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The Value of Good Bots
by Joshua McDonald on 07/19/10 08:39:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In an interview with Jim Brown, lead level designer for Unreal Tournament, Jim made the comment "Statistically speaking, more people play offline than they do online"(source: http://www.1up.com/do/feature?pager.offset=1&cId=3140119).

To many people, this is mind boggling. With other games it might be more understandable, but this is Unreal Tournament, a game that appears to have been designed entirely for multiplayer with a couple single player modes (which basically mimic multiplayer but with bots) thrown in at the end.

Likewise, in the DotA official forums, there is a thread for the AI version of the map. There is little discussion there (mostly just "When is the next AI map coming out?" posted over and over), yet the thread tends to range from 50-200 active viewers at any given time. As there's no real reason for more than one person in each group of friends to visit the thread for more than a few minutes per week, mathematically, that means that there are a TON of people who want good, up-to-date bots to play against.

Like Unreal Tournament, DotA was made as a hardcore multiplayer game with no real story, pre-scripted events, or single-player modes. So what makes so many people want to play against bots instead of players?

Definition of "Bot":
For the purposes of this article, I'm going to use the term "bot" to refer to any time the computer fills a role that can be filled by a player. Thus, it would include the skirmish AI on an RTS but would not include the scenario AI.

So why would people choose to play against bots?:
There are, of course, the obvious answers of practicing for multiplayer, slow internet, and experimenting, but these don't seem sufficient to account for over half of gaming, or really even close to it. Knowing quite a few people who prefer to play against bots and spending time on a variety of forums to attempt to research why others do, I've feel like I've come up with a pretty good list of why:

1. Some people are not competitive: Too many people make the mistake of equating competitive to hardcore. Many people will dive deep into a game and love a good challenge, but they have no desire to prove that they are better than anyone else. For these people, a major part of the appeal to competitive multiplayer is gone.

2. Playing against bots allows you to control your experience: How much of a challenge do you want? If you lose, do you want a rematch (or as many rematches as it takes to win)? Do you feel like fighting more difficult opponents of matching numbers, or would you like to play against hordes of weaker opponents? Do you need to pause frequently because you're multitasking? Are you tired of fighting the latest "OP" faction or character and want to mix it up?

Online, you have no control over any of this. Some, you'll almost never get online (the option for frequent pausing or a few good players against hordes of weaker ones), and the rest are just a shot in the dark. You might have a good challenging game, or you may go up against an opponent/team with a vastly different skill level than your own (even good matchmaking doesn't always stop this). On the other hand, you may want to leap into a challenge that's way over your head to see if you can rise to it, and the matchmaking will stop you (and your opponents may be bored even if you do manage).

3. Offline play often provides more variety: Before you argue with this one, consider how many people are out there who do nothing more than repeatedly use the most popular tactic. Whether it's the current "overpowered" weapon in an FPS, the unbeatable combo in a fighting game, or the standard rush tactic in an RTS, I find that online games are often far more predictable than those against bots. Sometimes that makes easy games (if there's a reasonable counter to their overused tactic) or really hard games (if there isn't), but it gets boring either way.

Admittedly, this depends heavily on the specific game, patch, and community, but a complete lack of variety is the main reason I quit playing Dawn of War online. Too few people were interested in anything but the current "win" tactic.

4. Some people just aren't that good at games: Whether because they don't play them as much or because they simply don't have the timing or finger dexterity, some people just aren't as good. With a few exceptions, even the weaker online players are quite competent at the game. If you're one of the many people who will only be spending 2-5 hours per week on a game, you'll probably never be good enough to compete online.

5. Online lobbies, jerks, profiles, droppers, hackers, laggers, and other such can be more trouble than they're worth: This almost made me quit League of Legends, and it did make me shift to only playing with an entirely premade group of friends, which dramatically reduced how much I play, and thus, how much money I'll spend. I have no interest in being on a team with jerks. It sucks to be 30 minutes into a good game and have somebody drop. There's just too much burned time around the good games.

