, but what we've seen is much, much more gradual and incremental progress towards that.

Google, with its search algorithms, has come up with some really impressive mathematical notions to represent knowledge, and be able to search it efficiently. That's one of the things that's impressed me in that area. The other is a Siri, with voice recognition. It turns out that they some smart algorithms, but they also have a gigantic dataset of queries and responses to help steer it in the right direction.

So I think the most likely scenario is a path works, and progress over the next few years will continue piece by piece, advancing in isolated areas that go on over time slowly, building up into something bigger.

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Kyle Bue
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Wonderful interview! What I found very interesting is the AI subject. I'm currently taking a Psychology class as well so that helps a bit. But I think it's nearly impossible to replicate the human mind right now if you really think about it. Not only do we just not have the technology to do it, but we barely even know how the mind works at all. We have a miniscule understanding of what the mind can do and why it does what it does, and we want to replicate it? We just don't have enough knowledge of the mind to try to replicate it.

However, even if we did know how it all worked, it would still be inconceivable to try to replicate it in a game (although by the time we actually do know mostly how the mind works, the technology will probably be advanced enough anyway). You have to think of the costs involved and how much coding would be needed just to make one AI character with a human conscious. You would probably have so much code in that one character that it could be a full-fledged game. Of course I'm speaking by today's standards so who knows what the future holds.

Another thing that we have to think about is what really defines a "game." People may define what games are differently, but what most people think of when they hear a game is an interactive experience that has specific rules that you must abide by in order to achieve a specific goal. That could also include milestones along the way to that goal. So what would happen if you gave AI characters in video games an actual human mind? No one really knows of course, but I theorize that it would almost be too random to really be a game. Right now, AI in games are limited to what orders the programmers give to it so they will only perform those certain actions when they are told. But if we give them their own personality, their own state of mind, I think it would just be utter chaos. We have to limit AI so they can do things that make sense in accordance with the game itself; so things don't get out of control. What if the AI were to do something that isn't even coded into the game at all?

We don't usually think about it, but there are just way too many factors to even think of trying to replicate the mind in an AI. Until we know how to overcome those factors, I don't know if we'll even be able to see an AI have even close to the amount of brain power that a person has.

Well, I think I've said enough. I could go on and go into more detail, but it already feels like I've written an essay. It's only a comments section! Sorry for that! It was just a very interesting topic and I had to get it out! Thanks for reading if you did.

Joshua Darlington
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I think it's a false assumption that you would want to "replicate the human mind." There is only the need to represent behavior, which is a much easier problem as you can fake and approximate many processes.

Kyle Bue
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@Joshua Precisely. And that's what I mean. We can't and really shouldn't even try to replicate the mind at all. We can make AI perform smarter actions based on the rules of the game, but in my opinion, giving an AI in a video game true thought would be a train wreck. So we should just stick to giving specific actions to AI for the time being and just try to improve on that concept. Like I said, it probably wouldn't even be game anymore if you did allow the AI to think for themselves.

Joshua Darlington
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"We can't and really shouldn't even try to replicate the mind at all."That's a really weird thing to say. We shouldn't try at all? Please explain.

I agree that we dont have a robust scientific theory of consciousness and we cannot create artificial consciousness, at this point in time. But I dont understand your concern about creating a mechanical (syntactic) automaton that behaves in a convincing way. To excel at such a craft one would likely need to model various consciousness-like dynamics (hierarchical and linear plasticity, task selection, intentionality and etc) using multi-realizable syntax. The brain has something like 200+ structures working in parallel. Even with representations of each of these processes an NPC AI would be something like an advanced coocoo cock.

Stanley de Bruyn
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My opinion is also that AI is runing behind, but also is a daunting task to do right. Also simulating AI like on a human level. Is a brute force aproach. Comes down to simulating biological neuronet. And a human brain excist out of a very large biological neuronet.
But dont forget some part of the brain are just interpreting input from both retina cells from both eyes. It also means to simulate a brain je feed it with a 3D render input into the masive neuronet.

Also the AI needs of games vary. but most of them don't need full human intelligence wich means simulating multiple NPC AI with brute force means a massive amount of computing power wasted, because of huge non relevance to restricted gameplay.

Now they mimic AI with smart practical tricks. With more computing powers those tricks just can takes more scenarios into accaunt get much complexer so AI can behave believable for fraction of brute simulating force.

But I also know that there is a long road to go. Like FPSRPG like Fallout3 or MassEffect3.
realistic interaction with beliavable AI means you interact with your voice and those NPC speak back. Well I do think some barriers need to be broken to archive that.

