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Everything is Excellent… except the AI

This is something that I have been seeing for a long time now. I’m sure we all have… and for good reason: A lot of times it is true. Despite what I said in my 7 minutes at the AI Devs Rant at the 2010 GDC about how reviewers like to bitch about bad AI, unfortunately too often it is justified. The juxtaposition of an otherwise good game in other areas with poorly executed AI development is a bit more tragic, however. That doesn’t point to a case of a smaller budget game. It’s an example of a well-funded project with either a priority or a talent problem.

Take this review of “Lost Planet 2″ in the Detroit News by Mike Neimoyer. Let me first give you the commentary about the rest of the aspects of the game:

The storyline is thinly tied together and barely cohesive.

OK… admittedly he gripes about the storyline. A lot of times that simply because you are doing a sequel of an established IP. Moving on… (emphasis mine):

The graphics are beautiful, and the environments are varied. Lush jungle or swamp areas appear suddenly in the midst of the glacial ice fields, with waterfalls and towering trees, and then there’s parched desertscapes or weather-battered coastal regions.

Not only is the landscape new and varied, but the Akrid, the natural inhabitants of the planet E.D.N. III, are back with new shapes, new designs and a whole new set of (usually grumpy) attitudes. The scale of the largest of the creatures, the “Cat-G type” is impressive to say the least. Like, God of War III-scale impressive.

The voice acting, for the most part, is well-done and up to the task. The music itself, however, is excellent. Swelling orchestral pieces accentuate the action sequences, and give the game an epic feel that would have been missing if they had used some “generic rock-style track #2″ soundtrack. Well done, Capcom.

Ok… so we have this love fest on the environment, the character modeling, the voice acting, and the soundtrack (he even mentions later that he would love to have a CD of the soundtrack). So what can possibly be wrong? Here’s a montage (again, emphasis mine):

The game is designed from the ground up to take advantage of four-player cooperative play. And heaven help you if you don’t have friends to play the game with. As 1UP.com states, “Brain-dead, unhelpful, and unresponsive, the computer-controlled team members are a liability rather than a resource.

You truly, truly need a human companion or three to completely appreciate what Lost Planet 2 has to offer. For example, during one big boss battle, there are four separate tasks that need to be completed simultaneously. With four humans working together, this bit of teamwork wouldn’t be too difficult. Unfortunately, if you’re playing solo with AI teammates, you’re pretty much left to a snarled tangle of frustration and trial-and-error.

The level design is adequate, but I think that too much emphasis was put on the multiplayer portion, and not enough consideration for the solo player who will be reduced to using the criminally stupid AI companions.

Damn… so we have a Left 4 Dead-style game that is based around the idea that you have to cooperate with your teammates in order to not only survive but to actually complete mandatory parts of the campaign… and yet they don’t provide you with the companions that can do so.

Early on we were all letting our enemies die quickly because we lacked the capability to make them smarter.

In the era of single-player, shooting gallery-style games, having sub-par AI wasn’t too bad. After all, our fallback mantra was “the enemy won’t live long enough to show off his AI anyway.” I knew that was just a bad crutch when we were all saying it. The truth is, early on we were all letting our enemies die quickly because we lacked the capability to make them smarter! We were actually relieved that our characters were dying quickly. That managed to fit well with our other AI mantra: “Don’t let the AI do anything stupid.” Unfortunately, the chance of the AI doing something stupid rose exponentially with the amount of time that it was visible (and alive).

We are spending all this money on graphics, animation, voice actors, musicians… and leaving our AI to fester like an open sore.

Now that we are expecting AI teammates or squadmates or companions to come along for the ride, we have a much harder challenge. (Back in 2008, I wrote about this in my (at the time) regular column on AIGameDev in an article titled “The Art of AI Sidekicks: Making Sure Robin Doesn’t Suck“.) The problem is, we are spending all this money on graphics, animation, voice actors, musicians… and leaving our AI to fester like an open sore. Certainly, it takes more money and time to develop really good AI than it does to do a soundtrack, (I can speak to this, by the way… I was a professional musician a long time ago and am perfectly comfortable with anything from writing, arranging, and recording multi-track electronic grooves to penning entire sweeping orchestral scores. But that was in a previous life.) but it seems like a little effort might be called for. After all, the necessity of multi-player was built into the game design from the start… the necessity of a lush soundtrack was not.

To the defense of game companies, however, I’m very aware the good AI people are exceedingly and increasingly hard to find. The focus of the industry has changed in the past few years so that companies are trying to do better. However, that often means a lot more AI-dedicated manpower than they have. With many companies trying to find AI people all over the place, the demand has really out-stripped the supply. Some companies have had ads up for AI programmers for 6 to 9 months! They just aren’t out there.

Perhaps this is a time to pitch
Intrinsic Algorithm’s
AI consulting services?

And now back to our program…

So it isn’t always that the company doesn’t care or won’t spend the money on it. It’s often just the fact that AI is a very difficult problem that calls for a very deep skill set. Unfortunately, most of the game programs that exist really don’t even address game AI beyond “this is a state machine”. Academic AI programs are good for “real world AI” but don’t apply to the challenges that the game industry needs. Unfortunately, many academic AI institutions and their students don’t know this until they are rebuffed for suggesting very academia-steeped techniques that will fall flat in practice. (And no, a neural network would not have saved the AI in Lost Planet 2.)

So… in the mean time, here’s the suggestion: If your people don’t have the chops to make the required minimum AI, don’t design a game mechanic that needs that AI.

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3 Responses to “Everything is Excellent… except the AI”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by GameDev.net, Dave Mark. Dave Mark said: IA on AI post: "Everything is Excellent… except the AI" (About how AI is often neglected by game studios.) http://bit.ly/9cfxPn #AI #GameAI […]

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