The problem with fantasy games

By on April 26, 2014 9:41:48 PM from JoeUser Forums JoeUser Forums

Frogboy

Join Date 03/2001
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We’ve been blessed with a lot of fantasy 4X games in the past few years.

Besides the Elemental games we’ve gotten Warlock, Age of Wonders 3, Eador, and soon Endless Legends. If you like fantasy games, I highly recommend checking them all out (except War of Magic which is inferior to all of them).

Unfortunately, as game designers, we have an unusual challenge: Magic.

Magic isn’t fair

It is really really hard to write good AI in a game that literally allows players to conjure up all kinds of game changing stuff.  The granddaddy of this genre, Master of Magic, didn’t really have an AI.  In theory it did but the AI doesn’t really provide a challenge. The game’s amazing game design makes a strong case that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.  That is, in MOM, winning is a foregone conclusion. Of course you’re going to win. The question is how?

Revisiting Elemental: War of Magic

At the risk of being boastful, as problematic as War of Magic was at launch, it was highly innovative.  The cloth map mode it introduced is kind of expected now.

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Elemental: War of Magic introduced the cloth map zoom out concept, now obvious in hindsight

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The city building features were pretty amazing

The problems of Elemental: War of Magic could be summed up as follows:  It was a series of interesting game concepts that were not tied together versus computer opponents who weren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing.

If I had to do it over again Elemental: War of Magic would have been bulleted like this:

  • You are a powerful Sorcerer (or sorceress) who must build a kingdom from the ground up
  • Your goal is to be the first to cast the spell of making to take control of the world (not that conquering enemies is NOT a requirement here)
  • To do that you will need to capture the 4 types of Elemental shards: Earth, Air, Fire, Water and construct the Forge of the Overlord
  • You can build alliances with other players who control one or more o those elemental shards who are willing to tie their destiny to yours
  • Those alliances are built through arranged marriages through your dynasty
  • Go on quests to find one of the very few Champions of the world to help lead your armies to secure the land you need to build your cities along with the loot necessary to make your units, champions, and cities more powerful.
  • Your cities provide the units necessary to learn the spell of mastery, construct the forge of the overlord and armies to secure resources that required to do both.

This design takes into account the basic problem in magic games: You can’t make a Civilization style 4X game and have powerful magic at the same time. If the object of the game is to conquer another empire, then you have to deal with balance and magic eliminates that balance.  Conquering other cities should not be the goal in these games. It’s boring and tedious.  It should be optional but not central to whether you win or lose. 

By making magic both the tool AND the goal, you can eliminate mundane balance issues.  Want to protect your capital by surrounding yourself with mountains or ocean? No problem. Go for it.  But you can’t do that if the AI is required to actually conquer your cities in order win. 

If city conquest is the goal, then magic has to be gimped and at that point why have it?

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April 28, 2014 11:56:01 AM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

Quoting joasoze,



When a 4x game is cleared out of random stuff and monsters, and the slaughter of the AI remains, I will often start a new game. The first 30% of a 4x game is ALWAYS the most fun for me. Make a game where the goal is to rise from some tiny empire to reach a lofty goal while fighting the world with monsters, a mad king, sour magicians and other stuff that is in my way. I dont care about a balanced AI opponent. I want random events to twart my progress. Make the game and me tell a story that is unique each time.
 

I am strongly attached to the 4x aspect and would not be in favor of giving up the empire building for more focused rpg elements.

That said, I agree with joasoze in that once all the early game hard stuff is removed, I will often start a new game because the mid-late is a cakewalk. That said, I don't think that indicitive of the LH being 4x; rather I think it's because the AI isn't in a position to offer enough challenge for the player, as they too had to fight the world they entered.

