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Why next-gen horsepower needs to power AI, not scripted spectacle

It’s a tragic fact of video games that some of the most important, coolest, most game-improving stuff in them is also the least superficially sexy and the hardest to sell. Look at the bullet-points on the back of your average game box. What do you get? 

  • Epic, cinematic action! 
  • Tense, twisting narrative written by That Guy Who Wrote Twister Or Something! 
  • More graphics per square inch than any other sequel this year! 
  • EXPLOSIONS AT THE TOUCH OF A BUTTON! EVERY BUTTON! 

But nowhere will you get “Really rather good AI that actually makes the combat really satisfying.” And I’m not just talking about on the back of the box any more. Seriously, guys, where did AI go? 

We were on a roll for a while. Games, particularly shooters, used to realise that enemy behaviour was at the absolute core of the experience they were crafting. If a game was about navigating a large environment with a gun while attempting to get the better of a bunch of bad guys with guns of their own, then the tactical interplay between the two sides was paramount. Shooters were about shooting. The actual process of gun combat. They were about out-thinking the enemy and coming up with creative solutions to taxing combat scenarios. They weren’t about simply pulling the trigger. They were about where you were when you pulled it, how you got there, and why that was the best place to be, based on the current circumstances of the fight. So AI was the absolute keystone of that design. It had to be. 

Doom had monsters you could manipulate into in-fighting. Half-Life had insanely intelligent, brutally uncompromising SWAT guys who you’d swear were real people--ones who really hated you--if you didn’t know better. Quake III had wonderfully smart bots, each with their own individual personalities and playstyles. Halo had a brilliantly structured three-tier enemy system powered by stunningly adaptable, highly aware AI that made every open skirmish a sandbox delight. F.E.A.R. had the most lifelike, improvisational, situationally-smart AI ever seen in an FPS at the time of its release. 

But the problem is, it still does. 

These days, it seems that AI development has stalled. Sure, games like BioShock and Dead Space have pit you against clever enemies, but they're the exception. Graphics, sound, animation and storytelling have all continued to progress, but computerised brain-think has stopped where it was a generation ago. In fact, it’s gone backwards in many of the top-tier AAA games--modern shooters are facing a horrible Catch-22. 

Games seem to get more linear and scripted because AI-driven gameplay is tougher to hone, and more challenging for a presumably less demanding mainstream audience to play. Suddenly, because games are more linear and scripted, there’s no need for enemy AI to do anything but duck behind walls, pop out to shoot occasionally, and maybe throw the odd grenade to keep you moving forward. And as such, the model for how games work becomes further cemented as the scripted corridor-shooter, because no-one bothers developing AI any more. 

Compared to the explosive Hollywood fun listed on the back of the box, clever AI is nothing like an easy sell to the mainstream player. It can’t be immediately grasped in a screenshot or five seconds of video. It doesn’t bring the immediate gratification of a massive set-piece full of sinking ships and daring jumps over a sea full of robot sharks. So it falls by the wayside. It loses its value as a game-selling commodity. And that’s a tragedy. 

You see there are two ways of creating spectacle in a shooter. The first is that you can build elaborate, varied environments populated with smart, adaptable enemies and then let the player and game create an emergent gameplay ‘narrative’ together. The other is that you script the hell out of a big flash-bang-wow moment, let the player watch it (while potentially moving forward and shooting some stuff) and then drop a helicopter into the middle of it and fade to black. Immediate excitement, and a great distraction from the fact that the shooting isn’t that interesting on its own. 

One of those approaches requires AI. One of them takes a whole lot of intricate, well-balanced design work and is a rather fragile creation, relying just as much upon what the player is challenged to put into it as what the developer constructed. One of them is a mentally-taxing, intellectually stimulating, real-time event with a dynamic nature that can lead to hours of delicious replay value, and which always creates an utterly personal experience for the player. The other one… Oh you know where this is going. 

We’re obviously getting much more of the latter as AI becomes less of a priority. And as such, shooters are losing a fundamental part of what made them great. In fact they're losing the fundamental part. The actual process of shooting. Great platformers demand skill, finesse and nuanced understanding of their jumping mechanics in order to succeed, and reward that effort with immense gratification when the player masters their systems. Ditto great racing games, with their hard-learned vehicle handling and track design. A modern shooter though? It isn’t really about the work of shooting any more. It’s no longer about lines of sight, tactical advantages, manipulating the enemy or controlling space. It’s about firing a gun and moving in a straight line while scripted smoke-and-mirrors spectacle goes off to give the illusion that you’re doing something exciting. 

