18 January 2009


When I was in the shower yesterday [not that I didn't take a shower today, mind you], I was thinking about Artificial Intelligence in videogames, as you do. Specifically, I was thinking about how cheap it really is, and how far it has to go.

Every game is a God-game.

By way of an analogy, imagine that God is your worst enemy [if you're a Satanist or a raging atheist, you may not need to imagine at all!] and that you must use everything at your disposal to defeat him. Problem is, God made everything and knows where all the items are at all times. He knows every possible use for every possible item, all of your moves and abilities, and effective counter-maneuvers for each of your potential attacks. Sound unfair? Well, that's basically a videogame in a nutshell.

Hmmm...look at all the pretty coloured arrows!

In the government, there is what we call a 'separation of powers' (pictured above). It's what keeps the system honest. You have the executive powers given to the Prime Minister or Head of State, the judicial powers given to the High Court, and the legislative powers invested in the Parliament. If you're from the good ol' US of A, just substitute the words 'President', 'Supreme Court' and 'Congress' into the previous sentence. In videogames, there's none of that.

Now that I've successfully bored you with a double-whammy of politics and religion, let's get back to the videogames. Quite frankly, I think that the A.I. in videogames sucks. Now, I don't pretend to understand the technical ins and outs of Artificial Intelligence, but when Ryu KO's you in four punches, you know something's amiss. The computer's team is always a tightly run ship, a hive-mind of players that control with individual precision, and share exactly the same goals. Like an autistic child, the A.I. has no theory of mind - it doesn't wonder what the other player is thinking or planning, it knows. It doesn't need to 'watch' your actions closely and respond on the fly - it knows exactly what you've done as soon as you pressed the button, and it has a pre-scripted action to respond with. We'd never have beaten a videogame if it weren't for developer-imposed handicaps such as poor aim, slow running, reduced damage, and smaller health bars - all shortcomings that seem to carry over on those blasted escort missions.

I'm Escort Mission, remember me? We had some swell times together, didn't we?

It is for all these reasons and more that I call for a 'separation of powers' for all videogame A.I. Your NPC's A.I. should not be controlled by the same A.I. that is hunting you both down with a Kalishnakov, nor should Mr. Kalishnakov generate the level he should be exploring. The goalie shouldn't know that the full back intends to pass the ball back to him until he sees the ball being passed back to him. Chun Li shouldn't somersault over my hadouken because I entered 'down, diagonal, right + hard punch', but because she 'sees' a fireball flying towards her.

Whether this would necessitate the use of multiple CPUs is outside of my expertise, but doubtless it would require many hours of intense programming. It would be an ambitious undertaking to say the least, but the reason it seems so daunting is that so little headway has been made over the years. Other aspects of game development - graphics, sound, controls, even story - have been moving ahead in leaps and bounds, while A.I. is still in its infancy. With photorealism firmly within our grasp, and recorded soundtracks that dwarf some Hollywood productions, where else is there to go? The future must be with A.I.

Does videogame A.I. leave you wanting? Do escort missions piss you off? Can SkyNet be stopped in time? Drop your pennies below!

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