“So far all we’ve done is a bit of ‘if this then that else the other’. It’s basic, small potatoes. Scratching the tip of a very much bigger and more complicated decision-berg. We need to move the smarts into the NPCs.”

Eli was in demanding mood, again.

Jen took a deep breath. “We, the Uncles, have done some capacity analysis of our servers. We are right up against their safe operating levels. Any more load and we can’t take on new players, or the game slows down, or we drop frames, or the usual degradation. If we get more capacity, it is allocated in the current proportions to each part of the game. The NPCs have to use what they’ve currently got.”

Eli barely paused. “We can’t preload the NPCs with just a limited set of simple rules. Our players will spot the repetitions, compare notes, and within a day, a week tops, they will be making mincemeat of our NPCs. It will end up worse than before we started evolving rule sets.”

“Yes, see me nodding?”. Jen was indeed nodding.  ”You are right. I feel your pain here, because this has been my pain for the last couple of years. It’s good to share.”

“But, you’re an Uncle. You can demand a rebalancing. More CPU grunt for the grunts. Surely?”

“You’d think,” still nodding. “Whilst I was doing the NPCs, I was considered too close to the issue to be allowed a say. Now that you’ve taken it on, I have that say and exposure to more of the accounting numbers.”

“Accounting. Fooey. So now you are going to deny me the extra oomph that you wanted yourself?”

Jen stopped nodding. “I am caught on the horns of. In the horns of. At the horns of? A dilemma, anyway. I was you. I know what you need and what you can do with it. You are right. There, I am not afraid to say it again. You are right. The grunts need more grunt. But there’s more going on. The Uncles did not share this with me whilst I was doing the NPCs, just saying no to my frequent begging.”

“So I’m now begging you, an Uncle, who understands (air quotes). So can I have the grunt?”

“The official Uncle word is no”. Jen looked Eli in the eye and held the stare long enough for a message to pass.

Jen repeated clearly and loudly, “For the benefit of anyone listening, the official Uncle word is no”. Then, more softly, “Do I have your attention, Eli?”

Eli, forced into more eye contact in one go than he had mustered with Jen in the last few years in total, blinked, choked, and croaked out a strangled yes. This was properly off-piste. He’d overcome years of bile and bitterness and contact avoidance, a recent borderline-psychotic-breakdown, a dream job change, and now suddenly he was in what looked like cahoots with the object of his psychosis.

Jen nodded; pleased that collaboration was in the air. At last she could start enacting her half-baked plans to break this team, this company, the Uncles, out of its never-ending loop.

Looking around, Jen pointed to the door. “Let’s go for a walk.”

They went for a walk, to the Twelve Minute Park across the road, and began circumnavigating.

“I think the Uncles made a mistake by excluding me from the capacity issues, whilst I was NPC bitch, considering me too tainted by my commitment to the NPCs to be able to think objectively.”

Eli started a little, not expecting that (or any) expletive to fall from her lips. He was hot, sweaty, trying to match her stride, shorten his own stride, wishing he was anywhere but here, with anyone but her, career stealer, but knowing this was it. Great things were afoot, about to be said and done. This felt like possibly even the beginnings of an Uncle-bypass scheme, but with an Uncle. He nodded.

“Now that you are the NPC bitch, I am therefore untainted and allowed to know. The Uncles are at least consistent. And what I now know I think you should know. They were wrong to keep it from me, and I would be hypocritical if I kept it from you. No-one has said specifically that I should not tell you, and they need not know that I broke the implicit decree of keeping the NPC bitch in the dark. Clear? We are comparing notes on NPC algorithms.”

Eli nodded and nodded and nodded. Speech unnecessary and more or less impossible at this stage. The clash of emotions thrashing around in his head was, well, delicious, intriguingly. He was actually loving this. And they hadn’t even got to the good part yet.

“So, the big secret is that we are caught in a whirlpool above a death spiral, pretty much. Stop me if these accountancy terms are too much for you.”

Jen glanced at Eli who nodded.

“The very best analysis by the most expensive analysts we have at our disposal is that we bring in more new players because of the pretty scenery than we lose through frustrations with weak and stupid NPCs. We compete with the other games on the basis of our scenery. A small slip and suddenly we have a net loss of players. Momentum is everything. Loss begets loss, and we start haemorrhaging players. The Uncles, we, are living with that nightmare at the back of our minds 24x7. Every delayed release, every glitch. It could be the one which kicks us into the spiral down to being a ringtone provider.”

Eli squeaked, swallowed, and tried again. “So you are saying we have caught the tail of the scenery tiger and we can’t, we musn’t let go?”

