Designing Artificial Intelligence for Digital Dominant Species

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Hey everyone! My name is Matt Brand. I work at GameTheory in Burlington, VT, and I am the primary developer on the digital version of Dominant Species by GMT Games. I am finishing up the Artificial Intelligence (AI) portion of the game right now, and wanted to give a little window into the creation of the AI. I’m going to give a little summary of the complex nature of the AI for this game, and then some of the strategies that Kai Jensen (Developer of the Dominant Species boardgame ) and I came up with in order to facilitate an interesting and fun play experience.

DominantSpecies(RBM)Dominant Species (DS) is a game with a lot of complex decision points. It may not seem that way when playing the game as a human, but the ways in which some decisions are made as a player involve a lot of underlying logic and assumptions that need to be taken into account when making an AI come to similar conclusions. Even some seemingly simple moves take layers of analysis in order for the AI to arrive at a similar decision that a human player will make.

The main reason for the deep complexity in DS is the breadth of types of actions that the game involves. For example, choosing and placing an element in Abundance, which really comes down to what elements can support the player the best on the board, is relatively simple, while moving animals around during Migration in order to maximize different results gets way more complex. Both involve a basic goal of maximizing the amount of tiles on earth that the AI desires to dominate, but the ways that is accomplished in each of those 2 types of actions are very different. And those are only 2 actions out of the 12 types, not to mention the Dominance Cards, which involve another entire range of different types of behaviors and decisions.

Another reason for the complexity is the turn structure. DS is unlike most other games. Generally in a game each player takes one turn, does an action, and the game advances to the next player. There are the same number of turns per round per player, and the actions done in each turn are relatively similar. DS is very different because it has varying amounts of actions per player, which changes over the course of the game. It progresses in Initiative order in the Planning Phase, each player taking a turn to place an Action Pawn on the desired action. But then once it gets to the Execution Phase, the turns are made in the order the players have designated, so the same player could take 2, 3 or even more turns in a row. (This also presents a big challenge as we design the multi-player functionality we’re adding to the game later this summer, but that’s another article.)

(Re) Designing the User Interface for Digital Dominant Species

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DominantSpecies(RBM)Most of you probably know the back story of our long journey to create an updated version of our Dominant Species for iPad game. We haven’t talked about it much of late, mostly because we didn’t have much to tell you except “we’re working on it.” But in the background, after two successive developers had bowed out of the project and basically left us unable to update or support the game, we had begun working with a new (to us) company, GameTheory, to create a brand new version of the app.  First, though, to try them out on a simpler project, and to give us both time to figure out if we liked working with each other (that’s working out pretty well!), they developed Leaping Lemmings for iPad, a game that we released last Fall. We were very happy with both the quality and timeliness of their work on Leaping Lemmings, which gave us great hope that just maybe we’d found the right team to tackle Dominant Species.

A few months later, we are now doing alpha testing on an entirely new Dominant Species app. We think you guys are going to really like it. The UI and AI are much better than the original version, the feature set is improved (Undo, tutorial, etc), and gameplay is much smoother. We’ve finished two of four milestones at this point, so there’s still some work to do (adding multi-player over Game Center is next), but already this version plays better than the original. As a reminder to you guys who own the original version, you’re going to get this as a free upgrade when it’s ready.

Now I’d like to introduce you all to Marguerite Dibble, the CEO at GameTheory. Marguerite is going to share a little “show and tell” with us today, focusing on how the GT folks put together the User Interface for the new Dominant Species for iPad. We hope you enjoy this peek behind the scenes at the development process for the game. – Gene

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At GameTheory we often find ourselves faced with some pretty fascinating UI (User Interface) / UX (User Experience) challenges, but I can honestly say that none has been quite as challenging, and fascinating as wrangling the Dominant Species board into a clear concise tablet-scale experience.

When we started to look at adapting the game into a tablet version, it was clear right away that there was a lot to consider. The rules are very unique, and the two stage process of the game makes the board intricate and complex, with a planning phase, many reference points for food chain, land value, etc., not to mention player pieces and the actual play space. When we finally played through the game enough to think we’d gotten a hang of it, we began to tackle the UI piece by piece.

