Every video game has some level of AI, regardless of genre, platform, or franchise. It might be a Goomba in Mario or a solider in Call or Duty or an alien boss in Destiny. They are all programmed in varying degrees to engage and respond to the player. In more traditional games like Super Mario, the AI is more mechanical with enemies that repeat movement patterns and responses while the user simply memorizes and reacts. Newer games, however, rely on complex systems of AI that engage and attempt to outdo the user in reflex time, accuracy, and movement. But is AI too stupid to keep up with the increasing skill and adeptness of players?
It’s not fair!
Some of the most recent and brilliant looking games have AI that I consider to be periodically cheap. I think the reason for this is because the skill level of even the most moderate player is beyond the abilities of most AI systems. Granted, when you crank up the difficulty on any Call of Duty the bots will shoot you as soon as you break the plain of the wall. But that isn’t skill or intelligence, it’s a response mechanic that has been maxed out to an unrealistic level. The unrealistic or unfair things in the realm of AI that I have in mind can be broken into two categories. First, they respond to things they have no knowledge of; I call this “spidey sense”. And second, they become bullet sponges as the default mode of increased difficulty. Let me talk about the “spidey sense” problem first.
My annoyed sense is tingling
The two games that have taken up most of my time recently have been Far Cry 4 and Destiny. In both of these games there are ever-changing engagements and open world environments that allow for improvisation and creativity. I’ve become increasingly frustrated, however, with enemies unaware of my position that have knowledge of my whereabouts or actions regardless of what I do. There were numerous times in Far Cry 4 where I would take aim at an enemy to snipe him, and he would immediately move and relocate, sometimes repeating this process again as I zeroed in on him. Another example is when I would take out an enemy with a silenced sniper rifle, and then an enemy would discover the body and point to my elevated and hidden position as if the NCIS crew showed up, did ballistics tests, and predicted the angle and trajectory of the bullet entry. This type of cheap “spidey sense” AI isn’t just frustrating because it’s unfair, but because it hurts the game experience. One of the best things about Far Cry is the sneaking and stealthy engagements with fortified enemy bases. So what is supposed to be a fun and smooth experience quickly devolves into a sloppy firefight because the enemies magically discover your location.
The second issue I already mentioned above is the “bullet sponge” problem. Rather than ratchet up the difficulty with more tactical or strategic engagements, the only way game makers seem to know how to increase the difficulty is by making every enemy a cement-footed-tank who just stands there and swallows your bullets like water. Destiny is far more guilty of this than any other title available right now. Don’t believe me? Play any boss on a Weekly mission and you will quickly see that Bungie’s only way to increase difficulty is to give bosses a ridiculous amount of health while amping up their damage output to irritatingly one-hit-kill levels. It doesn’t make the boss fights exciting or thrilling because the only way to achieve victory is to find the perfect hiding spot and chisel away at their health while hiding whenever they start to fire. Literally every boss room has a convenient and easily discoverable hiding spot to slowly grind down their bullet-eating health bar. Yawn. And to be clear, it is not boring because of the difficulty, it’s boring because it’s so cheap that the only option is to fight fire with fire. In other words, you make the gamer rely on the lamest form of strategy because you have implemented the lamest form of strategy. I mean, how hard is it to add a few zeroes to a boss’s health and damage output? So the big crescendo, the finale, the crowning moment at the end of a mission, is tantamount to periodically peeking out of a closet to shoot rubber bands at Godzilla.
I don’t think game devs need to burn the midnight oil by trying to reinvent or improve current AI systems all that much. For the most part they serve their purpose and continue to advance at a pace fitting for the genres they are used in. Strategic skill, however, is something that games could require from players as a way to better utilize existing AI technology. Pop-and-shot first person shooters get tiresome and flanking enemies that just hide behind boxes isn’t that challenging. If game devs added specific types of strategy and tactical coordination in their games, both with live players or AI teammates, the skill level of enemy AI would seem more challenging and dynamic due to the complexity and variety in missions and quests. The main reason AI starts to feel stupid, or even cheap, is because the game doesn’t require the player to do more than mash buttons or wait for the enemy’s head to pop back out. Rather than using cheap tactics like “spidey sense” knowledge or bullet sponge health bars, add more tactical layers to missions and campaigns to keep the player engaged rather than annoyed.
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