Heaven Games Invades Big Huge Games
Interview with Pranas "Pancake" Pauliukonis
This is the continuation of our interviews series of the folks at
Big Huge Games, which was conducted during our visit to their
office back in March 2004. We put our focus this round on Pranas
"Pancake" Pauliukonis, programmer in charge of AI (artificial
intelligence) at Big Huge Games.
PP: I'm being recorded! Oh boy,
I'm being grilled!
Soc: To start things off,
could you give us a bio? How you came to work at Big Huge
PP: I went to computer engineering college and part of that was working on robotics; helping the robots find ways to get places. I was interested in that. At the time I had a friend who suggested I get a job working on Madden Football at Electronic Arts. I got that job and worked on AI for them. I was there for about a year and a half, then that same friend told me about BHG. I applied and started working here. Here I work on AI, pathfinding stuff. I've expanded from there into a lot of game side systems; keeping things knit together.
Soc: How do you like things here
[at Big Huge Games]?
PP: It's pretty sweet! The
people here are awesome to work with; everyone knows what they're
doing. All work great together. I've made great friends. The
offices are really nice. Also, I grew up in this area, nearby, in
D.C. It's nice being in this area. It's really nice just as a
programmer...we get to express our creativity, ah...it's not like
being given a list of eight things you've got to get done; it's
more a general "this is what you need to do." I've been in a job
like that, that other kind where it's not as fun an environment
to be in.
Soc: What kinds of things do you
do here in your job?
PP: Umm...I do, let's see,
everything from...My main job is to make all the game rules, and
let's see...game rule implementation, low-level AI like in
pathfinding and combat; unit-level AI, strategic AI for end-game,
armies, construction, except for some of the early build stuff
done by the designers. For a while I was doing some multiplayer
stuff. Kind of making sure the end game runs from a game
standpoint, not graphics or actual numbers [unit/building stats
etc] in the design.
ODA: In terms of the AI, it's
one of the best ones I've seen out there for RTS. What element
made the AI stand out?
|PP: I think the thing that helped the most was I actually spent a lot of time watching the multiplayer games being played everyday [by the staff], and was watching them and see what they do and really just try to write the AI to do the same thing they were doing, such as keeping armies as cohesive as possible, try to actually have goals. In some ways the structure of the game helped me, because you have to have clearly defined goals - "I have a city I want to capture," thus a matrix: "get to that city, capture the city." In other games that would be a little too hard where buildings are strewn across the map. Try to make it look as much like you're playing a human as possible. Yes, the AI grew out of the game structure.|
ODA: You worked on sports games.
How did that influence development of the AI in RoN?
PP: I don't know other than just
building up my skills as a programmer. In sports games like
football you've got eleven characters each with something
specific they need to do. There are some AI choices made as to
where to have coverage. It was nothing as complex as what we do
ODA: What about the formations
in [football] plays, where guys would be doing these flanking
PP: We had stuff like that, but
in Madden a lot of that stuff was done through scripting that was
done before I showed up.
ODA: In RoN was that handled
similarly, or did you use scripts too, to compose some of the
PP: There's scripting to handle how the initial building is done, and in the Xpack scenarios campaigns where it'll try to coordinate what the AI is doing. It's nice to put things in script because it's quicker to change things and lets more people look at it. If it's in code, then it's harder; if there are problems it takes longer to make changes. It's easier to do things with scripts; the designers can look at it and even the playtesters can look at it. I think probably we'll start moving things out into scripts more in future, as a general principal.
ODA: What about scripting the
low-level [AI] stuff so people can tweak the AI?
PP: Probably the deepest
low-level stuff we wouldn't open to let them do it. For instance,
if I'm a guy running around trying to decide who to attack. That
kind of AI stuff has to run really fast...putting that into
script slows that down somewhat, and in putting it into script
you may not be able to tell you're slowing it down. So we'll
script more for strategic-level stuff, like which city to
capture, military stuff, economy stuff.
