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!

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.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.