First and foremost, we always want to make any user experience as clean and clear as possible. We want to minimize the objects on the screen, only presenting the user with what they need to know when they need to know it. Of course with strategy games that can be open to debate, but it’s a good goal to at least attempt to stick with. We knew right away that a nice UI could handle a lot of the aspects of the game that became a little tedious, like the calculation of dominance on tiles, and automatically adding and removing pieces. We also knew that we could simplify many things that didn’t need interaction in the same way a game board does, so the next challenge was to consider what could be optimized, where to clean up the space, and present all the detail of the game as simply as possible.

Twilight Struggle Digital Version Update

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Hi everyone!

Here’s a new update on the Twilight Struggle Digital Version from Randy at Playdek. Enjoy!

Gene

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Greetings, Backers!

I’d like to give you a quick update on how development of Twilight Struggle: Digital Edition is going. Online multiplayer is pretty solid now. Gary & I have asynchronous games going all the time. Although the game also runs as a standalone application on both PC and Mac, we mainly play on our iPads so we can continue to take our turns after work hours. We haven’t found any serious bugs for a couple of months, so our games almost always reach a conclusion. As a result, games have gotten very competitive. Now and then we must make a change to the game server that invalidates the current games. When this happens, we are usually in the middle of an intense game and always try to quickly finish it rather than abandon it.  

Twilight Struggle KickStarter Update

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Hi everyone!

We wanted you all to get the update on where we are with both the Digital Version and new Collector’s Edition of Twilight Struggle, which were funded by our successful Kickstarter Campaign this past summer. So here’s a copy of the update that went out today to Kickstarter backers. Enjoy!

Gene

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Dear Backers,

It’s been a while since we’ve given you a proper update. So, in today’s update, we’ll do our best to give you a comprehensive look at where we stand with both the digital and physical rewards. I hope you’ll see that although we’ve been quiet of late, there has been a LOT of work going on in the background.

First off, here’s an update on the digital side from Programmer Randy Stevenson at Playdek:

Digital Version Update


Where We Came From
 

When we started the Twilight Struggle: Digital Edition project, Playdek had just made the decision to adopt a new graphics engine to take our products to the next level both visually and functionally. Our core existing technology behind all our games was about to get a facelift. The challenge was to separate our existing UI code from the game rules, AI & network code in a way that allowed our programmers to continue iterating on familiar technology while opening up a new playground of creativity for our artists to work in. As a result, the presentation of our games would get a huge boost in quality.

So, we went to work! Laying the groundwork for the new architecture — our existing game engine coupled to a spiffy new graphics engine — took some time to accomplish, but we did it. Progress during this period of development was ‘under the hood’ and not particularly visual. It took some time, but it has finally reached a stable and functional state.

Meanwhile, Gary Weis (Playdek’s CTO) crafted the game rules code for Twilight Struggle. This is usually the first step we take because the other major components of the program (AI and UI, particularly) benefit most from a solid and faithful rules implementation. As board gamers ourselves, we appreciate the importance of getting the rules right, and it is no easy task. In the ‘real world’ there can be numerous rules conflicts that we don’t ever need to think about unless they actually come up during a game. Even then, we can always check for a ruling on The Geek, or just improvise a ruling that seems fair and continue with the game. Not so in the digital realm! Every course of action, no matter how improbable, needs to be handled correctly.

During rules development, we have a barebones Windows client that allows us to play through the game and exercise the rules engine so we can find and fix bugs. This is the game in its first playable form, completely untouched by any artist.

Where We Are Now

Gary and I have been playing lunchtime games of Twilight Struggle using our game rules code for the past couple of months. Our goal has been to test out as many combinations of card play as we can, looking for bugs in the rules code. Sometimes the game would outright crash on us. Other times, we’d notice problems with certain cards not functioning correctly or bugs in the scoring sequence.

Gary also implemented Volko Ruhnke’s Late War Scenario (from page 12 of the Deluxe Edition rules), specifically so we could get better test coverage on the late war cards. Playing this scenario as the Soviets is brutal. The US must score 20+ points in order to win, and you are just trying to minimize the damage as much as possible. Preventing US dominance in any region when it is scored is often difficult for the Soviets in this scenario. By the time we returned to playing normal games, I’d lost all confidence in my ability to spread Soviet influence throughout the world. (Don’t worry, it’s back now. Ask Gary.)