This leaves two choices/paths to follow:

  1. Increase the difficulty and ability of the AI. There are many benefits to this approach, and I strongly encourge this choice as part of the solution so that the player can receive more experience and fame for attacking AI and defeating enemy heroes and conquering AI cities. However, the downside to this approach is that the AI eats away at the world that was meant for the player to eat away at. Part of the rpg element is removed. So the question becomes: How to increase the AI's ability without decreasing the rpg element.
  2. Increasing the mid-late game difficulty and ability of the world. Again, many benefits to this approach and it's why I recommended that a DLC be made that adds mid-late game content in the form of quests, monsters, events, etc. It is also why I continue to recommend a redesign of the Wildlands so that they expand overtime and attempt to pinch out the player. The downside to this approach is that the AI have increased pressure against them as well. If they are not improved, then it quickly turns into a player vs world, leaving the AI to sit and watch from the sidelines.

I think both paths need to be followed to properly address the mid-late game and keep players like joasoze and myself from restarting after the first 200 turns everygame.

So, if the two paths listed were improved, conceptually, here are the type of things the player would get to deal with in the mid-late game:

  • Way more AI specific units designed and the coding required for the AI to make informed decisions as to what units to build for what situations.
  • Expanding Wildlands. The bossmen attempting to take over the world aswell. Player cities being conquered and turned into Wildland lairs. A new Victory Condition: Cleanse the Land (remove all Wildlands...and naturally for this to work the master quest wildland needs to be removed)
  • More multi-tasked quests lines. (point A to point B to point C with purpose) -- example: You find an important noblewoman assassinated which leads you to defeat the assassin's which makes you aware of who hired them which gives you the choice to declare war on an AI.
  • The oppertunity to involve the AI in the rpg element. (political intrigue, assassination attempts, quests that involve AI triggers, ie conquer a city, or purchase a unique item, or kill an enemy hero that has an unsavory character)
  • More Epic level locations on the map that have new monsters/objectives.
  • More late game events that are quest oriented
  • New monsters...perhaps attack of the fishpeople event...and an army climbs out of the sea...
  • Improved diplomacy....perhaps even the need to band together with the unexpected of AI in order to fend off the world around.
  • Enable the chance to expand the Kingdom versus Empire aspect. Having a few + or - points in the diplomacy isn't enough. Kingdom AI should reward kingdom players for doing good things or offer good quests or attempt to covert an empire player to the 'light' side. Likewise, empire players should be given extra oppertunity to clamor amongst the other empires, vying for ultimate power. Where are the lucritive deals and missions? Assassinations? Requests to declare war...that have meaningful impacts for either decision you choose. (perhaps it's not just the one that declares war on you for refusing...mabye it's 2 or 3 of their friends aswell)

 

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April 28, 2014 12:17:59 PM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

I think the AI in MoM did a decent job of using the spells available. It just needed some rules of when to not use certain ones. Also some were buggy or underpowered. The civ part of the AI was the most flawed, IMO. These games really just boil down to economic efficiency, just like starcraft. If you want a game about tactics you need to remove the resources and make population / morale be paramount. 

 

I do think that changing the victory condition would go a long way. If you build off the "Antarrans Attack" mode in master of Orion 2, you could have something special. Make it so the world is ruled by a godlike tyrant who oppresses and enslaves the world. You must secretly amass magic and armies to sabotage and eventually overthrow the tyrant. You will need to leverage other factions, even if only to draw attention away from your rebellious activities. Other factions will probably get wind of your plans and either help out or alert the peacekeepers in hope of getting better treatment. There would still be monsters and lairs to fight, and defeating them would gain access to special resources and entrance to new areas. The secrecy element alone would be interesting, but characterizing the AI as long existing and prejudiced nations rather than fellow pioneers competing for territory would spice things up in a game of thrones kind of way. The beautiful part is that the AI would only have a small selection of magic to use in any situation, so it removes the problem of which spells to use. (Fire demon would have a few fire spells, elven faction would have a few elven spells, plus whatever you traded with them). The main point being that AI controlled characters are there to support storytelling and not to steal spotlight from the player.

 

Well, that concludes my napkin game design work, carry on!