Good shooting needs good opponents. And good opponents need good AI, not just ‘good enough’ AI. Next-gen, I really, really hope we see the extra horsepower used for something more than graphics and scripted set-pieces. I think we have to, because shallow spectacle can only impress for so long. There are only so many ways you can crash a helicopter, but a good fight against a smart opponent gives a different gift every time.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it. 

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39 comments

  • rxb - July 28, 2013 4:45 a.m.

    Great article Hooters, I think you've been knocking out some really interesting stuff recently.
  • Akiramitsu - July 24, 2013 4 a.m.

    what are you guys talking about :o AI is ever-evolving . just check CoD Ghost , most realistic fish patterns evah ! seriously tho , they need to turn down the "cinematic" moments
  • Shinn - July 23, 2013 4:58 p.m.

    The shortage of AI programmers in this industry is one of the biggest factors that inspired me to study Software Development. Even though AI programming is easily one of the most time consuming, talent driven, and complicated fields of Software Development, only one University here in New Zealand allowed me to structure a course that centers around it. It seems like the subset is suffering from the same lack of appreciation that Software Design in general suffered from at the education level for so many years. I've even run into old friends who are studying 'game design' over here, but aren't required to learn even basic code. Hopefully the education sector catches up in time to set things right before it's too late, and hopefully people like me can find work when we leave University in a year or two.
  • Tourniquet77 - July 23, 2013 4:09 p.m.

    The problem of the AI, isn't the actual AI. It's the AI in the Call of duties and the Halos that try to incite the casual Wii players to pick up the game. This easy accessible game play in over all is fu*kin' with my gaming , because a big part of today's games are run troughs. The one thing that I try to find in my local gaming stores is new releases of good original titles... and I can't find one... I rest my case..frown. .
  • rodger-walker - July 23, 2013 7:14 p.m.

    dishonored?
  • FoxdenRacing - July 24, 2013 8:01 a.m.

    People that wish they could play Candy Crush on their Wiis aren't who the dumbed-down AIs are trying to sell to. It's the fist-bumping, jager-pounding, alpha-male [or beta-that-wants-to-be-alpha male], hollywood-blockbuster action-movie loving 'bro' crowd that they're after. And given how well CoD sells among the guys that aren't interested in anything beyond team sports and/or action-movie setpiece shooters, they've hit their mark. Problem is, 'Oooh' and 'Ahhh' only gets you so far. Eventually the audience goes numb, gets bored, and moves on. Assuming my friends list is an average sample, it's starting to happen...with each new CoD, the number of guys on my list playing it shrinks...and how long they play it shrinks. Sooner and sooner they're playing the old ones, or playing something else entirely.
  • gilgamesh310 - July 23, 2013 2:51 p.m.

    A good article but I reckon the first step in order for games with good AI to become apparent once more is for journalists to stop giving scripted games their highest scores. If the next CoD game scores over a 7/10 in multiple publications I'm just going to lose the rag completely.
  • sixo T - July 23, 2013 2:16 p.m.

    The best AI I've seen in my opinion would have to be in Splinter cell: Chaos Theory. An enemy who reacts to changes in the environment from lights to a broken lock and amps up protection based on detection is the most realistic I have seen.That type of AI was done on 6th Gen consoles!!!! Why cant it be done in our current gen and next gen consoles?
  • Timstertimster - July 23, 2013 1:48 p.m.

    Gaming journalists really need to write more about AI when reviewing games. Educate a new generation of consumers who haven't even heard of games published before 2005. Kudos! Keep it up and the discussion going. Next gen will open a truly brand new world. But not due to console specs but because of integrated cloud computing. AI that is actually intelligent requires by definition the ability to learn. So look at the classic enemy AI: chess computers. Once the system figures out that you do well with knights, it's going to try to attack them hard. In next gen, we will see algorithms that process MP behavior and translate it into NPC behavior. So after you play 50 hours of recon, you're essentially teaching the cloud system that the top of the skyscraper in gulf of Oman is just asking for a knife kill by some engineer. And presto, next time you update the game you may have a whole new challenge because NPCs no longer spawn where they did in your first playthrough. Personally I would venture to guess that scripted SP will become more of an interactive movie experience that yields 25 hrs of swashbuckling fun while open world games will focus on MP. Look at GTA IV from 2008: the MP games are still popular because the environment provides so much variety for living players even though the weapons mechanics are simplistic. Destiny, The Division, Guard Dogs all show a glimpse of how things will become new and interesting: myriad new possibilities arise: use a tablet to control a MAV in someone else's MP session. Use the phone to engage in trade or smithing to progress your RPG character. Gameplay will no longer be about only doing button bashing but rather about investing yourself into a living, breathing environment. Good bye Enemy AI. Hello Adaptive Environments.
  • Rhymenocerous - July 23, 2013 10:13 a.m.

