An Offline Planning Approach to Game Plotline Adaptation
Boyang Li and Mark O. Riedl
College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology
{boyangli, riedl}
Role-playing games, and other types of contemporary video
games, usually contain a main storyline consisting of several
causally related quests. As players have different motivations,
tastes and preferences, it can be beneficial to customize game
plotlines. In this paper, we present an offline algorithm for
adapting human-authored game plotlines for computer role-
playing games to suit the unique needs of individual players,
thereby customizing gaming experiences and enhancing re-
playability. Our approach uses an plan refinement technique
based on partial-order planning to (a) optimize the global
structure of the plotline according to input from a player model,
(b) maintain plotline coherence, and (c) facilitate authorial intent
by preserving as much of the original plotline as possible. A
theoretical analysis of the authorial leverage and a user study
suggest the benefits of this approach.
In the entertainment industry, such as film or game
production, a significant amount of time and financial cost
is incurred during the process of content creation. In
comparison, the consumption of content is usually much
faster. For example, it takes much less time for game
players to complete games, expansion packs, and new
quests than they can be produced. The content creation
bottleneck results from the high financial constraints of
producing content and underscores the need for Artificial
Intelligence (AI) techniques for on-demand and uniquely
customized entertainment experience.
On-demand entertainment refers to the possibility that
one can, at any time, request an entertainment experience
that is significantly different from those previously
consumed. In addition, entertainment artifacts should be
customized or configured to suit every player’s unique
motivation, tastes, history and ability. Due to their cost,
there cannot be enough expert content producers to cater to
every single consumer. In this paper, we explore the use of
Copyright © 2010, Association for the Advancement of Artificial
Intelligence ( All rights reserved.
automated content generation as a means of scaling up the
delivery of on-demand, customized entertainment content.
This paper addresses on-demand and customized
entertainment in the context of generating plotlines for
role-playing games. Rollings and Adams (2003) argue that
the core of gameplay in any game is “one or more causally
linked series of challenges in a simulated environment.” To
overcome these challenges, players have to perform
required gaming activities such as combat or puzzle-
solving in a virtual world. Role-playing games in particular
deliver challenges through quests. The set of quests that are
necessary and sufficient to complete the game make up the
main plotline of the game. Often side-quests are available
to augment the gameplay experience, and to allow players
a limited degree of customization through choice.
We argue that customization of main plotline involves
presenting the right story to the right person at the right
time. The significance of this claim is twofold. First, game
players usually possess diverse motivation, tastes, and
needs (Yee 2006), which a one-size-fits-all script might not
meet. Moreover, to achieve optimal game experience,
challenges must be adapted to the player’s skill level.
Second, preferences of players can change over time.
Having played one story, the player may demand a new
one. Therefore, the ability to generate customized plotlines
may enhance replayability and improve player experience.
By addressing the two implications, we are working
toward the potential of games that continuously grow and
change with the player over a long period of time by
generating novel, customized plotlines.
In the realm of automated content generation, plotlines
may be generated from scratch. Such ability has long been
the goal of story generation. However, how to build
computational systems with aesthetic capabilities rivaling
that of human designers is still an open research question.
Until we have systems of sufficient aesthetic capabilities to
assume full responsibility for creating entire plotlines, we
can consider starting with existing plotlines and
automatically altering them to novel contexts according to
knowledge about the player. Plotline adaptation has the
advantage of exploiting human intuition to the extent
possible without necessarily having a complete model of
aesthetic reasoning. Plotline adaptation promises good
authorial leverage (Chen et al. 2009) to produce a greater
number of meaningful, customized, and novel interactive
experiences for individual players with less effort.
The contribution of this paper is a system that solves the
plotline adaptation problem: Given a complete, human-
authored plotline consisting of sequence of quests, a library
of quest structures, and a set of requirements about what an
optimal gameplay experience should be for a particular
user at a particular time, produce a sound, coherent
variation that meets the requirements while retaining as
much of the original plotline as possible. A sound plotline
is one that, in the absence of uncertainty, is guaranteed to
play out as intended. A coherent plotline is one that does
not have any unnecessary elements. Finally, preservation
of the original plotline prevents unnecessary modifications
and preserves the human authors’ intent to the extent
possible while meeting other objectives. Offline processing
affords the possibility to making globally optimal decisions
about plotline structures, complimenting online adaptation
techniques known as interactive storytelling.
