I’m sure you can guess what this post is about: AI. In modern games, the AI of enemies, allies and NPCs are very important to gameplay. Some games have done it right, some games have tried their best, and there are those games which cut corners on one of the most vital parts of today’s games. All three concepts are after the same goal. That is, to provide a level of challenge for the player as a ways of entertainment. However, the means for each of the three to challenge the player differs.
What does it really mean for something to be difficult? I believe true difficulty comes from a well written AI. Sometimes it may feel frustrating, but it should never feel cheap. A game is difficult when the enemy provides a challenge, yet is still bound by the same rules and skill set as the player. This proves a daunting task for many developers. Computers – and therefore AI – are excellent at logic and conditionals, yet they do not adapt well to situations not prearranged in their program. In other words, if a situation should arise where the AI is not programmed for, then it will be unable to form an effective strategy. The root of this problem lies in duplicating the higher functions of the human brain. The brain is just an organ which produces electrical and chemical signals. However, the mind is more than just the sum of its parts. Our mind is a complex entity not completely understood. With it, we can form complex thoughts such as beliefs, theories, strategies and attain awareness, not just of ourselves, but of our surroundings, the world and the universe. This is what limits AI in any game. As any competitive game can show, the most skilled player easily triumphs over even the hardest AI levels. Therefore until we can fully understand our mind, the true challenge in any game will be from a fellow player.
Now that I’ve written an essay on difficult, what makes games frustrating? The one overwhelming reason for frustration in games is luck, also known as the RNG. The RNG (Random Number Generator) is an aptly named module of games which generates a random number for various situations. This governs nearly all aspects of RPGs, the battles of action games, the plays in sports games, and even touches on puzzle games. Luck can be something as positive as finding a super rare item during the normal course of the game, or it can be as negative as spending hours looking for a quest item necessary to advance the game. That is where a game can become very frustrating. No amount of skill or knowledge can help you if the one item necessary for a mission is governed by luck. You can be the most seasoned player able to recall any aspect of the game from your mind, but if a quest item drops 1% of the time, you have the same chance of acquiring the item as any other playing hunting for it. This creates a disturbing trend in video games where experience and knowledge of a game matters very little. Therefore, things pertaining to the main flow of the game should be attainable through set means, leaving the rare and luxurious to lady luck.
So the only topic left for discussion is the downright cheap. Cheap is something vastly different from the previous two. If difficulty is the skill and broad context an AI was programmed with, then frustration is the luck that governs key elements of the game. Then what does it mean to be cheap? A game is cheap if the enemies are not bound by the same rules and skill sets as the player; in other words, cheating. As its namesake, games that are cheap spend little money and time developing proper enemy AI and instead give advantages to the computer which it uses to dominate the player. For example, an enemy may be given the ability to take two turns for each turn the player takes. This is cheap because in lieu of writing a proper AI, the developers give the computer additional turns hoping it would use an applicable skill at random on one of the two. Another example is if the enemy uses skills which cause high damage for much lower cost than a similar skill the player gets much later. That strategy forces the player to adapt to the game instead of the game adapting to the player’s style. This forced transition is usually met with much frustration (of a different kind) and confusion. Forcing a player to play a game on its terms is not a very good way of providing entertainment.
To recap, we discussed three different kinds of game experiences today. First we have a difficult game, which is characterized by a well written AI and challenging gameplay. Next we looked at frustration and stress caused mostly by games with luck as a necessary element. Finally, we discussed the cheap attempt at a challenging game by allowing the computer to cheat. There are very few games today that are truly difficult without being frustrating or cheap. Technology is advancing at a rapid rate, yet we’re not to the level of creating a true AI. Until then, we may have to settle for games with a combination of difficulty and frustration, but never cheap.