Why aren't these people more active on forums?
This is a fair question. A game designer trying to get the pulse of a gaming community is unlikely to see much demand for good bots when browsing forums. It's still there, certainly (just google "Killzone 2" and "Bots" and you'll see a ton of positive comments all over the net from the announcement that the game would have them). However, they are certainly less vocal than the competitive community. There are a few reasons for that:

1. People fighting bots aren't nearly as interested in balance: Quite possibly the most heated topic on gaming forums is balance. Bots typically aren't very good at exploiting, so a tactic that is a bit overpowered is unlikely to make much of a difference for this type of gamer.

2. People who prefer playing against bots are ridiculed online: Go check out some forums, and when you can find somebody who admits that they'd rather team up with their friends against bots than play random people online, you'll usually see insults or derision in many of the subsequent posts. Considering the fact that many people choose to play offline to avoid these people, it makes sense that they wouldn't choose to seek out their company in forums.

3. People who play offline are often less internet savvy or have slow connections: This one should be pretty self-explanatory.

4. Bot-fighters tend to be the type whose gaming life is with real friends, rather than random people online: If your playing and discussion is only with people you know, you are less likely to post on forums.

Wouldn't these people get more satisfaction playing dedicated single player or co-op games than a single player version of what was inherently a multiplayer game?
There is a philosophical difference between designing a single player game and a multiplayer. In short, multiplayer is designed to be a game and single player is designed to be a story.

Look at some more traditional games (chess, football, etc.). In each of these, the game is nothing more than a set of rules that allow a lot of room for developing your own approach and style. The creators of these games weren't trying to create an exact experience, but rather, they give you a context to create your own.

Single player video games, on the other hand, take a very controlled approach to the player experience. Designers of these games typically seek to control what the player is feeling at a given time, what tactics will be good or bad for particular situations, difficulty at any given moment, and how much the player is capable of achieving. In fact, if a player comes up with a good enough strategy to interfere with this experience, it will be labeled a "bug" and "fixed" in a later version (if the platform allows patching).

I'm not saying that one of these is better than the other but that they appeal to different audiences. While some people find that a heavily scripted and controlled game creates a more enjoyable experience, others are simply frustrated by their lack of ability to make meaningful choices. This second type will typically get more entertainment from either fighting against bots or playing through less scripted game modes (i.e. I found Horde mode in Gears of War 2 to be far more enjoyable than the campaign).

Try it!:
If you still think that bot fighters are missing out on the good part of the game, try giving yourself a wild challenge and see if you can rise to it. Can you and one friend beat 6 normal computers in Warcraft 3? How about 8? 10? (It can be done).

Taking on crazy tasks like this will reveal depth to a game that you never thought was there. You'll find yourself inventing bizarre tactics and experimenting in ways you never would have thought to try in regular multiplayer matches.

I've seen avid competitive gamers have a blast fighting AI opponents when the challenge is great enough.

Conclusion: Of all the ways to expand the audience appeal of multiplayer games, creating high quality bots is probably the best return on investment available to you. No new graphics, physics, landscapes, and most importantly, no features that diminish the experience of the core gamer. Unreal tournament and DotA have proven that there are tons of gamers out there who want good bots. It's time for other games to take advantage of this.


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Comments


Simon Ludgate
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I've always said that the worst part of any multiplayer experience is the other players. If I could do away with all that elitist incompetence, multiplayer games would be so much more fun. But ultimately, the interest I have in bots is a customized experience. One of the things I like the most about Civ4 is the customization. I've spent countless hours slightly tweaking the config files to end up with that perfect game. Civ4 is very much like a multiplayer game with bots. There is no story and every time you play you follow the same progression path. There is a lot in common with advancing up the tech tree in Civ4 and leveling up a character in DotA or one of its many spinoffs.



There are plenty of other upsides to bots. They let you learn the game at your own pace and build up confidence to play against other players. In shooters, this gives you a chance to learn the maps without being insta-ganked the moment you spawn. In RTSes, this lets you try out different strategies or build orders without being kicked from a game for being a noob. Most importantly, it lets you play YOUR way without playing the "wrong" way.