The remainder of the paper is organized as follows: We
first review relevant work in game adaptation and narrative
generation. Next, we explain the representation of quests
and the offline adaptation algorithm. Our technique is
justified with a discussion on theoretical authoring gains
and empirical evaluation of our algorithm.
Related Work
Automated adaptation of computer games has been
explored in the context of player character attributes,
difficulty adjustment, and game environment changes.
Increasingly, player models are being used to adapt game
content. Interactive storytelling systems demonstrate how
players’ behaviors can change the story content in virtual
worlds on the fly. See Roberts and Isbell (2008) for a
general discussion of interactive narrative approaches. Of
particular relevance to this work are interactive narrative
approaches that leverage player models. Thue et al. (2007)
describe a technique whereby a player model based on role
player types is used to select branches through an
interactive story. Seif El-Nasr (2007) attempts to infer
feature-vectors representing player style, affecting changes
in which dramatic content is presented to the player.
Sharma et al. (2010) use case-based reasoning to learn
player preferences over plot points for the purposes of
selecting the next best story plot point. These approaches
assume the existence of branching story graphs or pre-
authored alternatives.
Note that our system is an offline process that
effectively “re-writes” a plotline based on a player model
before it is executed. As such, our system can afford to
backtrack and make globally optimal decision, such as
those about narrative coherence, whereas online adaptation
systems can only make local decisions that cannot be
undone. Our system is not an interactive narrative system;
once execution of the plotline begins, our system does not
make further changes. Indeed, interactive storytelling and
plotline adaptation are complimentary: the adaptation
system can be seen as a process that, based on knowledge
about the player, configures the drama manager, which
then oversees the user’s interactive experience online. Our
system can be coupled with, for instance, the Automated
Story Director (Riedl et al. 2008), a planning-based
interactive narrative system.
As an offline procedure, plotline adaptation has a strong
connection with story generation. Story generation is the
process of automatically creating novel narrative sequences
from a set of specifications. The most relevant story
generation work is that that uses search as the underlying
mechanism for selecting and instantiating narrative events
(cf., Lebowitz 1987; Porteous and Cavazza 2009; Riedl
and Young, in press). The distinction between our plotline
adaptor and story generation is that plotline adaptation
starts with a complete narrative structure and can both add
and remove narrative content, whereas story generation
typically starts from scratch. As with case-based planning,
the adaptation of plotlines is, in the worst-case, just as hard
as planning from scratch (Muñoz-Avila and Cox 2008).
However, in the average case, starting from an existing
plotline will require much fewer decisions to be made.
Game Plot Adaptation
Figure 1 shows the adaptation pipeline for game plotlines.
The game adaptation process takes a main plotline, a
library of quest structures, and a set of player requirements
as input. There may be more than one human-authored
plotline, of which one is provided as input into our system.
A player model generates a set of requirements, based on
the player’s preferences, history, and a model of novelty.
Importantly, the cycle between player and adaptation
implies that games can be changed after each time it is
played, thereby increasing its replayability. Possible
actions in the virtual world are known to the system.
Plot Representation
Following others (Young 1999; Riedl et al. 2008; Porteous
and Cavazza 2009), we employ plan-like representations of
narrative because they capture causality and temporality of
action and provide a formal framework built on first
principles, such as soundness and coherence, for selecting
and ordering events. However, unlike a plan meant for
execution, we use plans as descriptions of events expected
to unfold in a virtual world. Each action represents a
formal declaration of an event that can be performed by the
Figure 1. The plotline adaptation pipeline
Author Player
Main plotline
Ofine Online
player or non-player characters, or occur as a consequence
of physics laws in the virtual world.
