Software Designs Its Own Video Games For Humans to Play

Prototype game Space Station Invaders doesn't look like anything special. It's blocky, a bit clumsy, and derivative. Far from groundbreaking to look at or to play.

However, its design is anything but ordinary. The point of Space Station Invaders isn't so much the game itself, but its designer: an AI program called Angelina.

The New Scientist reports on the project, designed by Michael Cook at Imperial College London. They indicate, "Software that generates video-game artwork, music or even whole levels is not new, but Angelina takes it a step further by creating a simple video game almost entirely from scratch."

Software has been crushing humans at Tic-Tac-Toe for decades. In more recent years, computers have been taught to play Civilization, to kick ass on Jeopardy, and to destroy their human opponents in Rock, Paper, Scissors. But while programs have learned to compete against (and defeat) humans at our games, they have yet to design games for us. Until now, it seems.

Angelina creates games using a technique known as cooperative co-evolution. The system separately designs different aspects, or species, of the game. In Space Station Invaders - in which players control a scientist who must fend off rogue robots and invading aliens to escape a space station - the species include the layout of each different level, enemy behaviour and the power-ups that give a player extra abilities. Angelina creates a level by randomly selecting from a list, then scattering enemies and power-ups throughout the level. Enemy movements and combat behaviours are also randomly selected from a list, while the effects of the power-ups are also random.

It then combines the species and simulates a human playing the game to see which designs lead to the most fun or interesting results. For example, levels that are initially hard to complete but get easier through clever use of power-ups are considered fun, while those that are impossible to complete are discarded. Angelina then cross-breeds and mutates the most successful members of each species to evolve a new generation, typically 400 times.

Clearly Angelina isn't going to be single-handedly bringing us a big-budget style major console release anytime soon. At the moment, graphics and sound effects must still be added by a human hand. And yet Cook muses, "In theory there is nothing to stop an artist sitting down with Angelina, creating a game every 12 hours and feeding that into the Apple App Store."

Ideally, however, the software would be used to enhance human development processes, rather than to replace them — both for the sake of the designers and for the quality of the games themselves.

"I like to think that Angelina won't steal anyone's job, I think it will actually be a really positive force for designers," says Cook, suggesting that developers could use a system like Angelina as a collaborative tool for designing games. For example, a developer who creates a new power-up for a game could ask Angelina to design a level that would teach the player how to use their new ability.

"I like the idea of a conversation," agrees Mark Nelson of the IT University of Copenhagen in Denmark, but he says a system like Angelina needs to be transparent so users can modify what it considers to be a good game, rather than just producing games at the push of a button. "Designers would find that annoying."

Readers can try Space Station Invaders online at The New Scientist's site.

AI designs its own video game [The New Scientist]