Posts Tagged ‘ challenge

Less Brains, More Rules

Bad artificial intelligence seems to be the most common problem afflicting strategy and wargames, at least judging by complaints I read on fora. It’s Exhibit A in my case against the Total War series, where features have long oustripped the AI’s ability to manage them. RTSs are often burdened by AI that misuses special unit abilities (or doesn’t use them at all), and cannot properly place defensive structures to save its life. If you can survive their initial rushes, victory is a foregone conclusion. Wargame AI tends to be dependent on scenario scripting to provide the illusion of a clever opponent.

I sympathize with developers who face the thankless task of creating AI for a single-player strategy game. No matter how good a job they do, gamers will find the places where the AI breaks down. It will never be as consistently clever and rational as the people it plays against, especially since many of those people have years of practice and experience under their belt.

Unfortunately, many strategy games depend on the “worthy opponent”. Without an enemy laying plans to derail yours, strategy and tactics can seem pointless. What’s the fun in out-thinking a punching bag? However, if the game is designed for solo play, then perhaps the primary challenge should be the rules of the game and the constraints placed on the player. If developers can create a situation where the player is fighting against a system rather than an AI, then enjoyment and challenge aren’t dependent on the AI passing a strategic Turing test. For instance, let’s consider Europa Universalis 3.

My invincible French army has just massacred the English Royal Army.

My invincible French army has just massacred the English Royal Army.

I have no idea whether or not Europa Universalis 3 features good AI, crazyAI, or stupid AI. Given that I can only ever see about a hundredth of what is happening in the game, I never get a good sense of what the AI really up to. I’ve suffered perfectly timed sneak attacks that leave me devastated. I’ve also seen the AI disperse its armies haphazardly across the countryside, letting a superior force get snapped up piece by piece. Perhaps there’s a logic to that, perhaps not. All I can say with certainty is that EU3′s AI seems competent. It won’t give the game away.

In the context of the game, however, this makes it a perfectly good opponent, because the challenge in EU3 is not your opposition. It is the status quo, and the force it exerts against all efforts to overturn it. All factions struggle against systems that resist change and reduce the effectiveness of brilliant tactics and strategic opportunism.

For instance, I just started playing a game as France and, on the second day of the game, I received a “national mission” to take the Aquitaine, which was occupied by the English. This seems like an eminently sensible, doable objective. The English holdings on the west coast of France are an annoying little toehold surrounded by French territories. The English can only reinforce by sea, while I can build entirely new armies on the doorstep of the Aquitaine. So I wasted no time in putting a large army together and declaring war.

The war began in 1400 and by 1405 it seemed to be over. I had captured both English provinces, fended off relief armies and repelled a counterattack in Normandie. I had even gone ahead and occupied Calais. So I offered the English peace in exchange for their recognition that I was now the rightful owner of the Aquitaine provinces.

My victory is less impressive than it appears on the map.

My victory is less impressive than it appears on the map.

The English, however, were undaunted. Then things began to get ugly, because they were able to launch nuisance invasions via the sea, while my armies raced from the Mediterranean to the Channel and back again. As years of nonstop fighting took their toll, my national manpower reserve drained until my armies could no longer replenish their losses. Plus, I could not hold onto the Aquitaine. It started changing hands every few years as the English would swoop in, retake it, and push into southern France. I would then roll them back. This meant that by 1425, I was still nowhere near being able to annex the province.

This is because EU3 doesn’t really want provinces to change hands through military conquest. Rather, all gains must be recognized by the international order, through a peace treaty, or as a fait accompli. If you can occupy and hang onto a province for a generation, it’s yours. But that’s a tall order, because you have an entire kingdom to defend in addition to your latest conquest (which is likely to rebel against an occupation). So the smart play was to try and get peace with the English but, as I realized too late, there was no reason for them to sign a treaty. They were safe on their island. They had lost the war on the Continent but could still contest the outcome indefinitely.

All of this is more a product of rules than the vagaries of AI. The AI responds to peace offers through rote calculations. What has each side gained and lost weighed against the offer you are putting on the table. Provinces are weighted very heavily, so it’s very much a “from my cold, dead hand” situation. Even decisive defeats in a war rarely yield the victor more than a couple border provinces.