David Navarro
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A game with any decent approximation of "real" AI would be baffling, incomprehensible, boring or downright immoral, depending on implementation. The real challenge is not to actually improve AI beyond basic mechanical features such as pathfinding and not blocking doorways, but to improve game design so that enemies provide a decent but not overwhelming challenge and are predictable enough to make you feel clever, but not so predictable as to become boring - and friends keep close enough to remind you they're there, but not so close they get in your line of fire.

To wit, most AI issues aren't related to code, but to game design.

Joshua Darlington
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I'm curious to hear more details of your incomprehensible, boring or downright immoral implementation of AI.

Bob Johnson
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Yeah AI in games is sort of a mirage. It wouldn't be fun playing against a "smarter than you" human AI. :)

Most of us don't have fun playing multiplayer online games vs opponents that are much better than us.

It would't be fun to play tennis against Roger Federer or basketball against LeBron James other than the star struck aspect of meeting them and saying you played against them.

Stanley de Bruyn
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I had some thought on this to. I play a game like X series.
Currently X3: albion Pride.
The enemy but also your friendly AI is very limited. Like percived like dumb as a dodo.
Well the result is it aint that of a challage its easy and get killed game over is rare.
even if you not that good at space combat in a fighter.

Smart AI means you die A lot. If your not so good it might brake the game.

If role playing a Hero that combat as a novice instead of a Ace there is a problem.

AI schould adopt to player level. Even with Easy hard extreem you can set the adoption to mild or go up faster. Some gamers play to for the plot and a smooth right through it. Other want to be challanged. Both need a different adotion. One for a easy ride with decent doable AI. While the other need a decent chalange adopted to player Dynamic skill level.

Online FPS Mplay got addictive grinding RPG online feature so you keep playing against better players. Leveling and unlock grinding. Also in today leading FPS online games COD MW3 and BF3. Also it give a big satifaction if you get the better player. But yes loosing is no fun.

Keith Burgun
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>>Is that some kind of holy grail or ultimate goal that video games can accomplish -- an exact simulation of life?

If you think the terms "game" and "simulator" are the same, then yes. If you think that games are actually their own thing, as I do, then absolutely not.

Joshua Darlington
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If you are interested in dramatic entertainment (narrative design), better NPCs would be a powerful tool. In order for NPC dramatic conflict to work, a simulation of physical resources and kinship bonds would be a powerful too. Ideally such a system would be a player independant simulation - as it could provide more substance to the gamespace.

Saying that we need to wait for the Singularity to accomplish decent NPCs seems iffy. Memories compose a great deal of human mentality. So a post singularity AI would still be a superficial approximation of a person.

The OG chatbot Eliza is from 1964 or whatever. The minimalized branching dialog systems used in todays RPGs are not even up to that level of tech. Where are the modular heuristic and semantic tech tools for game NPC chatbots? Is anyone talking to the IBM Watson team regarding game tech? They seem to have the NLU lead.

Bruno Xavier
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WHY does everyone thinks gaming is about socialization or wants to turn it to that nowadays...
Meh if I play games, it is exactly because I dont want to go out and socialize at the very moment I am playing.
If even core console companies like Epic are aiming social bullshit, in few years from now, I think I will need to find another hobby where I can NOT socialize with anyone.
Sometimes you need to be alone with only your own crazy mind, it is very important to maintain sanity.

Titi Naburu
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Sweeney talks about openess. I'd rather talk about freedom. Like, GPL is compatible with the Apple App Store.

Jamie Roberts
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Brains in living organisms are a complex combination of many different specialized systems. A combination of maps that are cross-referenced. There isn't a single model of thought, as brains are unique entities despite their overall similarities--adaptable and using different components based on species and individual condition. Engineers are slowly building digital equivalents of the most basic of cognitive systems: we have facial recognition and basic data retrieval (search), as well as the beginnings of object recognition. They are nowhere near the power and elegance of naturally evolved systems, but they're what we have. Eventually these individual systems will evolve into greater and greater complexity in isolation. The trick will then mixing them into an integrated system. If we ever do achieve a sci-fi type of AI, it will be through the collaboration of several organizations each developing one of these specialized systems, not via a single developer. The task is just too large to complete otherwise. The "singularity" will not be the developing of these isolated systems, but in their integration.

Stanley de Bruyn
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Well it is very common to use middleware in the game industry so it makes a lot of practical sense to specialize.