Most games don't consider the value of good bots. Consider one popular DotA spinoff: League of Legends. The game is operated as free to play and generates most of its revenue through the sale of skins. As a player who prefers to play against bots, I've long railed against League of Legends for its terrible bots. On the other hand, I would have no interest whatsoever in buying skins to show off against bots. So there's just no economic sense in developing bots, as it wouldn't grow the potentially paying player base. That said, the game also lets you unlock new champions through "IP" (earned by playing) and "Riot Points" (paid for). If you didn't earn any IP in bot matches, a bot-only player would have to buy riot points to buy new champions, thereby producing some level of income. And since you can run single player bot matches entirely locally, you could gather up a whole cadre of bot-players and merrily sell them champions then offload them from the game servers and let them play (essentially offline) bot matches.



At the very least, a strong bot experience in League of Legends could lead players who normally shy away from competitive games to build up enough confidence and find out they actually enjoy the experience. Shoving ganks down people's throats isn't the way to lead them into the flock of skin-buying insult-slinging pvpers. Building up skills against progressively challenging bots is a far better way to acclimate unfamiliar gamers to one's game.

Sean Farrell
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Have you lately joined the a UT3 or UT2k4 match. I am relatively good at UT and getting better, but still eat dust in online games. Those players left are so good, it is almost no fun to play. I can understand why bots are interesting, with their adaptable difficulty setting. The problem is that most games against bots get boring, since you start to know what they will do next. Humans offer a bit more variety, but a load of other problems.



I think a good match making system might help here too. Being matched with people of similar difficulty is not so frustrating and might alleviate the problem.



Nevertheless the best gaming experience IMHO is team vs team. Both teams know each other and are often connected via something like team speak. Left for Dead went in the right direction to foster this, to bad we often come together with 5 players...

Rik Newman
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I have to say I agree with this 100% and is one of the best articles I've found in gamasutra in some time - and it perfectly fits with my niche of interest.



I agree completely that multiplayer tends to be actual "games" in the normal sense.



I wrote this from an entirely different perspective, but it seems to sit alongside everything you're saying here perfectly:

http://agoners.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/agoner-agony-why-noobs-an
d-casuals-matter-even-to-a-hardcore-elite/

I also completely agree with Sean that good matchmaking is also vital and is only just starting to become even =functional= in my gaming experience (StarCraft II & Halo Reach seem to be the examplars here, no fighting game as managed it, although SSFIV comes the closest probably).



Team v Team multiplayer is, I believe, the most potential fun for many people, but it's also the hardest to get right in terms of an online interface, matchmaking etc. So few games get anywhere close to offering an overall good experience as this article and the comments can attest!

dana mcdonald
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This is a great article (not just because my brother wrote it), and I would just like to add a couple of points. One of them that I think most people, even ones who completely agree with this article, miss is that PVP play is not superior to competing against bots. It is just a different experience. The ultimate game for everybody (even if they are all closely matched in skill) is not team VS team. Some people say that the variety and unpredictability of human players makes the game more fun, But for many people; possibly even the majority, the added chaos is what turns them off. There is a great thrill to fighting against an enemy that is predictable, but has vastly better resources than you, or outnumbers you, and you cannot get the same type of experience in PVP. Predictable enemies are a completely different type of challenge and every bit as satisfying as PVP for many.



The other thing for me personally is that I generally only play games with people I know and like, and I don't want to beat my friends in a game. I want to defeat a challenge with them not fight against them (there is nothing that makes you feel more guilty than ending your wife's killing spree in Unreal Tournament). And team vs team is out because I don't like playing with strangers.

Joshua McDonald
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Thanks for the comments, everyone. A couple responses:



EDIT: Section deleted because I misunderstood some stuff at the time of writing.





@Rik:

Good article. It's interesting to think of competitive gaming in exclusive sports-like leagues. It will be intriuging to see if SC2 manages to pull more people into multiplayer with their new system or if it will just be a lot of fluff around matchmaking.

David Hughes
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As an almost exclusively console gamer, I REALLY miss having bots. My roommate and I in college would spend hours playing 2 v 50 matches of Perfect Dark (if that's not the right number, it's whatever was the max allowed). Ridiculously bad AI--but it was lots of fun. In fact, one of the few bad things about the recent XBLA re-release of that game was that bots were capped at 6. What fun is that?