Believe it or not, it took a bloody war to reach this settlement with Champagne.

Believe it or not, it took a bloody war to reach this settlement with Champagne.

So the stage is set for indecisive wars with trifling settlements. Even when you have pounded an adversary into dust, as long as he still exists as a political entity (which does not require an army or even a free territory) he can still resist by refusing to recognize your gains. You could try and wait it out, but the nature of EU3 is that other problems will arise for you in the meantime. For instance, I was waiting for England to give up the Aquitaine in the 1450s when Castille, Burgundy, and Brittany attacked my from every side. 50 years of warfare had done nothing but make me vulnerable to other powers. I ended up settling with the English on the basis of the prewar status quo, and turned my attention to escaping the triple alliance with some of my kingdom.

Superficially, I was fighting against England and, later, three other states. To their credit, they all acted fairly rationally. England used its navy to harass me and wait me out. Castille and its allies reached a point where I was diplomatically isolated between them, and capitalized on the opportunity. However, the rules of the game governed how events would play out more than anything the AI did. Because the game does not equate conquest with ownership, I could never use occupied territories to expand my power. Because war destabilizes countries, especially long wars, I was faced ever-increasing chances of revolt within France. Because I could only field as many troops as there are service-eligible men in my kingdom, I could not indefinitely sustain a large army and major battles. England was incidental to these problems.

Which is probably for the best. My hands are so full of upstart nobles, nationalist rebels, and runaway inflation that the AI factions are just more icebergs menacing the ship of state. My first enemy, always, is circumstance.

The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 3

continued from Part 2

Having and Eating Cake That Is a Lie

Denby, unlike Pulsipher, actually seems to like games and the people who play them. He argues that it’s not an either-or choice between accessibility and challenge. Admitting that there are many games he’s rubbish at, he asks if it’s so unreasonable to expect developers make a “Denby mode” available. While he’s cruising through on a fail-proof difficulty level, I can still have the brutal and demanding experience that I (occasionally) love.

It’s nice to think that gamers of all skills and tastes can unite over games of all stripes, but I have seen precious little evidence that this is the case. Denby uses Bioshock as an example of a game that went out of its way to be friendly to less skilled or less patient gamers. It allowed for instant respawning after death (thanks to the Vita-Chambers that littered each level), and was a breeze to finish on the easiest difficulty setting. Failure was hard to come by, and it wasn’t punished. Yet hardcore gamers still had fun with it on higher difficult levels.

Or did they? I enjoyed Bioshock immensely when I first played it, but “does it have legs?” Not really. I have played Bioshock one and a half times. Compare that to its predecessor, System Shock 2, which I played at least five times and still consider the more interesting game, if woefully unpolished compared to Bioshock. While admitting the truth in Yahtzee’s characterization of SS2′s difficulty as ranging from “hard to murderous”, the game also featured more interesting decisions for the player to make. There were a number of workable approaches to how you could tackle the game, but what you couldn’t do was take advantage of all of them. So you could be a heavily-armed soldier, blasting his way through enemies and obstacles, but then you couldn’t use psionic powers (which were especially useful in places where ammo became scarce). Conversely, you could pour a lot of character development points (cybermodules) into technical skills like hacking and research, which could ease your passage through the game and reduce the combat required.

No matter how you built your character, you made painful trade-offs. If you tried to avoid making any trade-offs, you ended up with a hopelessly mediocrity that would begin having serious trouble in the midgame. However, it also made the game slightly different every time I played it. Furthermore, it was inherently challenging to play through the game with one of these characters, because some things were always easier while some things were suddenly more difficult. My marine could smash and blast his way through hordes of the Many, but he couldn’t break security barriers or hack the item dispensers. My naval technician could make the ship his ally by turning the security system into a friend, and he could break into any weapons locker or vending machine, but he had a tough time with some of the heavy-duty enemies. The two experiences were so different as to be practically different games. Another example of this kind of game would be Deus Ex.