“I knew you’d get it. Scenery tiger.”. Jen rolled the phrase around. “Yes. Ok. So that is why the answer is no. Does this knowledge make you happier?”

“Yes. No. Happy is not the right word. Aware is the word. Of the actual problem. How can the likes of me and Stu and Gwen and co help properly if we don’t know the full story?”

Eli continued, somewhat brusquely, “So what is your plan for dealing with this?”

Jen hesitated.  ”Well, see, the plan was, sort of, tell you this, and then see what you come up with. I’ve an idea, but I’m hoping you’d have more. Do you want some time to think about it?”

“No. Better to get early ideas aired ASAP rather than stew on them.”

Straight into problem-solving, the male comfort zone, Eli was off and running. “Are we constrained by our offline capacity? Can we, specifically, keep doing some AI noodling on the NPCs away from the live game?”

“Yees. By comparison with the capacity needed to support the live game, your data doodlings are small beer, so you could keep doing that or even a bit more.”

“Right, there you are then. We develop new rule sets offline and push updates into live every day or perhaps week. That will stop our NPCs being turned into mincemeat once the players clock their tells. We can probably keep doing that for a few months but”

Jen took over the sentence,  ”but its not a long term thing. I agree. But already that is better than I had hoped. Months is forever. Months is plenty.”

“That’s one”, Jen announced, as they passed the park entrance.

Eli agreed. “That’s one”.

“So, my thought is”, started Jen. “No, wait. Something I’d like to check. Do you see why the NPCs were the way they were?”

“Weak but unpredictable, dumb but not on very narrow rails. Yes. Given the constraints you were under, there was not much alternative. I’m. I’m”. Eli stammered to a halt. This was coming on a bit sudden. No conversations at all for years then the abrupt need to totally open up. This was physically, chest-thumpingly painful.

“I’m sorry, you know, about what I, er, said.”

Jen leaned in. “What you said was true. The way you said it, could do with a little work. Are we passed this awkward moment? Are we now a team, pulling in the same direction? Are we going to kick some player butt with some kick-ass NPCs?”

“Yes, I believe we are.”

They paused to shake hands. Eli managed a bit more eye contact. They continued the perambulation.

“Great. Go Team. So, my idea. Perhaps half-baked thought is more accurate. It is based in a large part on ignorance of how you did your leaves and stuff. So don’t laugh. I’m thinking that if you could help Stu and Gwen ensure that the scenery is ahead of the curve, perhaps, and I remind you I suggest this from a position of profound ignorance, by requiring less CPU yet still looking suitably leafy, you might be able to borrow that surplus for a short while to boost the NPCs?”

Eli stopped nodding. No, that would not work. Lots of effort for little reward. Would not last all that long before it would be clawed back. The scenery is king. It must have its twinkle and rustle. Head shaking side to side now.

Jen humphed. She’d had high hopes for that one. Seemed to tick all the boxes. And now he’s going to make some ghastly effort to find something positive to say about it.

Silence for a significant stretch of perambulation.

“That’s two”, piped Jen, as they passed the gate again.

Eli looked up. Unaware until that moment that Jen was waiting for a response. He’d been sorting out the various steps and risks and timescales to take on the hybrid approach; the fully formed solution which had de-cloaked in his head the second his head had started shaking. He could rotate the idea shape round, look under, over, through it. It was lumpy. It had a few gaping holes of uncertainty and doubt. It was going to happen. He was going to do it.

“You don’t have to sugar coat it”, allowed Jen. “You don’t think it will work, so we try something else. I have to be back by the end of this loop.”

“No, its not that. I’m already. Um. Look. I’d like to try something. But we need to get the NPC rule pump process going first. The rest of this week at least. Wednesday next week? Two and a bit days of experimenting. Then we can have a poke at the possibilities. We don’t have to get Stu and Gwen involved just yet. Until we are sure it is or might be a goer. I still have a local, stale copy of the tree code. That’ll do in the meanwhile.”

He started cutting straight towards the gate, across the grass.

Jen trailed behind, recognising the signs. Woe betide anyone who interrupted the visionary. He was now, mentally, trying to solve a cryptic crossword puzzle whilst riding a unicycle and keeping a couple of plates spinning. Demands for an explanation would be ignored, at best, or bring his thought processes crashing down, with much, many, recriminations.

Well, she’d flicked over the first domino. Now here’s hoping it would be the start of a cascade.


The Scenery Tiger by the Tail
(from Emus All The Way Down)
by Chris Gathercole
http://stories.upthebuzzard.com, RSS
published: 10 July 2015
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.