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The Pros and Cons of Artificial Intelligence in Games

by: Simon Hill ; edited by: J. F. Amprimoz ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

In this article we examine the pros and cons of artificial intelligence in games. Is there really such a thing? If not, why not? What is the great disadvantage of artificial intelligence?

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    The Development of Artificial Intelligence

    hal   The idea of creating a form of artificial intelligence has been around for decades and there have been various portrayals of A.I. in books and films over the years. Usually imagined as humanoid robots or huge computers, humans seem to have an underlying anxiety and fear of what might happen if we really managed to create powerful artificial intelligence. From HAL in 2001 to Skynet in the Terminator films, A.I. is viewed as potentially dangerous.

    People needn’t worry though, because we are far from creating any sort of artificial intelligence which would threaten humanity. While it may be possible to create a form of A.I. which can outperform a human at a specific task or game, like chess for example, these A.I. creations do not come anywhere near reaching the ability of the human brain. Our ability to make calculations at speed is incredible, for example the hand-eye co-ordination and computation required for a robot to track and catch a ball which is thrown at it, or maintain balance in bipedal locomotion, are massive tasks, while for most of us they are simple and learned early in life.

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    Disadvantage of Artificial Intelligence

    Source Ground node   When it comes to games the majority of what is called A.I. is actually nothing of the sort. What people are actually describing is scripted NPCs (Non-Player Characters). The NPCs in computer games have a very limited set of pre determined reactions to stimulus. Often the most complex action they perform is path-finding which involves choosing a route from point A to point B using nodes which have been laid out by a game designer. Even that task is fraught with difficulty and you’ll see NPCs in various games running into walls or struggling to negotiate simple obstacles.

    Creating genuine A.I. is a very tricky prospect for game developers. The trick is to set up a range of potential reactions and create the impression that the NPC is thinking. The big disadvantage of artificial intelligence in games is the processing power required to allow an A.I. character some thinking time. The focus tends to be on creating more visually impressive games and so developers tend to focus their efforts there. This doesn’t leave much room for A.I. and consequently most NPCs appear to be extremely stupid.

    While some tasks such as path-finding seem to be difficult for NPCs, other tasks such as aiming and shooting in an FPS game are actually too easy. Their ability to shoot you 100% of the time would make the whole experience a lot less fun, so their abilities are deliberately reduced to introduce a margin of error.

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    A.I. Cheats

    Many games feature A.I. which effectively cheats and this can be hugely frustrating for the player. Since the A.I. can be given access to game information directly such as your exact location in an FPS game, they often have clear gameplay advantages and these lead to unnatural situations which wouldn’t arise against human players. In other genres of gaming the tendency for A.I. to cheat in order to compete with a much more capable human player is all too obvious, racing games are a great example where overtaken opponents miraculously catch up to the player to provide a continuing challenge. To offset that the reverse is often true as well and if you fall too far behind in many racing games the A.I. will slow to allow you a chance to catch up, so at least both sides are cheating and there is a certain fairness.

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    Improving FPS A.I.

    left 4 dead 2 lovetunnel   The A.I. in FPS games has improved over the years but in effect they merely have more potential actions to perform and more events which trigger those reactions, they don’t really possess an ability to reason. Drawing on a wealth of information about military tactics developers have been able to create A.I. opponents that work together as a team, take cover, protect each other and even attempt flanking movements and head on assaults.

    The approach to A.I. in Left 4 Dead 2 is particularly interesting with an A.I. Director in charge of the flow of enemies reacting to your progress and skill level and adjusting the challenge accordingly. While the impression that the A.I. in FPS games is thinking has improved over the years it is still based on modelling human behaviour and ordering the A.I. to react in the right way. There isn’t really any intelligence at work. Not truly Artificial Intelligence, the goal is to appear intelligent to the user. In a sense, it could be called Illusory Intelligence.

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    Pros and Cons of Artificial Intelligence

    The pros and cons of artificial intelligence in games are worth considering. On the pro side we end up with games which are, in theory, more interesting and engaging and provide more of a challenge. If an A.I. opponent can appear to learn and adapt then gamers can’t settle on a winning strategy. The strategic depth is greater and the game is more enjoyable. On the other hand the cons of artificial intelligence are not just limited to the processing power required for more elaborate A.I. to function. Many gamers may also find the A.I. too challenging, they might find the game more stressful and struggle to learn a winning strategy because the enemy keeps adapting. Part of the fun of gaming is to master the rules and win. Multiplayer gaming which allows people to pit their wits against other people is still intimidating and stressful for many gamers so if A.I. was to genuinely model human behaviour not everyone would appreciate it (especially if it begins to hurl vulgarity in voice chat).

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    Notable A.I. Successes and the Future for A.I. in Games

    Milo   There have been a few A.I. successes over the years. Black and White featured a creature with a limited ability to learn. F.E.A.R. introduced A.I. capable of using cover and squad tactics and Façade was an interesting game which allowed the user to type text and have a conversation with the NPCs. There is also Milo and Kate which uses Microsoft’s Kinect technology and allows players to interact and have conversations with A.I. children (it looks downright creepy to me).

    The main disadvantage of artificial intelligence in terms of the processing power required is becoming less and less of an issue as our technology becomes more and more powerful. Regardless of the pros and cons of artificial intelligence we can expect to see vast strides in the coming years.

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    References and Images

    • Wikipedia, Hal 9000,
    • Ground Node from Hammer, Valve's Source Engine Map Editor.
    • Left 4 Dead 2 screenshot by author.
    • YouTube, Milo and Kate E3 Tech Demo,