The complexity and challenge inherent to System Shock 2 was stripped out of Bioshock, making the game friendlier to a Denby-style player but ultimately shallower. Your character could do anything and everything in Bioshock, making him effectively invincible. This makes the experience identical every time I play. Furthermore, higher difficult levels do not offer anything interesting. There is no way of making the game more interesting than the breezy experience Denby is having on the easiest setting, because that’s how the game was designed. Higher difficulty levels simply make the enemies more difficult: they absorb more shots  and hit harder, but the solution is hardly a stimulating challenge. You just shoot them more. The difference between easy and hard, then, is “kill them” vs. “kill them a lot.”

It’s easier for developers to create interesting challenges while they are designing the game, and much harder to bring it in ex post facto through difficulty options. Furthermore, there’s a point at which challenges inherent to a design cannot be mitigated by difficulty levels without breaking the game.

Ultimately, I cannot grant the premise that a game should be designed with the goal of being enjoyable or completeable for every potential player, and that seems to be the logical extreme where both Denby and Pulsipher converge. You can’t please everyone, and gaming is never going to disprove that truism. It would be disastrous to try.

The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

The Marines in the original Half-Life are the classic example of a challenging enemy and, with the possible exception of the Replicant soldiers in FEAR, have never really been superseded. What made them such outstanding enemies was the fact that they were hell to defeat while remaining entirely fair. After all, the Marines were effective because they used the same weapons and tactics that players were used to exploiting. They tossed grenades to flush you out of cover, they unleashed nonstop gunfire when you came within sight, they ran for cover when they were exposed, and they tried to find good flanking positions where they could trap and kill you.

Unlike the zombies and aliens you encountered earlier in the game, you could not march up to these guys and shotgun them at close range, nor could you simply pick them off from a moderate distance. You had to actually fight, burning up ammo just to hold them at bay, maneuvering the moment your position was compromised, and listening closely for the sound of a frag grenade bouncing at your feet. You had to improve your twitch-shooter skills, but also start thinking like a tactician. However, “twitchier” players could lean on those skills and power through the ambushes, while slower, more thoughtful players could make up for lagging reflexes with a good plan and smart use of the available tools. There was more than one way to handle the Marines, and between the three difficulty levels, anyone could get past them with a little effort. Better still, making the effort was actually enjoyable.

Valve left enough room for players to find an approach that worked for them. Also, the Marines were not so overpowering that a single slip-up would result in instant death. Players had a fair chance in almost each and every encounter. It was the kind of challenge that was fun to encounter and rewarding to overcome.

It’s difficult to choose a single example of frustrating, challenge-free difficulty from all the choics that bad shooter design has given us. However, since it is cloudy and rainy outside my upper-story window, I find myself thinking about Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and its ghastly “Sniper Town” level.

The sniper level was inspired by the scene in Saving Private Ryan when the squad is ambushed by a German sniper in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. The American sniper engages the German in a brief duel, and unforgettably shoots the German through his scope. The scene was so good that the MOH:AA team made an entire level out of it, but what worked as a ten-minute movie sequence was utterly excruciating as an hour-long shooter level.

In the sniper level, you are given a scoped rifle and have to travel through a French town that’s been infested by enemy snipers. There’s probably about 20 of them, all hanging out along your route just waiting to shoot you. Unfortunately, there’s no way to locate them until they’ve already taken a shot. Since you are the only person they’re going to be shooting at, this means that you have draw their fire. However, they can also kill you in one shot.

So what the player has to do is lean on the quicksave / quickload buttons. You shuffle along for a few steps until you hear a rifle shot and fall down dead. Then you reload, take the same few steps, and get killed again. But this time you think you saw where the sniper was. Reload. Die again. Yep, he was definitely hiding in that attic. Reload. Look through your scope and train it roughly where the sniper will be. Step sideways out of cover, duck back in just before you get shot. Now you know exactly where he will be when you step out of cover again. Step out, shoot as the crosshairs glide over him, and you’ve defeated the sniper.

Now repeat twenty times.

