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.