With modern FPSs, you'd think the time spent of AI programming for multi-player bots would pay off on the single-player side. Smarter enemy AI would allow level designers more freedom and have less reliance on *totally* scripted scenarios. Especially games that are either open-world or at least allow for multiple paths of attack.

Majed Al-Aleeli
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That is why playing X hero siege and Tower defense was so much fun, routine change and relaxing , instead of just hardcore DOTA, to me playing on GG client was like playing against bots, lan was just to intense.

Now that season 1 started in LOL the solo matches are actually better.

Just hope they produce a Tower defense, Hero siege or Diablo styled game as extra maps on LOL and things should be fun.

Look at Dawn of War 2, even they added a Hero siege.

Mark Venturelli
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Making good bots is hard! That's why most people don't even try. We sure are having a hard time doing it for our next game here on our studio. Most companies are not willing to spend that extra CPU load for a good AI, too.

dominic cerisano
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There is a subversive element in playing bots - learning how to defeat an automated system - to fool all the bots all the time.



Speed is what distinguishes intelligence. No bird discovers how to fly: evolution used a trillion bird-years to 'discover' that–where merely hundreds of person-years sufficed. - Marvin Minsky



The only problem with Minsky's statement above is that a trillion bird years goes by every few decades, without birds developing any new abilities. Even evolutionary (EA) bots could not "learn" to defeat human intelligence without constant intervention by a guiding hand.



Chess is just sophisticated tic-tac-toe, that's why chess-bots can play perfectly (given enough bandwidth). Games with non non-deterministic (RPGs, etc) require bots to beat the Turing test at every juncture - to be more human than a human.



Will robots inherit the earth? Yes, but they will be our children - Minsky

Felipe Falanghe
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Very good article!! I never thought so many people (like me) preferred bot matches to PvP...



I too, find that PvP games promote hostile and unfriendly social environments, and lately I've been keeping my distance from games like Battlefield, where the hassle of enduring other players outweighs the potential for having fun.



Multiplayer, in the view of someone like me, who values a good gaming experience far above merely fragging other players, completely fails to deliver what, to me, should be it's basic premise: Achieving goals through a team effort that would be too great to handle alone.



In pratice, though, the multiplayer experience is reduced to exploiting the 'win' tactics (excellent term there) and enduring the constant onslaught of insults and general hostility from other players... be they on the opposing side or on yours... If you kill an opponent too easily, you're accused of hacking/cheating/exploiting... if you're having a hard time, you're instantly labeled a n00b... that's far from a pleasurable experience... And i reckon the idea of players opposing one another doesn't help at all to remedy this...



Fortunately, for those who do value multiplayer experiences, but find the PvP scene too hostile, there is Co-op... Which thankfully has been gaining some space in recent games.



Lately I've been playing Armed Assault 2, which is a 1st person military simulator (note that I say mil sim rather than FPS). This game relies on bots for it's SP gameplay, but even with bots that can do all the player can, the singleplayer experience still falls a bit short, because no bot, however sophisticated, can mimic another player... but the truly awesome experience lies in co-op gaming against them...



It's amazing how completely different the social atmosphere can be if all players are on the same side (and completely outnumbered by the AI)... you really see people helping each other out, people teaming up to make the most of each one's special abilities. The focus of ArmA 2 is on realism, so there's no such thing as carrying a bazooka in your left pocket and a sniper rifle on your right, with a minigun on your back and a flamethrower on your hands... players must work together if they want to get anywhere, since the AI can and will shoot you from 200 meters away even before you get a chance to have a look at them if you decide to rambo it alone.



I've lost track of how many excellent hours of co-op gaming I've had in ArmA2, and even while playing the very same level every day, the social experience is always different... and always pleasurable.



So, In the end, the multiplayer experience CAN be a very good one... What has been missing until now on most cases is game designers taking the social experience into account when creating games, and designing them so they promote good MP experiences for the non-competitive, instead of the insta-ganking, n00b-pwing, insult hurling behaviour we see these days...



Cheers


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