I knew after Satoru Iwata's keynote at GDC 2005 that we would likely be talking about them and that I could end up with one or three. What was less clear was why.
Clive Thompson might be onto that answer when he wrote (emphasis his) :
I think the appeal is much subtler -- and weirder. If we love Nintendogs, it's not merely because they're so adorable. It's that they're so needy... The thing is, this precisely inverts the normal logic of artificial intelligence. Back in the '70s, everyone assumed we'd eventually have super-smart robots as servants -- guarding our homes, managing our schedules and bringing us a beer. That never happened. Nobody really wanted robots like that, because robots like that are kind of scary. Nobody wants a Terminator hanging around the kitchen.
I'll go one step further for the sake of discussion. To what extent is the games AI malaise a product of a myopia to create Terminators rather than Nintendogs? From a games AI perspective, would it be easier - and would easier first steps encourage more sure-footed second steps - to design virtual game worlds which are in some sense more needy than confrontational?
Part of the advantage of a needy AI may be you. You want to believe. Empathy turns to sympathy and much is forgiven by the player: you work harder. In contrast, if that bot is glaring at you with its trousers-inside-out, no sympathy, no respect -- "what dumb AI."
The danger is that this needy revisionism places the cart-before-the-horse: shouldn't game design be the dog that shakes the AI tail, and not the other way around. Yes, but can this flip on occasion? Are there scenarios where the AI is so engaging that it can reach out and grab you - thus carrying a mediocre game world and its cast of denizens? Rome burns while you are having a great time wrestling the Labrador...
Can the tail ever wag the dog?
...If it is true, as Andrew Stern suggested, that games AI has a long slog ahead of it (see comments, here):
I'd suggest game AI is not in a rut, per se - instead it's standing on a slope, part way up a massive mountain, looking up at the distant peak, gone as far as it can go on foot, and now has to break out the mountain climbing gear and prepare for some very strenous, painful rock climbing.
If it is going to be a slog, a few victories upon the incline would be helpful for all of us. Here is a toast to needy AI and all the associated Bow Wow...