ODA: So you've built scripts by
watching players play. Did you look at strategies people always
try and then try to counter those strategies in your AI?
PP: We tried to do some of that
with the openings. The openings are really tricky, because it's
so important that you do something in a certain order. Trying to
get it...it didn't make sense to do something that adapted too
much because it would make the AI too generic and not be able to
handle a well-coordinated rush. Even now it has trouble handling
a really well-coordinated rush. That's a kind of case where we're
looking at people playing the early stages of the game and try to
match that with the scripts that we had. Not just be able to
counter the player but also that helps later on to get a base for
the AI - seek more resources to work with, improve its strategic
ODA: If someone wanted to
clone a strategy using the AI script to practice against it,
is that possible?
PP: To some extent; there's only so much we can do. There is only so much power it has. There are some ways you can change the build orders; well, hopefully, you know, so so.
ODA: In terms of some of
the more traditional AI methodologies, fuzzy logic or case
based, what methodologies are you trying to do at various
levels of the AI?
Soc: What was your biggest
challenge in designing the AI in the game?
PP: Probably the biggest
challenge was keeping up with changes in the design. Because I
don't know if you know, the design changes happen fast around
here. We would be working off one set of game rules, and then
Brian Reynolds would go into the game, since he's a programmer
himself and go "now I want the game to work this way" and the all
of a sudden the AI is completely broken, 2 minutes in. So part of
the challenge is to just keep up with that. We needed the AI work
pretty consistently throughout the whole project. Cause you can't
just play multiplayer games. People need to play against the AI
The designers might be playing the entire day, so they need an AI
ODA: Have you tried matching AIs
PP: On the design side it's not
done so much, but I do that sometimes to watch for failures in
the AI. The quickest way to find out if something's wrong in the
AI - I'll set up four AIs playing against one another and
increase the speed of the game beyond what a person would play at
and see if one side gets a huge advantage or a breakdown develops
where someone isn't attacking.
Soc: So, are you making changes
to the national and unit-level AI for the [Thrones &
PP: There aren't too many
changes if I remember. There are some new kinds of units that are
handled differently, like Elephants. Elephants have a guy on top
who shoots arrows or cannons later on while the elephant walks up
to people to gore the guy. It took writing new AI to account for
the new mechanics involved in his deciding whom to shoot. Other
than that, the nations didn't need much. There's some like the
Lakota, like the Lakota are less restrictive on where they can
ODA: The way the Dutch banking
bonus works is kind of counterintuitive. What did you do there?
Are you planning changes?
PP: I didn't want to change the
AI much for the Dutch. Because I was never too happy with the way
the AI uses resource. They could accidently end up stockpiling
resources. It may sell it at the market if it feels it should,
but sometime they just end up having a lot of wood and doesn't
know what to do with it. But then with the Dutch, and that
doesn't turn out to be such a bad thing. But if they have a lot
of wood but just end up with more wood if that happens they can
just start abusing the market. So with the Dutch that's already
in there, same kind of thing applies with the Indians and their
ramping cost advantage. The AI takes account of the ramping costs
to decide when to build so it just kind of naturally worked out
for the Indians; "Now I'll build more buildings." now that its
cheaper. Not too much specifically done on the AI, just that the
national powers themselves changed.
ODA: In terms of the CtW
campaign, on the strategic map did you have to make
consideration in terms of how the AI would work?
PP: That's one part of the AI I didn't really work on, so I can't speak too much to that. There wasn't much to add to the Alexander campaign in terms of the AI in that campaign.
ODA: In terms of the AI
personalities did you do anything to match the historical
nations in the Conquer the World campaigns?
ODA: An issue some people found with the AI in very long games. The one thing it's susceptible to is rushes, and in longer games you don't necessarily need to rush the AI but out-ramp it. It wants to dawdle around and not want to attack you, or even when its an ally, it doesn't seem to attack its enemies.
