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A Collection Of Thoughts On Gaming

Much like shower thoughts, playing certain games brings various thoughts, ideas and criticism to mind. I'll be sharing some of them here and see what happens!

Author: Annwyn

The stupidity of AI in video games

Posted by Annwyn Tuesday November 8 2016 at 5:47PM
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Today I wanted to cover a subject that has bothered me for a very long time that affects not just MMORPGs, but the video game industry as a whole, and that subject is Artificial Intelligence, or the lack thereof in gaming. Whether it’s how quickly NPCs are to brush off the arrow sticking out of their head as “Just the wind” or how a monster will stand still in front of you as you beat up on him repeatedly while his brethren watch from afar, Artificial Intelligence in video games just suck.

The year 2017 is in sight, less than 2 months away, and yet despite decades of video games, AI in video games has barely made any progress. So why is that? Why have we neglected AI for so long? Is it out of laziness by the developers? Is it perhaps because gamers are perfectly content with the current AI formula? Is the gameplay itself limiting the AI of its inhabitants? Does improving the AI render the game too difficult? The answer is all of the above.


Let’s take a traditional MMORPG for example. Here, monsters and NPCs act as small piñatas that contain some loot and also rewards the player with a small amount of EXP that the player needs in order to become one step closer to his next character level. In MMOs, there is a sort of urgency to reach the end-game and so progression must be balanced in a way that doesn’t make it feel too tedious to most players. A piñata stands still while a player repeatedly hits it, it may offer some resistance, but unless the player is taking unnecessary risks, the challenge is not enough to endanger the player’s life. What’s more is that these monsters work alone regardless of their types or their lore (a band of bandits for example), they are only “pulled” individually unless a player makes the mistake of attacking another or stepping too close, otherwise the player only needs to worry about a single piñata at a time. All of this allows players to repeatedly chain these piñatas with ease, sometimes even greedily “pulling” multiple monsters to kill them all at once.


These simple encounters allow players to quickly progress through the game, reach the next zone, etc. It is a boring process, but simple enough not to annoy most players when the end-game is in sight. Improve the AI however, and suddenly a previously simple task becomes a frustrating one. The monster keeps running away, it hides behind a tree breaking your line of sight, it blocks your attack more often etc. You’ve effectively turned simple tasks into annoying ones. Progression is slowed, quests need to be rebalanced to take into account the additional time it takes for a player to kill a single monster and also to avoid frustrating the player.


Improving the AI of Bosses in traditional MMOs also leads to a different set of issues. In today’s MMOs, Bosses are not challenging because they have great AI, they are “challenging” because they heavily punish players for missing a step in a long dance that must be learned by watching Youtube videos or reading online guides otherwise you risk causing the untimely death of you and your dancing partners...multiple times. A boss follows a pattern and never strays from it, there is no unpredictability, no real difficulty. The outcome of a battle is determined merely by the ability of the whole party to dance together, and sometimes the level of their gear in order to dance properly. Developers rely more on the audio and visual effects to give players the impression that they are taking part in an epic battle.


If we were to suddenly give bosses a more detailed AI that favored unpredictability over a wholly-scripted encounter, you’d end up with a more challenging encounter, however we run into a few different problems. 1) Encounters are now less forgiving because of the randomness, increasing the chances of a player dying or partying wiping. 2) Classes would need to be rebalanced, in particular tanks and healers to account for the bosses’ randomness. It actually makes perfect sense for traditional MMOs to choose heavily scripted boss battles, as it allows developers to have complete control over the difficulty of the encounter. It also gives players a chance to know what’s coming and be able to act accordingly, easing the overall difficulty once a player is familiar with the dance.



Single player games have not been spared from the lack of “intelligent” AIs either. Take The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim for example, which recently came back into the spotlight. An enemy spotted you? Hide and in 10 seconds he’ll return to his position, blaming the wind. Kill his friend right his front of him; Must have been the wind. Cast a shower of meteors; must have been the wind. Shoot an arrow through his head that does not kill him; Must have been the wind (as he moves around with the arrow dangling from the side of his head). If there is at least one thing that a game like Skyrim did “right” with its AI, is that the attack warns other nearby NPCs as well, unlike MMOs where only a single NPC will be warned. Also the fact that different NPC groups can clash with each other is certainly an added bonus (like a group of roaming bandits attacking a pack of wolves).


What would happen however if we suddenly crank up the AI a little in Skyrim? For example, NPCs no longer give up so quickly, their search range is increased sufficiently, and NPCs are put “on-guard” even after they return to their initial position for a greater amount of time, boosting their detection abilities. For one, Thief/Assassin-type players would be punished more heavily for failing to sneak past their enemies, making future attempts more difficult. Other types of players would have to take into greater account their locations for example, choosing their battles more appropriately else they risk getting overwhelmed by deadly NPCs. Perhaps some would deem those changes annoying, but making tasks too simple or forgiving the player too much removes all meaning to the objective. If an NPC dies in front of another, why should that NPC simply blame the wind and go back to his seat for a drink? It makes absolutely no sense. Of course I’m well aware that all of this can easily be reverted by the player by reloading the game, but an example was simply necessary.



So what is my solution? Unfortunately none that could work on existing games. AI is too intrinsically linked to the design decisions made by the developers (combat type, emphasis on questing, etc), they are only able to slightly deviate from the original format without affecting the balance of the game too significantly. An example of slight deviation would be in games like Final Fantasy 14 where monsters can use AoEs with a range that is marked for the players, forcing players to move out of the AoE or receive significant damage.


There are some games that have actually managed to create interesting AIs, but they did so by creating a more complex battle system. Mabinogi for example, uses a combat system where both players and monsters alike fight in a rock-paper-scissor-esque fashion (but with magic and other types added to the mix). Monsters will use different abilities depending on the occasion, some even pretending to be using one ability when they are in fact preparing another. Another example would be in games like Dark Souls (or MMOs like Vindictus) where monsters and especially bosses are less predictable and requires the players to be constantly aware of the flow of the battles, paying attention to visual cues in order to decide on their next action, avoid an attack, etc. Of course I’m not saying that all games should be as unforgiving as the rage-inducing Dark Souls, that game was built to be very difficult, but that many games would benefit from creating more unpredictable AIs for their monsters and bosses. Nor should they copy the Mabinogi formula (although I wouldn’t mind having some non-anime looking games out there that used a similar system). But there is no doubt that in order to bring more intricate AIs into video games, developers need to go off the beaten paths and start creating their own paths instead, but that’s assuming they even want to.


Thanks for reading!