 

Disclaimer: I know very little about game of thrones

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April 28, 2014 12:23:35 PM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

EndlessLegends has got around this issue by being a low fantasy setting without D&D magic spamming.

Personally the game Braf proposed sounds interesting but is not a 4X game just like Homm,disciples 3 is not.

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April 28, 2014 12:33:29 PM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

Quoting Ashbery76,
EndlessLegends has got around this issue by being a low fantasy setting without D&D magic spamming.

Personally the game proposed sounds interesting but is not a 4X game just like Homm,disciples 3 is not.

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April 28, 2014 12:46:08 PM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

I have always been more of a fan of fantasy worlds with well defined magic system that have rules and limits. If magic gets too powerful it tends to break immersion as people and societies would break down. That's why I like authors such as Brand Sanderson, Robert Jordan, and Modesitt. They actually build worlds that are interesting because the inclusion of magic has changed how people behave but it's still logical and makes sense. In a lot of books magic is so powerful that taken to its logical conclusion wizards would rule as terrible gods and society would fall apart for hundreds of different reasons. Of course that may be exactly what you are aiming for in the next Elemental game but I'm more of an empire builder at heart.

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April 28, 2014 3:13:00 PM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

why is magic incompatible with civilization 4x type games?   Is it not just another resource or tool available to a player or AI?

 

A unit on the world map and a magic spell both have potential to impact the game.  They are both resources.  You have to adjust the game to take into account the potential for these variables.

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April 28, 2014 3:31:12 PM from Stardock Forums Stardock Forums

Quoting Ashbery76,

EndlessLegends has got around this issue by being a low fantasy setting without D&D magic spamming.

Personally the game proposed sounds interesting but is not a 4X game just like Homm,disciples 3 is not.

Your X's must be different from mine if Endless Legend doesn't meet the definition.  I guess everyone brings their own definition to the table.

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April 28, 2014 3:34:17 PM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

Quoting Stuie_,

Quoting Ashbery76, reply 28
EndlessLegends has got around this issue by being a low fantasy setting without D&D magic spamming.

Personally the game proposed sounds interesting but is not a 4X game just like Homm,disciples 3 is not.

Your X's must be different from mine if Endless Legend doesn't meet the definition.  I guess everyone brings their own definition to the table.

 

I ment Brads proposed game and not EL.

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April 28, 2014 3:43:33 PM from Stardock Forums Stardock Forums

Quoting Ashbery76,

Quoting Stuie_, reply 32
Quoting Ashbery76, reply 28
EndlessLegends has got around this issue by being a low fantasy setting without D&D magic spamming.

Personally the game proposed sounds interesting but is not a 4X game just like Homm,disciples 3 is not.

Your X's must be different from mine if Endless Legend doesn't meet the definition.  I guess everyone brings their own definition to the table.

 I ment Brads proposed game and not EL.

Ooh - sorry Ashbery!  Just ignore me. 

Brad's game doesn't sound as 4x, but sounds really cool.  I think I'll reinstall Elemental and play it from that perspective and see what happens. 

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April 29, 2014 3:32:16 AM from Galactic Civilizations III Forums Galactic Civilizations III Forums

Quoting smeagolheart,

why is magic incompatible with civilization 4x type games?   Is it not just another resource or tool available to a player or AI?

 

I completely agree... Magic or high-tech, no difference.

 

As for MP, it is a retreat. A lot of games of late are MP only, which is the result of AI coding being hard if you want to make it good. I never buy any game that does not have a single player gameplay. Sure, some games are far better in MP (Frozen Synapse), but SP is a must for me.

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April 29, 2014 12:41:46 PM from Galactic Civilizations III Forums Galactic Civilizations III Forums

Magic isn’t fair

When I first read this, my initial reaction was to discount it.  There is nothing unfair about magic:  you only have to balance it, like everything else.  But to do so is to discount the years of Frogboy's proven track record.   So it's got me to thinking what he is really trying to say, or what perspective it is he is coming from.   