PP: That's a tricky problem. The
identification of how much I [as the AI] should sit back and do
vs. how much I should attack. Unfortunately what it ends up doing
is trying to do both. It never does a true boom and doesn't build
units if the human player doesn't; it's not like a human. But we
didn't want it to cheat like giving it the ability to check on
your army and say, "You haven't built any units so I won't
either" and then do a true boom. No, I didn't want to write an AI
that cheated like that.
ODA: Is there anything to
address the problem? When playing against the AI, if you do
out-boom it, you can go in and trash it.
PP: I don't think we have much
time is left to do that kind of thing.
Soc: If you had a chance to be
involved in writing the AI for another kind of game, what would
PP: I wasn't too into sports
games myself, so I can't say I'd really want to go back there. I
like seeing the AI done in FPS's. It would be cool; it would be a
really different challenge from now where you're trying to manage
hordes of guys. It would be cool dealing with the specific
actions of one unit to the finest detail. That'd be different.
Any strategy games are interesting to me. I just like games. I
like to figure out how games work and play the game as best I
can. Any kind of strategy game.
Soc: Regarding RoN, what's your
favorite national or unit-level AI aspect?
PP: That's a thinker. Hmmm.
Let's see. I've never really thought of that. One thing that was
really an interesting thing was working with supply wagons and
generals - how they really have to change their behavior based on
things going on around them. I don't know how much people notice
that. With like a group "Attack" order or "Attack to" orders they
have to stay behind the line yet stay with the troops. Maybe
players don't notice when you're playing but it's important in
the AI. Before that [part of the AI] was done they would charge
straight into combat, but we wanted Generals and Supply Wagons to
stay where they're needed and not have to rely on players'
Soc: What's your favorite
PP: I'm really partial to
the Treb [Trebuchet]! I love watching the guys take it down
and, well, you see in other RTS's the siege moving around
by themselves. I was really impressed by the movement of
the cart guys pulling on ropes and pulling on the lever to
fire a shot.
Soc: Who would you say to
be your guess to be the best and worst RoN players on
PP: Here? Let's see...I can tell you among the programmers it's Jhon Restrepo - he was a recent hire. When he got hired, he started playing Rise online like crazy and can trounce any of the programmers here. Last I heard it was Johnand Mark who were the two best, John Hawkins and Mark Sobota; they're two of our designers. I think the balance of power may have shifted while I wasn't paying attention.
ODA: What are their Gamespy
ID, so I know who to avoid! Haha!
PP: I know Restrepo's is the Columbian...
GS: Oh he uses that as his smurf name.
PP: Oh does he? I didn't know that. Haha!
ODA: Well at least we know one now!
PP: Oops, well he'll have to get a new one. I forget what John and Mark play as...
GS: Hawkins is Pikachu's Party Pal...
PP: The three of them they get into some good battles...You always want them on your team. Haha!
Soc: Do you have a favorite in-game taunt?
PP: "Purple" was the one for a while. Purple is good. I actually like making the icons in the chat box.
Soc: What are your future plans
in the gaming industry and in particular BHG?
PP: I'll say this: I definitely
want to stay at BHG and keep making great AI. I'm happy here. As
a company we came out of the gates strong. I'm glad the AI was up
to par. I still love AI and want to keep working on AI, keep
making it better. As for the game industry in general, I'll be
here for a while. It's a really neat place. I'm having a great
time here; there's more for me to do on the AI.
ODA: There's a question I'd like
to go back to. Regarding scaling the toughness of the AI, are
there any other ways to scale the AI abilities vs. the human's so
that there's a range of strategies or something like that?
