Friday 28 September 2007

How sweet to be an idiot

We all want more intelligence in games. MMOG mobs are so stupid, developers just give them loads of hit points to make them a "challenge", BORING!, it would be much better if they were more intelligent (we say, until they actually exhibit any signs of intelligence like going after squishy healers no matter how many "yo mama" jokes the tank knows, at which point the mobs are obviously cheating and it's not fair and we're not coming back until you make them stupid again). Worse than stupid enemies, though, are stupid allies. How frustrating are escort missions in any genre (space sims, FPS, RPG, any of 'em) when whatever you're escorting has as much imagination as a caravan site; YES I SHALL JUST PROCEED AT A RATHER SLOW PACE IN A TOTALLY STRAIGHT LINE TOWARDS MY OBJECTIVE OVER THERE (UNLESS I ENCOUNTER PATHING ISSUES IN WHICH CASE I MIGHT JUST SPIN ON THE SPOT UNTIL I GET KILLED)! How many times have you cursed 'bot team-mates in an FPS or NPC allies in an RPG?

I downloaded the demo of World in Conflict, which seems to be a fairly regular Real Time (Strategy/Tactical/Continuation of Politics by Other Means) game, and was pondering its use of "special abilities". Your M2 Bradley IFVs will happily plunk away with chain guns at anything sufficiently Soviet within range, but will only fire TOW missiles when you click the appropriate "special ability" button and designate a target. It seemed like somewhat excessive micromanagement, typical artificial lack-of-intelligence ("there's a T-72 ahead that's all but impervious to the chain gun, whatever shall we do? I know, keep shooting at it with the chain gun unless our commander specifically tells us to fire a TOW!"), but then... if the unit did always employ its weapons effectively, and had a sensible approach to cover, and was generally "intelligent", what would be left for you as its human overlord? You'd just sort of generally wave somewhere and say "off you go, chaps, give those commies what-for, eh?"

I remember a similar situation in Baldur's Gate (1 or 2, or possibly both...) It had a rather nifty scripting system for controlling your party in combat; you could directly give them orders, otherwise they'd behave according to an assigned script. Included in the game were some fairly basic scripts, like "Hit stuff with swords" (IF enemy near THEN hit it with a sword OTHERWISE make a beeline for the nearest one and hit them with a sword) and "Shoot stuff with arrows" (IF enemy in range THEN shoot it with arrows UNLESS you've run out, in which case I dunno, I don't think there's a command for wandering off to a convenient fletcher's shop mid-battle). A marginal improvement over standing around like lemons, but they still needed a lot of coaxing for optimal tactics, but then that's rather the point of CRPG fights.

It didn't take the community too long to get the hang of the scripting system to improve things somewhat so you didn't need to get quite so annoyed at the "Hit stuff with swords" fighter plunging into the middle of mortal peril with only three hit points left because his script has no sense of self preservation, or the "Shoot stuff with arrows" ranger blazing away with really rather expensive +3 arrows at a near-dead kobold posing almost no threat whose main use would be to give the fighter a chance to use that Cleave feat he just picked up. Some of the scripts they ended up with were pretty amazing, they'd prioritise opponents, select appropriate weapons and/or spells to deal with them, heal both themselves and other members of the party, make a slap-up breakfast and analyse radio telescope data for the possibility of alien life. The only drawback is that they could leave you feeling slightly redundant; your party, under the control of their scripts, was quite capable of defeating the majority of encounters with no intervention from you. So too much intelligence/efficiency in scripting can cause problem of its own (that slight feeling of redundancy as your units work perfectly well on their own, naturally leading up to computers developing cognitive powers and taking over the world)

A bit of stupidity in your companions/troops can be a good thing, then, as it gives you something to do, so long as (and it's a big "so long as") you don't have to try and do it in real time. That's my beef with a lot of RTS games these days, they don't have slow time options, or the ability to give units orders while the game is paused. Perhaps it's because they're mostly aimed at multiplayer gaming where obviously pausing isn't going to work (I just can't get into online RTS gaming, probably because the whole point of *Strategy* for me is careful pondering, not frantic hyperclicking), but it does mean that, nine times out of ten, the most efficient possible approach is "stack up a whole load of units in a really big mass and rumble around blowing stuff up". Your staple of military planning, for example, the two progned assault is right out. You send one group off one way, one the other way. One lot hits a minefield, the other lot encounters a dug in anti-tank gun. Because your chaps are a bit dense, you need to personally oversee them; unless you can pause the game to issue orders, or at least slow time right down, you have a bit of a problem. Either you find that first group, select them again, tell them to halt, find the engineers and send them forward to clear the mines while their comrades give covering fire, in which case your second prong merrily drives slowly over totally open ground getting picked off by the anti-tank gun ("OH NO! Geoff's tank just exploded, what should I do? I know, continue driving slowly in exactly the same direction as before!") Or you concentrate on that second prong, halting out of the firing line and either calling in an artillery strike on the gun or sending some commandos up in a stealty flanking attack, in which case the first prong demonstrate the impressive minesweeping technique known as "driving forwards until something explodes".

In conclusion, then: make stuff stupid, and also make it really slow. How could that fail?

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