I remember an earlier analysis of magic way back even before computers really become common household items.   Wargame designers were discussing D&D-style wargames (i.e. board games, counters, dice, all that), and the biggest observation that stood out to me was, they found D&D-style warfare to be a lot more like modern warfare than medieval warfare.   If you've got a bunch of unarmored magic users who can throw balls of lightning from their hands at each other, that really is not much different from early modern warfare where everybody's ducking behind cover shooting at each other.    Now bear in mind:  this was before computers.  So there is no AI -- only two wargamers playing each other.  

So that leads to the next step in the thought process that is commonly missed:   ducking behind cover.  We keep thinking sword-wielding fighters will take the front, while magic-users stay behind and cast spells; all out in the open.   But guess what:  even our own military commanders missed this concept for real.   The entire Napoleonic era was spent using ritarded military tactics of amassing musket formations out in the open and two columns facing each other, 20 yards apart.  Granted, it wasn't THAT ritarded at first:  muskets were wildly inaccurate, and the only known way at the time to deal with it was to amass concentrated fire.   But gradually rifled bores came out, and by the late American Civil War the whole idea of shooting each other out in the open just became completely stupid--and that's BEFORE automatic weapons came out.   THAT was unfair--to the attacker.   The advantage to defense became a bit lopsided.   What are we to say if we write a Civil War game w/ an AI, then?   That your game is unbalanced??   No--because that was the reality.   

Therein lies the reality for you when writing a fantasy game:   you have to flesh out all the ramifications on the world you're making when you introduce fantastic elements into the equation.   If your battlefield is dominated by missiles of lightning flying all around, do you expect your troops to be wearing chainmail and plate?   If you have some powerful magic crystal sitting in a dungeon somewhere that could destroy the whole world if it gets in the wrong hands, will you send a party of 6 in?   Don't you think it more plausible that your sorcerer who knows this would alert your entire civilization, and the entire race would send in a whole army?    If orcs are constantly raiding the countryside, do you seriously expect your peasants to just sit around in shacks by themselves farming their old farmland?   That's why the Wild West had forts--except these aren't Indians, who were sometimes peaceful and in fact were sometimes in the right--these are ORCS.   

If you introduce some potentially unbalancing magic to the game, first:  that's okay.  It happens.  Automatic weapons are unbalancing, nuclear weapons are unbalancing--and those aren't even magic.   That really happened.  But you have to adjust to the new reality--and that means you have to adjust your play to the new reality, adjust the AI to the new reality, and evolve entire civilizations to adapt to the new reality.  I don't think it's an "unfair to the AI" problem:   I think it's that your new WORLD is not completely coherent yet.

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April 29, 2014 1:39:51 PM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

Magic is as fair as you design it to be. Once you strip away the layers, it's really only dice rolls and numbers, just like anything else in a strategy game.

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April 29, 2014 1:53:34 PM from Galactic Civilizations III Forums Galactic Civilizations III Forums

Agreed, but I guess I don't understand what exactly Frogboy is saying, and he has a successful track record creating AI, stories, and entire worlds.

I guess it's that the game community already has a software library of cookie-cutter 4X strategy games, with source code for cookie-cutter AI for it.  But once you introduce magic, how much can you reuse your cookie cutters?  You're not making cookies anymore.

 

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April 29, 2014 3:09:20 PM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

Quoting tetleytea,
Agreed, but I guess I don't understand what exactly Frogboy is saying, and he has a successful track record creating AI, stories, and entire worlds.

I guess it's that the game community already has a software library of cookie-cutter 4X strategy games, with source code for cookie-cutter AI for it.  But once you introduce magic, how much can you reuse your cookie cutters?  You're not making cookies anymore.

 

you're making magical cookies.

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April 29, 2014 4:36:22 PM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

 

Nicely put, especially this observation at the end of your post, tetleytea: 

Quoting tetleytea,


 ... I don't think it's an "unfair to the AI" problem:   I think it's that your new WORLD is not completely coherent yet.