PP: We do, As far as a range of
strategies, usually it's handled by pulling the AI's teeth on the
lowest levels, like make it try to capture fewer cities. Now
here's where we sort of let it cheat and let the AI see how many
units the player has made and then send in a tiny army as if to
kick the user and tell him it's time to make units. The other
way, we can scale how much the AI cares about having and
maximizing resources. If you're playing against a tough AI, it's
always maxing out and use it's econ cap and increasing it's econ
cap. Always makes sure it has econ going. Whereas on
moderate/easy the AI doesn't care if it's 50 below the cap, but
"I'll won't make anymore citizens". That naturally gives it less
money to do things, and slows the game down to a beginner's
ODA: What about surprise
strategies, where you see a civ that's more suited for booming
but then suddenly rushes?
PP: Not so much of that, not so
much of that. That is actually something it does on the easy
levels. On the easy levels the AI cheats and looks at your units
and builds the WRONG counters; it tries to make guys that will
get slaughtered by the player. We had different scripts based on
rushing, and booming, and had the AI roughly choose those
strategies based on what civ you're going to take. But that is an
interesting idea; I'll keep it in mind. Interesting, I'll have to
Soc: What's a rough estimate on
the time needed to make the rough draft of an AI?
PP: Ummm...it depends on how
much AI you're looking at. Just talking about the very basics on
the strategic level stuff...getting a very rough draft is very
simple, just a couple of weeks, getting the structure of things.
In that time you will just be able to do all the things you can
do in a game. After that it takes just a limited time to make it
do things well, do things at the appropriate places. So getting
the structure up is pretty simple, but there are lots and lots of
details. The more complex the game is, the more complex the rules
will be. I think, when we came up with RoN...in RoN we tried to
simplify the interface somewhat, but there are some really
complex game rules involved, and that increases the time
Soc: Besides RoN, what other
computer games do you play?
PP: Let's see. I like FPS's. We
play Battlefield 1942 a lot. Counterstrike's fun. Halo is fun.
Nintento first party titles - I love Zelda. I play a little bit
of everything; Gotham Racing for a while. One kind of game that I
used to play a lot but don't play much any more is RPG's.
ODA: With RoN there's a big,
strong single-player community, and I guess the AI plays big role
in that. Did that add responsibility to your plate?
PP: I definitely felt pressure;
it was a challenge to try to add Civ-like single-player elements
to an RTS. We figured from the start that a lot of players would
be interested in just single-player. It felt like a lot of
pressure, but we felt we could do it and once we got to the point
where people not yelling at the AI for doing stupid things, even
if it took a little time to get there, we knew we would get
Soc: It seems there's a
good-sized community here at BHG that likes to play board
PP: Yes; we're getting too
many now, a lot of games takes six people to play max.
We're a little over the limit on that. When I was a kid I
played Monopoly, Risk, games like that. The board Games
they're making now are really interesting. They involve
lots of Strategy. [Playing board games] helps designers
more but it does also help me to play a lot of games and
different kinds of games and see commonalities, what makes
a game interesting or the parts that are not interesting.
It's cool to look at that.
Soc: What's your favorite
PP: That's a great game; I love
that one. There's a new game that came out, Game of Thrones, kind
of like Diplomacy...The big one around the office now has been
Amon Ra - people have been playing that every day for three-four
ODA: A number of years ago there
used to be many superior board wargames. I don't know if you've
heard of them, but there used to be Avalon Hill wargames. Did you
draw inspiration from them?
PP: We're constantly getting
ideas from board games. The designers do more than I do; they'll
get a game, play it and talk about it, and discuss the mechanics:
"This was fun, this not," and try to apply it to computer games.
Though it's not a straight application, there's definite
ODA: OK, here's the $64,000
question or the Million Dollar question!
Soc: The most difficult question you'll ever have!
GS: What's your favorite superhero? Haha!
Soc: How do you like your
PP: Alright! Cool, thanks!
ODA: Thanks, nice to meet
PP = Pranas Pauliukonis (Big Huge Games)
GS = Graham Somers (Big Huge Games)
ODA = One_Dead_Angel (Rise of Nations Heaven)
Soc = Socvazius (HeavenGames)
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