Our specific representation builds on partial-order
plans. A partial-order plan consists of events and temporal
and causal relations. Events encode preconditions, which
must be true for the event to occur, and effects, which
become true once the event completes. Causal links,
denoted as e
, indicate that the effects of event e
establish a condition c in the world necessary for event e
Causal links act as protected intervals during which the
truth of condition c in the world must be maintained.
Temporal links indicate ordering constraints between
events. Additionally, to capture semantic meaning of
narrative subsequences, we allow for event abstraction
hierarchies. Abstract actions are decomposed into
sequences of equivalent, but less abstract events.
Decomposition rules act as grammars specifying legal
configurations of narrative fragments. Decomposition rules
must be authored a priori and are one way to leverage
human authorial intuition; partial-order planning may
discover causal and temporal relations based on the rules.
In our system, quests are represented as top-level
abstract events. A quest has a single effect,
), and may or may not have any
preconditions. While not strictly necessary, we find the
following authorial idiom to work well: decomposition
rules break quests into an abstract task event and an
abstract reward event, which are further decomposed into
primitive events. Figure 2 shows a complete plotline
consisting of two quests. Primitive actions are shown as
solid rectangles and abstract actions are shown as rounded
rectangles. The hierarchical relationship between events is
reflected in the containment relationships of rectangles. For
example, one legal way in which a
 can
occur is to kill the witch with water and earn the trust king.
Arrows represent causal links. Note that not all causal links
are shown for clarity’s sake. Temporal links are omitted.
Formally, on each hierarchical level, a plot can be
viewed as a directed acyclic graph (DAG). A sound
narrative is one in which all preconditions of an event are
guaranteed to be true when it is scheduled to execute, and
all abstract events are decomposed to the fullest extent. In
other words, a sound narrative is one that does not violate
the physics of the story world as defined by the
preconditions of events and impossible world states. A
coherent narrative is one in which, in the DAG formed by
events and causal links, there is a path from each event to a
significant outcome. Any event that is not part of some
path to the outcome situation is referred to as a dead end.
The concept of coherence and dead ends is a computational
interpretation of a cognitive model of narrative
comprehension by Trabasso and van den Broek (1985).
Player Model
We model the player's preference as a function of
previously selected quests. Each quest, in turn, is
represented as a feature vector in a semantic space. We
utilize a technique similar to that in Sharma et al. (2010) to
determine preferences over quests via ratings after
gameplay concludes; similarity metrics allow us to extend
preferences to quests not previously experienced by the
user. In addition, a novelty model based on (Saunders and
Gero 2004) favors quests that are appropriately novel to
the player based on his or her history so that he or she
would be neither bored nor unpleasantly surprised.
Computing a weighted sum of utility by preference and
utility by novelty, the result is the selection of the k quests
with the greatest utility that should be included in the game
plotline. Due to space constraints, a detailed description is
beyond the scope of this paper.
Adaptation Algorithm
The plot adaptation module receives as input the following
A complete plotline – a partially ordered, hierarchical
plan – composed of events within and outside of quests.
A set of plot requirements:
propositions specifying what quests should be included,
and corresponding world-level outcome propositions.
The adaptation process involves two stages. In the first
stage, a problem instantiation is created by rewriting the
initial world state and desired outcome situation to match
the plot requirements. When rewriting the outcome
situation, any quests that no longer causally link to the
Figure 2. Original game plotline before adaptation
outcome situation become dead ends and the plotline is no
longer coherent. When rewriting the initial state, the
preconditions of some events may no longer be supported
by the initial state and the plotline may no longer be sound.
The second stage is plan refinement search process that
progressively makes adjustments to the plotline until (a) all
plot requirements are met, (b) the plotline is sound, and (c)
the plotline is coherent.
Plan refinement techniques search a space where each
node in the space is an instance of a plan (partial or
complete) until a plan is found that has no flaws, or reasons
why a plan cannot be considered a solution. Partial-order
planning (cf., Penberthy and Weld 1992) is a form of plan
refinement search that starts with the empty plan. For each
plan visited, a flaw is detected and all repair strategies are
invoked, each strategy resulting in zero or more new plans
in which that flaw has been repaired. These new plans are
successors to the current plan and are added to the fringe of
the search space. A heuristic is used to determine which
plan on the fringe visit next. Note that repairing a flaw may
introduce new flaws.