 

 Consistency in spells, weapons, magical schools and effects would go a long way to making the game feel more like a world and make the mechanics more intuitive.   Creating balance and tension between might and magic, life vs death, quantity vs. quality in troops, spears vs. mounts etc.  are all of the things that make a good 4x fantasy game so exciting to play.  

i.e. Something as simple as terrain effects.  In MOM there were creatures who had mountaineering and flying that could reach a town behind a mountain range.  In FE:LH, they removed the ability of an earth mage to raise up the earth and shield his people behind a lofty bulwark of stone as the AI had pathfinding issues. If the AI had units it could create with the ability to climb mountains, or a spell it could cast to grant that ability, that would be a more interesting way to overcome the obstacle.  It becomes another choice to make in the game.  Do I spend mana to create an army with mountaineering, do I take up a unit perk slot and add construction costs?  Do I ignore that enemy until I research air elementals and attain summoning mastery and I spam a whole army of flying death? Do I cast Fly on a galleon and send a flying ship to carry troops?  Do I just hit his mountain stronghold with malicious spells, do i bribe a rival faction with mountaineering to take them out?  Move and counter-move...

As work begins/continues on E:2015 it would be great if some of these basic issues are revisited, thus capturing some more of that MOM feel of truly open sandbox, anything can be overcome if I find the right combination of spells, units and magic items.

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April 29, 2014 4:52:28 PM from Galactic Civilizations III Forums Galactic Civilizations III Forums

Magic and technology can be completely overpowering. The problem is that creating an AI to utilize the magic nor that is it complete unfair. It is "unfun" unless you are the dominating party. Say you go nukes and the other team doesn't.... then you complain at the other team not doing a good job against your nukes. Make an AI to counter something that cannot be countered once obtained.

Try and defend you land with horse cavalry when the other side has tanks. The point is the AI should have gotten tanks... or your other argument would be the AI is cheating and has tanks and I don't unfair / unfun. People in essence want a balanced unbalancible game. I want the ability to tip the scales, but then it is a race to who gets it first.... not going to be fun.

The point is the type of AI to counter each of these tactics, albeit would be difficult to create, would not yield a fun game in the end. The asymmetric experience is the only way to accomplish the problem.

Let us add reasonable magic... well then what would be reasonable. Unfortunately it's magic and therefore anything should go and if not then it won't be fun. You want big effects like Curgen's Volcano to decimate the entire map easily... or I want the ability to change the entire map to ICE. These effects can be rather game-breaking and only fun if you are controlling the situation. That I think is more the point. The AI will not complain too much if it is losing, but a player would. The AI will handle being on the other end of the beating stick better than a player would.

The other issue that magic brings to the table is that it is not well defined what should be possible and should not be possible. Fun doesn't always equate to realism.

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April 29, 2014 6:29:44 PM from Galactic Civilizations III Forums Galactic Civilizations III Forums

so many people are just dismissing AI as some impossibly hard problem

the AI in 4X games is terrible because developers are a combination of lazy, poor, and incompetent

 

if you put skill levels on a scale between 0 and 3000 (eg. some type of elo rating), then the AI you see in 4X games today is way less than 1000

getting it to 3000 might be hard when you want a game to run on a laptop, but that doesn't mean it can't play at 2000 or 2500 which might be good enough to solve any design problems... and for those top 1% of players the AI can cheat with minor bonuses instead of +300% faster/cheaper everything

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April 29, 2014 6:58:18 PM from Galactic Civilizations III Forums Galactic Civilizations III Forums

We'll have to agree to disagree there, Biz.  AI is a very hard problem.   I would in fact argue that the conspicuous lack of good AI in complicated games is due to the fact that AI doesn't get enough respect.   AI is what powers things like facial recognition on Facebook or musical recognition on Shazam (...which, incidentally, runs on smartphones).   Look at all the manpower thrown at a chess AI, and chess is a far simpler game than pretty much any strategy game out there today.   It is the subject of PhD research--and those guys get hired out of college.   The gaming companies usually don't pay enough to recruit all the best AI coders. 