We started out both playing on Gary’s Windows client. The interface is functional, but it can be unforgiving. Once, I entered the command to perform a coup only to realize I’d forgotten Cuban Missile Crisis was in play. Another time I performed a coup using ABM Treaty but I’d forgotten to play the card for its event — I’d used it for ops at DEFCON 2. Whoops! Too bad, there was no way to back out & no warnings given. Of course, our finished game client will do all the right things you’d want in situations like these. It’ll warn you when you’re about to cause Thermonuclear War. It’ll let you undo your actions during your turn, as long as you didn’t reveal any new information.

During all this play testing, I’d been working on the ‘real’ client, the program that will become our final shipping product. Right now, it is functional and runs on 3 platforms: MacOS, iOS and WindowsPC. I’ve been using it in my daily Cold War battles with Gary for the past 2 weeks. It doesn’t look much better than Gary’s Windows client, but it is the chassis upon which we will build our final UI. It currently allows asynchronous network play, hotseat play, and play against a rudimentary AI. Take a look:

I can tell already that playing Twilight Struggle this way will be a joy to fans of the game. I always used to lose track of what action round it was, but not anymore. The days of searching for a 5 influence marker, or improvising a second 8 marker (with a 5 next to a 3) are over! Now I can look in the discard pile without my opponent knowing instantly that I’ve got SALT Negotiations in my hand, and it’s easy to see what cards have been removed from the game. I can easily go back and review the sequence of events all the way to the beginning of the game. And finally, no more time spent setting up & putting away the game.

It is very important to point out the following: To date, not a single piece of art drawn by an actual artist has been put into the game. But that’s about to change…

Where We Are Going

As of today, we are finally ready for art staff to join us working on Twilight Struggle: Digital Edition. One of our artists, Ron Bourbeau, is already testing out some visual concepts. In a matter of weeks, the user interface should see massive improvements. We will soon be iterating the design of the user interface to make the product as slick as it can be. There are some things that probably won’t change too much, like placing & removing influence from a country by simply tapping/clicking on it. Other things will need to be explored a little more: What’s the best way to display log information? What’s the best process for indicating whether cards are played for Event or Ops? Opponent’s Event first, or Ops first? Ops used to Place Influence, perform a Coup or attempt Realignment? Right now the interface for these decisions is a series of functional but boring buttons. By the time we are done we will have settled on a process that is as simple and intuitive as we can make it.

Right now, I’m working toward our next major milestone: getting the UI functionality to a point where we can release a beta version to backers for online play. It will be good to get feedback from beta testers as we work to refine our interface. Getting test coverage on more card combinations and game states will also help us track down whatever bugs remain. Nothing beats playtesting to really whip your game into shape, so I am looking forward to getting the game into testers’ hands.

While UI work proceeds, Gary and I will also be working on improving the AI, which is still in the early stages of development. It has a long way to go before it can give us a challenge, but it will get there. Additionally, we still need to add the Chinese Civil War variant (does anybody use this?) and What If? Expansion to the rules code, as well as the ability to load more scenarios beyond the Basic and Late War scenarios. There’s still plenty of work to be done!

– Randy Stevenson, Programmer, Playdek

 

Physical Version Update 

 

That’s exciting news from Playdek! I can’t wait to try it out! As I mentioned in an earlier post, I plan to be at the Playdek offices next Monday, Nov. 17, to take a look at the program and meet with various team members. NDA allowing, I’ll update you guys on that visit when I get home.

Now for physical reward news from the GMT side of things. Here’s our status as of today:

  • $15 Off Coupon Code: We have everything ready to go to send out the Coupon Codes on Monday, November 17. We’re going to send these out using the same process we use for our monthly GMT customer email updates, so look for an email on the 17th from sales@gmtgames.com. The e-mail will be a short note from us that will include your $15 off coupon code, that you’ll be able to use at checkout for any in-stock (not P500) order from the GMT website (www.gmtgames.com) between now and June 30, 2015. Note that these codes are one-time use codes, but they are NOT tied to an individual account on our website. So if you’d like to give them to a friend or as gifts as some of you mentioned during the campaign, that will work just fine. But each code can only be used once.
  • Game Expansions (2 x Promo Packs + “What If?”): Ananda and Jason turned in the final versions of all the expansions about a month ago. Our artists are currently finalizing graphics and layout in preparation for sending them off to the printers.One thing we hadn’t thought about, which Mark Simonitch caught as we were doing the prep work on these, is that we’re going to need to do the cards for these expansions in two versions – one to match the 60K+ copies of the game that already exist, and one specific to match the Collector’s edition. So we’ll print enough “new versions” to match the # of Collector’s Editions we print, and send the new version to anyone who’s getting a CE.
  • Game Fulfillment (TS Deluxe Edition or 1989): We are going to ship these in March when we ship the Expansions and the Collector’s Edition. We looked at maybe shipping them sooner, but it creates a mess, tracking-wise, for our office folks, and it also wrecks the shipping budget to ship multiple times. So look for these in March with the rest of the goodies.
  • Collector’s Edition: We’re making progress on the Collector’s Edition, with an eye toward a March release. Tony tells me that all the files will be in to the printer by the end of November. Here’s a component-by-component listing of present status on the major new components, with more details where we have them:
  • Game Box. This will be the wooden, hinged box, that’s 4” deep, with ½” thick box sides, and elements of the TS logo stamped in the box top. Specs already in to the printer and ready to go along with the rest of our order at month end.
  • Game Cards. The card art is finished and they are ready to go to the printer. (See Sample Below.)
  • Map. You may remember that we decided to give you guys a double-sided mounted map for the CE. One side is the standard map from our Deluxe Edition, so of course the art for that is ready to go. The flip side features all new artwork from Chechu Nieto, the map artist for our COIN series games. Mark Simonitch tells me he’ll have the map from Chechu by this weekend. We may give you a sneak peek before we release – or maybe we’ll just surprise you, we’ll see!
  • Counters. All of the game’s influence markers are going to be die stamped wooden pieces. The rest of the informational markers will remain as cardboard counters. These, too, are already in to the printers in bid form – we just have to deliver the counter art for the markers around month end.
  • Miniatures and Dice. We’re still on track to deliver five metal miniatures and two 18mm custom-molded plastic TS-themed dice.

The Rules and Player Aids, Fabric Bag, and Certificate of Authenticity will all still be in the final CE product – just not a lot extra to say about those here.

Here’s that sample of the game cards I mentioned above. Hope you like them!

So, as you can see, we’re well along in the creation process, on both digital and physical products. We’ll update you guys again as we have more information. Thanks for all your support!

Enjoy the games!

Gene

Inside Our Digital Game Strategy (Part I)

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We’re rolling out our new Leaping Lemmings for iPad app this week, with thanks to the good people at GameTheory, who programmed the app. Thanks to all of you who have helped us by downloading the app and giving us your feedback already. To everyone else, please DO support us by downloading the app – it’s a whopping $2.99 – and let us know what you think of our latest digital product.

LL Collage

While we’re thinking about the fledgling digital side of GMT, I want to give you guys an update on where we are and what we’re planning as we begin to really get rolling with our digital games. As befits a blog called “InsideGMT,”  I want give you all a look deeper inside our digital effort, basically “how Gene thinks about this stuff.” As you might imagine, that includes good, bad, even ugly, but I’m not going to hold back because I want you guys to understand the challenges we face as well as the opportunities that are before us.

Early Efforts – In Search of Good Partners

First off, I think it’s important, in business as well as in life, to understand what you do well and where you could use some help. At GMT, what we do well, due to  some outstanding teams of designers, developers, testers, artists, and support staff, is designing and producing  boardgames that our customers enjoy playing. That’s our core competency and, over 24 years, has become our identity in the game marketplace. Every person we bring onboard to work with us – from those early days of “just Jewel and me,” to bringing on Rodger and later Mark, Tony, and Andy, and all of the designers and their teams – every one of them brings their considerable skills to the GMT family for the purpose of helping us continue to create games that bring enjoyment to our customers.

The Great Leap from Wargame Design….

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…. or what the heck got into Rick Young’s head,  designing Leaping Lemmings?

Hey guys, I have often been asked, what’s a fine upstanding Wargame Designer like myself doing making a game like Leaping Lemmings? With LL coming out for iPad soon, I thought I’d fill you all in on what went on with that fateful decision.

Title Screen of Upcoming iPad version of Leaping Lemmings

Title Screen of Upcoming iPad version of Leaping Lemmings

It all happened at WBC several years ago, when my annual roommate, John Poniske, and myself were staying about 20 minutes away to save a few bucks.  It was a bad decision, as we were sleeping in the attic, and it was the year of the stifling 100+ degree heat wave, and there was no a/c in the attic.  That was the last year we didn’t splurge on a Hotel.