Our adaptation algorithm is shown in Figure 3. The main
loop is the standard plan refinement search loop. In
addition to the pre-processing stage, we implement the
following flaw types:
Open condition: an event has a precondition not
satisfied by any causal links from a temporally earlier
event or the initial state.
Causal threat: An event has an effect that undoes a
condition necessary for another event to occur and there
are no ordering constraints forbidding the interaction.
Un-decomposed event: An abstract event has not been
Dead end: An event is not on a causal path to the
outcome state.
Each flaw type is paired with one or more repair strategies.
Repair strategies can be additive or subtractive.
Additive strategies are as follows. An open condition
flaw can be repaired by instantiating a new event with an
effect that unifies with the open precondition or by
extending a causal link from an existing event to the open
precondition (Penberthy and Weld 1992). Thus events are
added to a plan in a backward-chaining fashion. A causal
threat can be repaired by imposing ordering constraints
between events (Penberthy and Weld 1992). An un-
decomposed event can be repaired by selecting and
applying a decomposition rule, resulting in new events
instantiated, or existing events reused, as less abstract
children of the abstract event (Young and Pollack, 1994).
Dead-end flaws can be handled in an additive fashion.
We implement two additive dead-end repair strategies.
First, if there is another event that has an open condition
that unifies with an effect of the dead end, we can try to
extend a causal link from an effect of the dead end to the
open precondition of the other event. Second, we can shift
an existing causal link to the dead-end event. This can
happen if the dead end has an effect that matches the
condition of a causal link between two other events. The
dead-end event becomes the initiating point of the causal
link, which may make the other event a dead end unless it
has two or more causal links emanating from it. A third
strategy is to ignore the flaw. This is used only as a last
resort in the case that all other repair strategies, additive or
subtractive, have proven to lead to failures. The intuition
behind this strategy is that dead-end events are
aesthetically undesirable but acceptable if necessary.
Subtractive strategies repair a flaw by deleting the
source of the flaw from the plotline structure. Subtractive
strategies are essential for plot adaptation because pre-
existing events may interfere with the addition of new
events, resulting in outright failure or awkward
workarounds to achieve soundness and coherence.
Deletion is straightforward. However, if an event to be
deleted is part of a decomposition hierarchy, all siblings
and children are deleted and the parent event is marked as
un-decomposed. This preserves the intuition authored into
quests and decomposition rules.
Open condition flaws can be subtractively repaired by
deleting the event with the open precondition. Causal
threat flaws can be subtractively repaired by deleting the
event that threatens a causal link. Dead end flaws can be
subtractively repaired by deleting the dead end event. We
implement a heuristic that prefers to retain events in the
original quests as much as possible.
The ability to add and delete events can lead to non-
systematicity – the ability to revisit a node through
different routes – and infinite loops. To preserve
systematicity, we prevent the deletion of any event that
was added by the algorithm. Events inserted by the
algorithm are marked as “sticky” and cannot be
subsequently deleted, whereas events in the original
plotline are not sticky and can be removed.
The short plotline in Figure 2 is meant to be played as an
interactive role-playing game. In the game, the player kills
the witch, gains the trust of the king, and is sent to rescue
the princess, culminating in a wedding with the princess.
However, suppose the player model predicts that the player
The algorithm takes a plotline plan, a set of rules to rewrite the
goal and initial state, and a domain library Λ consisting of
events specifications and quest decomposition rules.
function A
DAPT (plan, reqs, Λ) returns solution or failure
plan R
fringe {plan}
loop do
if fringe = then return failure
plan P
if plan has no flaws then return plan
flaw G
newplans R
EPAIR(flaw, plan, Λ)
fringe I
NSERT-AND-SORT(newplans, fringe)
Figure 3. The plotline adaptation algorithm