Before I delve too far into this op-ed piece, I want to make something perfectly clear: I am not a programmer, nor am I involved in any higher form of computer science, computer languages, or modern A.I. theory. But I dare to speak on these things because I am a gamer, a writer, and have experienced the results of A.I. numerous times in my 32 years at the controller.
A.I. – Artificial Intelligence…the imitation of life, choice, and behavior. A.I. is programmed into almost every aspect of a video game, from the way non-playable characters (NPCs) act, interact, and react in the world around them to the paths birds fly across the sky. As video games become more and more complex, A.I. systems follow suit. More microprocessors and raw processing power means additional layers of computation, random patterns, and simulations of emotional responses. But does A.I. boil down to basic pre-programming, void of emotion and reasoning? Or can the video game some day give us a real emotional experience just like another human can? The short and sweet point of this article is to spark a discussion. I’m coming at it from one angle, but if there are any computer science gurus out there who have worked on A.I. algorithms and programming, I’m inviting you to speak up and add your knowledge to this discussion.
The goal of this article does not include upsetting or offending programmers, because as I stated above, I am not a programmer and can only imagine the complexities involved with such systems. Not all A.I. systems are created equal, however, and in video games it seems like there are no standards in place.
For example, there is a popular physics engine known as the Havok engine. For Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, developer Naughty Dog admitted they used their own proprietary physics engine, but for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, they switched to the Havok engine “standard” because it allowed them to do so much more without reinventing the wheel. Apply that to A.I. and I must ask…why isn’t there a standard A.I. toolset or system that developers can implement? Is it possible? Sure, there would still need to be customization and such, but what’s preventing a baseline system of A.I. that has proven itself to work realistically at all levels of difficulty? I will note here that Havok also has an A.I. engine product, which appears to offer the same baseline standard as their physics engine.
Valve’s Half-Life shooter game revolutionized the way A.I. opponents reacted to the player, and the engine continues to impress gamers to this day in subsequent installments. But then there’s Infinity Ward’s A.I. system in Call of Duty that receives constant criticism, even (and especially) in their latest, Modern Warfare 2, where it’s worth noting that enemies will literally turn their backs to the players out in the open, not toss grenades back, and basically pull all sorts of nonsense that comes off as cheap, cheating tricks rather than actual “intelligence.”
And I must complain a bit about the term “A.I.” as it’s used in video games versus academia. In the latter, the field of A.I., to my understanding, is much more complex than in the former. Academic A.I. in its truest definition deals with machine learning, the ability to reason and to learn, application of logic to real-world scenarios and conditions, robotics, etc. In gaming, it seems that A.I. does the lowest possible set of surface illusions to enable the game to be enjoyable and nothing more, dealing with scripted events rather than portraying true “intelligence.”
This finally brings me to some game examples…more like genre-specific examples. I intended on calling some games out in full detail, but I decided against that for obvious reasons. Instead, I wanted to discuss the differences in A.I. systems between genres like Adventure and First Person Shooter (Action genre). FPS games are almost always more combat focused than adventure games, even though adventure games can include gun play elements. Combat A.I. systems are a different beast. I refer to this article I found as a reference, which is a fantastic read for those interested: http://ai-depot.com/GameAI/Design.html. In this piece, the author notes the following:
Combat AI’s have plenty of room for improvement before they even get closed to replacing human opponents. Even though combat AI’s can dodge incoming fire and shoot like a pro, there are four major things that human combatants offer over AI: knowledge of their environment, efficient use of teamwork, the ability to “hunt,” and survival instincts.
Is this why multiplayer modes in FPS games are wildly more popular than any single player campaign offering? I think the answer to this is most vehemently “Yes,” or even “Hell yes, B.T.!” It stands to reason that human players prefer human opponents. Honestly, with my experience with FPS, this is the biggest factor in why I don’t enjoy them as much. Multiplayer is fun, but it’s rarely a deep and lasting game experience for me. That’s personal opinion and preference, I get it, but playing through the storyline in FPS games is an exercise in frustration because of lackluster combat A.I.
With combat A.I. systems, a tougher difficulty is represented by tougher enemies, less health for the player, and impeccable accuracy for the opponents, not to mention feats of shooting no human could ever hope to achieve (using a close quarter weapon from 400 yards away while running, for example). So does a tougher difficulty setting simply mean that the A.I. system cheats? In a word: yes. Game developers, because of time and money, simply take the baseline A.I. engine that powers the normal difficulty setting, and make small tweaks and then say it’s “higher difficulty.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be challenged by smart A.I., not cheap A.I. Flank me, use pack tactics, toss grenades into my hiding spots if I decide to hang back and camp…but don’t shoot me from impossible angles while on the run from a distance that would rival any human potential every single time.
But do all games exhibit this level of what passes for “intelligence”? No, they don’t. Games like Uncharted and Uncharted 2 are challenging on Crushing Difficulty, but the frustration level was 150% less (for me). Perhaps it’s the nature of the games, sure, but ultimately I think it’s because of developer prowess. Uncharted is a series solely dedicated to the single player experience, while Call of Duty is not, or at least isn’t any longer (I argue that it used to be). Some will say that my skills are in question or that I suck, and that’s fine, I will accept the fallout from this. I don’t mind a good challenge if you’re pitting my wits against yours (the developers’), but if you’re pitting me against try-fail cheat scenarios with less health and insurmountable odds, that’s when I squawk. I’m not a programmer, I’m not an A.I. algorithm creator, but I believe there must be a better way. What do you think?