There’s no skill involved. The enemy snipers always see you first and kill you before you’re aware they are there. So you just repeat until you’ve memorized where they will appear. You aren’t improving and you aren’t being clever. You’re just taking advantage of the save / reload feature to overcome a roadblock the designers put in front of you. It’s not there to challenge you, because there are no tactics or skills that can see you through. There is only rote memorization.

Bad adventure game puzzles are similar in that they are wholly illogical even by the genre’s wacky standards. Gabriel Knight needs to create a fake mustache out of cat hair and maple syrup in order to disguise himself as a man who actually does not have a mustache in order to fool a moped rental clerk? No gamer is ever going to deduce that this is the correct course of action, so all this puzzle wants from players is their endless patience as they flail at item and object combinations until they begin making progress.

The bottom line is that a game can be tough as hell, but all is forgiven provided it remains stimulating and doesn’t make players feel like they it is rigged against them. The Myth series was savage on its highest difficult levels, reducing me to a sense of despair on more than one occasion, but I always had the sense that if I was just a little better with my formation management, and if I just found a slightly better piece of terrain to defend, I could get through it. To the game’s credit, I always could.

Is Passivity Ever Good?

Lewis Pulsipher would still consider these games self-defeatingly challenging. By his reasoning, the notion that games should challenge players, should actually demand something of them, is outmoded. The sooner we hurl that notion overboard, the sooner games can become as big a medium as they deserve to be.

After all, he writes, “Viewers of movies, which are passive experiences, are rarely challenged.” The same cultural and commercial ubiquity is within gaming’s reach, if only they stop being so damned challenging and embrace the non-gamers who find games too frustrating to play.

I must be watching movies incorrectly, or perhaps I am just watching the wrong ones. While movies are passive insofar as I do not have to do anything in order to get through to the end, my mental engagement with movies is quite active. I contemplate characters, judge performances, notice shot composition and editing, and identify cinematic influences. If I cannot engage with a movie on most or any of these levels, it’s probably a crap movie.

Furthermore, anyone who actually likes movies (rather than the revenue figures that have such a mesmerizing effect on Pulsipher) would argue that movies can be and frequently are challenging. It is painful to watch the series of misunderstandings and the bone-deep desire for vengeance that culminate in a tragic killing in Mystic River. Watch Dave Boyle beg for his life and try to explain the truth through a psychosis that has finally broken him. Watch how Jimmy Markum reveals that he is past caring, and that he will forever be settling scores with a world that keeps taking from him. That’s powerful, challenging filmmaking, and it’s why film is a great medium. No one is ever going to point to Terminator Salvation as a reason why he watches movies.

Pulsipher doesn’t really care, though. His attitude is that big, dumb movies like Terminator Salvation make a lot of money, therefore they are a role model. Games should also be big, dumb, and easy so that the same people who love watching battling robots will play videogames. You cannot argue with commercial success.

On the other hand, as a gamer and a cinephile, I’m at a loss as to why I should care. As long as Pulsipher was looking to Roger Ebert for insight into the nature of entertainment, he would have done well to read what Ebert had to say about the arguments people made in defense of Transformers 2:

Do I ever have one of those days when, the hell with it, all I want to do is eat popcorn and watch explosions? I haven’t had one of those days for a long time. There are too many other films to see. I’ve had experiences at the movies so rich, so deep–and yes, so funny and exciting–that I don’t want to water the soup. I went to “Transformers” with an open mind (I gave a passing grade to the first one). But if I despised the film and it goes on to break box office records, will I care? No. I’ll hope however that everyone who paid for a ticket thought they had a good time, because it was their time and their money.

The opening grosses are a tribute to a marketing campaign, not to a movie no one had seen. If two studios spend a ton of money on a film, scare away the competition, and open in 4,234 theaters before the Fourth of July, of course they do blockbuster business. The test is: Does the film have legs?

Pulsipher’s argument might provide a roadmap to more lucrative games, but it has absolutely no relevance to anyone interested in better games. Pulsipher conflates them and is careful to present a dismissive, inaccurate view of what gamers get out of challenging games, but the bottom line is that he cares about audience share and not quality.

concludes with Part 3