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