    100% agree with this article, especially since I have absolutely no interest in online multiplayer. This is the reason I felt absolutely NOTHING when Battlefield 4 and the new CoD ware shown at E3. Just empty, mindless, scripted, juvenile drivel. They were all at it; new Killzone, and those other online centred things that I can't even remember because it was all such an eye-roller. Why is it that the majority of games with genuinely interesting gameplay tend to be in 3rd person?
  • alex-roy-bristol - July 23, 2013 10:02 a.m.

    On the plus side: Rainbow 6 Patriots seemed to be creating AI that would trip and fall, not know certain tactical fighting styles, get scared, even pretend to be a civi! If all of that shit actually true, AND I can still play split-screen with my Twin Brother (split-screen is honestly my only real big hope for nex-gen... Idfc if the games even LOOK the same as, hell, Halo 3! Just give me split-screen bro!!), than next-gen might actually be worth the money...... ...Almost...
  • SuperSATA - July 23, 2013 9:56 a.m.

    I disagree with the notion that advanced AI doesn't appeal to the common crowd. I know that's what me and most of my friends look for in a game.
  • bebl09 - July 23, 2013 4:23 p.m.

    I don't think you and most of your friends are part of the common crowd. Especially if you read and comment on Gamesradar.
  • SuperSATA - July 23, 2013 4:49 p.m.

    Heh heh, I guess that's true. Regardless, this is a sad world where the game devs are listening to kids and fools instead of tasteful enthusiasts.
  • mothbanquet - July 23, 2013 6:40 a.m.

    Halo 2 was the first time I remember where the enemy actually used suppressing fire to pin me in place. And the first time those Half-Life marines started lobbing grenades... Wasn't the original Medal of Honor the first game where the enemy started throwing BACK your grenades. It was the first time I remember, anyway, and it scared the shit outta me.
  • rodger-walker - July 23, 2013 7:20 p.m.

    i think that is the only game where your grenades are tossed back by npcs
  • CitizenWolfie - July 23, 2013 3:58 a.m.

    Not that I don't love your articles Mr Houghton, but I do find it funny that the man who wrote a lengthy article about why the Last of Us is the greatest and first "adult story" in games is the same man who wrote this article. The Last of Us AI is terrible at times. With the exception of the later bandits and David (who actually hunts Ellie down and counter-hides) the rest of the enemies seemed not much better than the guards from MGS2 onwards. Even less so for infected enemies. I do agree with the article though, but it's unfair to keep using Battlefield and Call of Duty as the main examples when the enemy AI in Farcry 3 is actually pretty good - I've been hunted down many times after being spotted and had to really work to shake them off while still trying to complete my objective. "Sir You are Being Hunted" seems to be going for a similar vibe as well so maybe it's not all doom and gloom. Basically, there's always going to be big games with scripted spectacle and no challenge but there will also be shining examples of games trying for something more.
  • bebl09 - July 23, 2013 4:25 p.m.

    I didn't know 'mature' meant 'great AI'.
  • StrayGator - July 23, 2013 3:03 a.m.

    funny that you mention doom's infighting as an example of how things used to be better, as it was born of a simplistic design: 1. identify the belligerent 2. charge and then they keep at it, because there's no "oops, my bad" in demon. now, bashing "modern shooters" for plain AI is almost like bashing them for being modern shooters. the oldschool ballet of destruction isn't on the agenda in those. just make your way through points A -> B -> C, shoot at some pop-up cardboard targets, explosion, cutscene, credits, multiplayer. seriously, the first time I played MW4 single player i had flashbacks to operation wolf. now try to criticize the AI in serious sam. meanwhile, most of the, "opener"? shooters (halos, bioshocks, borderlandses. hobbitses) still make you think on your legs to find the way around enemies that take more than 1.7 bullets to take down. a bad example would be far cry/crysis. where the enemies are relatively overpowered (and can shoot anrealistically accurately) but otherwise no smarter than the aforementioned cardboard cutouts. my point? different AIs for different shooters. it's not modern AI that's shit, it's modern military shooters SP campaigns that are shit.
  • CitizenWolfie - July 23, 2013 4:02 a.m.

    I've NEVER had unrealistic combat in Farcry 3. Enemies feel like they have the same amount of strength as I do (without being Big Daddy ammo sponges) and there's been many times when I've had to dash from cover to cover with bullets whoosing past my ears (I usually play with headphones). And not only that but they will split up and try to flank me if I've been hiding in the same spot too long in a firefight.

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