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April 29, 2014 8:38:26 PM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

There are lot of good points here.  In most fantasy settings, magic takes the place of technology.  When games are set in a more modern or futuristic setting, the AI typically doesn't need to understand how to use the technology, as it's more or less baked into the core mechanics of the game; how you attack/defend/produce, etc..  It's all utilized in the background as you just play.  In a fantasy setting, you could make mana the most important resource and have it affect more stats passively but with magical flavor text for the player.  But, if it was just that, magic doesn't feel as mysterious because it's just like technology we already have (oh look, a mage staff with an ACOG scope and an extended power crystal).  

Of course, I may be rambling a bit.  I think what Brad meant is you can't necessarily just slap some magic on Civilization and call it a day.  You have to bake magic into the core mechanics and make it special (not just stats but spell-casting also) so the AI can deal with it and so the player intuitively understands how and why the AI is doing what it does (and so the player can do it too).  

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April 30, 2014 12:36:15 AM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

Quoting The_Biz,
the AI in 4X games is terrible because developers are a combination of lazy, poor, and incompetent

That's a ridiculous statement, and rather insulting to developers who might read it.

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April 30, 2014 1:56:33 AM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

The chess comparison is actually very valid. It takes special hard- and software to beat the best human chess players. Chess, although a difficult game to master at top level, is in essence limited when it comes to a computer game where the grid is not 8 by 8 but oh i dunno what a huge size map is... and where the pieces are not easily defined as "can move over all the white squares, in a straight line, in any direction" for a bishop, but "can move 4 squares, except when on a road, or using Cloudwalk, or Tireless March, can hit any piece as long as it does not have lightning resistancee, can summon an entire army in your face or cast a volcano under a city, can cast 36 other spells" And hten you have four of those units, each with a small army behind them, and seven stacks that are simple troops without magical support... Perhaps if you had a cray supercomputer to play upon you might be able to emulate vile human behaviour

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April 30, 2014 4:09:52 AM from Sins of a Solar Empire Forums Sins of a Solar Empire Forums

One of the mythical adages of magic is that "there is always a cost".  The greater the power, the greater the cost.

It's a good rule of thumb to consider when using it in a game.

I read a China Mieville story where a modern-day "magician" managed to create a teleport spell modelled after the original Star Trek transporter concept:  Your atoms are ripped to pieces, shot across space and reassembled into a new copy of "you".

After some time, the magician started to become unstable and almost insane.  He had teleported himself hundreds of times and when an exorcist was called in they discovered that he was possessed by over a hundred ghosts of himself--each the spirit of a previous incarnation that had died when ripped apart.

They were all there to torment him into ceasing murdering himself.

Gotta think outside the box.  Instead of, "you lose a few hit points" or "you become exhausted" after casting you might consider more permanent effects with each use.

There's a reason Gandalf didn't summon his own balrogs.  ; )

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April 30, 2014 5:16:56 AM from Galactic Civilizations III Forums Galactic Civilizations III Forums

Quoting The_Biz,
so many people are just dismissing AI as some impossibly hard problem

the AI in 4X games is terrible because developers are a combination of lazy, poor, and incompetent

 
...

That is quite insulting.

Or are you in any position to objectivly rate the effort of AI programmers?

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April 30, 2014 8:09:25 AM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

Quoting Sinperium,


There's a reason Gandalf didn't summon his own balrogs.  ; )

 

Whilst I agree with the general sentiment of your post, I can't resist commenting on the fact that neither Sauron nor Morgoth did summon any Balrogs... rather they arrived of their free will.

 

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April 30, 2014 8:53:40 AM from Elemental Forums Elemental Forums

Quoting The_Biz,

so many people are just dismissing AI as some impossibly hard problem

the AI in 4X games is terrible because developers are a combination of lazy, poor, and incompetent

 

I'm now 100% sure I can discount everything you say from now on. Your posts are as good as the banner ads to me. 

Idiot. 

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