Post Script

De­spite 25 years of progress, fight­ing game AI is still ter­ri­ble. Why?

EDGE - - PLAY -

Round 23 of Street Fighter V’s sur­vival mode, and our op­po­nent, Chun-Li, is crouch­ing at the far end of the screen. Ex­pe­ri­ence tells us she’s hold­ing down-back on the stick, charg­ing up two moves at once – a com­mon tac­tic for charge char­ac­ters. From here, she can press for­ward and punch for a fire­ball to con­trol space, or up and two kick but­tons for an EX Spin­ning Bird Kick, her best get-off-me move if we get too close. Since we’re at full screen, the fire­ball seems more likely, so we throw out one of our own. Chun-Li has a few op­tions here: she can throw a pro­jec­tile of her own to can­cel ours out; she can jump over it by press­ing up or up-for­ward, avoid­ing the fire­ball but los­ing her charge; or she can keep hold­ing down-back and block it, hold­ing on to her charge at the cost of a lit­tle chip dam­age.

She does none of those things, and it hits her full in the face. We throw an­other: that hits too. So does the third, and the fourth. She’s not hold­ing down-back – if she was, she’d have blocked them all. She’s just hold­ing down. When given two full sec­onds to re­act to a fullscreen fire­ball, she does ab­so­lutely noth­ing. In the ab­sence of an ar­cade mode, Sur­vival is the de­fault way in which off­line play­ers will en­gage with Street Fighter V. And our op­po­nent has just done some­thing that no hu­man player would ever, ever do, four times in a row.

This is the real prob­lem with Street Fighter V’s off­line com­po­nent. When we chide Cap­com for not do­ing enough to ac­com­mo­date the lesser skilled, it’s not sim­ply a mat­ter of there be­ing no proper tu­to­rial (though that would cer­tainly be a start); it’s in the way the sin­gle­player com­po­nent teaches you to play the game. It has long been ac­cepted that fight­ing game AI will never be able to pre­pare you for a real-life op­po­nent. In 2016, need that re­ally still be the case?

It’s not a mat­ter of what the CPU op­po­nent does, nec­es­sar­ily, but what it doesn’t. It lets you get away with things that, when re­peated on­line, might cost you half a health bar. Jump in ran­domly and the AI only rarely blocks your at­tack, let alone knocks you out of the sky with an anti-air move. Throw a fire­ball at an un­safe range and you won’t be pun­ished; in­deed, as our Chun-Li ex­pe­ri­ence shows us, they’ll prob­a­bly take the hit. The game does noth­ing to teach you about your nor­mal at­tacks, about which you can use safely and where. Throw out a Crit­i­cal Art in open play and chances are it’ll hit, be­cause Cap­com would pre­fer you to see a flashy cin­e­matic than un­der­stand that against proper op­po­si­tion, you just com­mit­ted sui­cide.

Per­haps most galling is the game’s treat­ment of the Sho­ryuken. Af­ter the Hadouken, it’s Street Fighter’s most iconic move, and there’s no greater sum­ma­tion of the game’s del­i­cate bal­ance of risk and re­ward. Get it right, and you dish out heavy dam­age – and look great while do­ing it. Get it wrong and you go sail­ing up in the air like an id­iot, and your op­po­nent has a cou­ple of sec­onds to de­cide what they’re go­ing to do to you in reprisal. Sin­gle­player Street Fighter V all but elim­i­nates risk from the equa­tion. Mash out the Sho­ryuken mo­tion as you get up af­ter a knock­down and, much more of­ten than not, it’ll hit. See it blocked, or miss com­pletely, and the AI will po­litely stand there do­ing noth­ing. Bad luck, old chap. Would you like an­other go? It’s es­pe­cially frus­trat­ing be­cause Street Fighter V in­tro­duces a new me­chanic, Crush Counter, that has been specif­i­cally de­signed to dis­cour­age wan­ton use of Shoryukens or other in­vin­ci­ble spe­cial moves by in­creas­ing the dam­age on the combo that pun­ishes them. The AI’s re­fusal to teach you that you’ve made one of the most glar­ing mis­takes in the en­tire game, one that has been sin­gled out for greater pun­ish­ment than ever by the de­sign team, is puz­zling in the ex­treme.

The log­i­cal an­swer is that Cap­com just wants play­ers to have fun. And if you can call 25 Sur­vival mode fights in which you per­form the same sin­gle combo over and over against a suc­ces­sion of idi­otic op­po­nents ‘fun’, then per­haps SFV meets its de­vel­oper’s am­bi­tion af­ter all. But Cap­com also wants play­ers to stick around, yet has done noth­ing to ad­dress the most fun­da­men­tal stum­bling block in fight­ing games’ player-re­ten­tion prob­lem: the painful tran­si­tion from bat­ter­ing the AI to get­ting de­stroyed by hu­man op­po­si­tion.

So why can’t the AI teach you a lit­tle more? Even be­tween two hu­man play­ers, fight­ing games are about pat­tern recog­ni­tion – you’ll eat the first wakeup Sho­ryuken, and maybe the se­cond, but if you get hit by the third one, you de­serve to lose. And they’re about dice rolls, the way a player picks from the var­i­ous op­tions at any given time. If we lapse into bad, repet­i­tive habits, let the AI pun­ish us. If we keep throw­ing out point-blank sweeps, block them and sweep us back. If we in­sist on wan­tonly jump­ing in, knock us out of the air. And if we sail up into the sky af­ter a whiffed Sho­ryuken, hit us with your most dam­ag­ing combo when we land. It’s for our own good.

AI is es­pe­cially im­por­tant for fight­ing games, since it’s a de­vel­oper’s only way of dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween dif­fi­culty lev­els. Yet for more than two decades we’ve given fight­ing game AI a free pass, labour­ing un­der the mis­ap­pre­hen­sion that it’s im­pos­si­ble for it to be any bet­ter than it is, and that it couldn’t pos­si­bly be of any use any­way. That Cap­com has opted against even try­ing to im­prove it may cause an­other gen­er­a­tion of play­ers to walk away. And all be­cause the com­puter made them feel like a god, be­fore their fel­low man showed them they were an ant.

The AI’s re­fusal to teach you that you’ve made one of the most glar­ing mis­takes in the game is puz­zling in the ex­treme

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