The simple trick to making good game AI

Contention: Stardock’s Brad Wardell (Or is it Brad Wardell’s Stardock?) is often upheld as a good AI programmer, and Stardock games as containing good AI.

But from all I could ever see, neither was shockingly exceptional (and I’m not just saying this to be catty, though the Galactic Civilizations series, from the beta of the first game I played on OS/2 back in the day, was always something I wanted to like more than I ever actually did).

Good AI is like good Art Direction. You choose your battles to fight on your own terms so you can easily make yourself look good. Art design sets player expectations: VVVVVV isn’t criticized for its poor character modeling or voice acting because the game very intentionally sets its aesthetic limits at about the level of Atari games. Wii Sports avoids the expectations of any sort of detailed character animations or normal-mapped textures or environmental destruction and all such noise by utilizing a simple stylized aesthetic.

The visual experience of these games is designed so that asset creation is not an overwhelmingly complex and expensive job. And they manage to meet the requirements of player expectations without too much trouble. It’s good design.

Likewise, the gameplay of various Galactic Civilizations games happens to be designed in such a way that it’s easy for the AI to act meaningfully and responsively within its framework. (I don’t particularly enjoy this game design as a player, but that’s in the details.) Now: if a realtime chat interface was added to Galciv so that you could do diplomatic negotiations with AI opponents in real-time, as you would would a human, the game would fall on its face because it’s really, really hard to fight that particular battle.

The trick is to set expectations that you can fulfill, and fulfill well. This is why you won’t see me making an AAA-style 3d game.


There’s a great thread on Quarter to Three on the very subject of game AI and mechanics design scope with figures like Paradox‘s Johan Andersson, Vic Davis, and Civ V’s (now Stardock’s) John Shafer weighing in. Go there. The topic is discussed with far more depth.

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