Total War Blog

Archive for October, 2009

Blog the Second – by Mike Simpson

One common complaint we get from the community is that so long as there are defects in Empire: Total War, we shouldn’t be working on any new products. If there was just one of us, or all of us could work on any issue that would make sense. As it is, we’ve had Empire: Total War patch work as the top priority for everyone. The campaign AI team has worked on nothing else at all since release. The other programmers have dealt with their patch issues before moving on, and get dragged back to them if they resurface. Most of the content team have not been able to help with patches – artists and designers can’t code and most issues are code issues – and have moved on to new stuff.

Patch 1.5 has just been released. This is the last planned major patch for Empire: Total War, and attempts to sweep up the remaining AI issues that for the hardcore gamer take the shine off of the Empire apple. The previous patches have dealt with the most common crashes and tidied up a lot of bugs, and 1.4 dealt with a lot of the AI issues. What is left at this point are a few minor issues spread around the game, and the last big campaign AI problem – the aggression level.

Battle and campaign AI are completely different systems and teams. I’ll talk about battle AI another time. The Empire campaign AI has been way too passive for me, and the community pretty unanimously shares that view, so it’s not something I need to explain. It is however interesting that a good proportion of the more casual gamers – and they are probably more than half our customers – actually like the AI to be fairly passive.  The US casual gamer in particular likes a more sandbox-like experience, where he can make and execute long term plans and not have them constantly disrupted by an aggressive AI. This is a play style thing rather than a level of difficulty thing – they still want a challenge, but they want it to be their game, not the AI’s.

Making a passive AI may have sold us lots more games in the US, but it wasn’t intentional. Maybe we’ll have a play style setting in the future, but for now our intention is to challenge the player with an AI that is as aggressive and varied as human players would be.

So it is campaign AI that was the main focus for 1.4, and that I think we’ve finally got sorted out on 1.5. It’s worth talking a bit about how we ended up with an AI that didn’t have the play style we intended on release, and has taken 6 more months work to get there.  The short answer is an excess of ambition.

This AI is not like any other we have written. It’s a beliefs – desires – intentions based planning system, and it’s also by far the most complex code edifice I’ve ever seen in a game. I wrote much of the campaign AI for Shogun and Medieval I (Ah… those were the days…)  and I know that even quite simple “static” evaluate-act AI’s with no plans or memory can be complex enough to exhibit chaotic behaviour (we’re talking about mathematical “butterfly effect” style chaos here). It does what it does, and it’s not quite what you intended. This can be a good thing – you cull out the bad behaviours and are left with just what is good, and with a simple system that’s not too predictable.

Well, the Empire AI is way more complicated than any of our previous products, but the team is bigger and has more talent that we had in my day – PhD’s, and coders sharper than a box of razor blades.  It’s a V12 supercar compared with Shogun’s 50cc moped. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it will be way, way ahead of anything we’ve seen in any PC strategy game before. It thinks about everything. It thinks of everything, it plots and it plans. As we approached release, bringing more subsystems on line, it was looking amazingly good, but at some point the level of chaos reached a tipping point and we lost control. Our AI did a “HAL” on us and gained the AI equivalent of multiple personality disorder. The net result is an AI that plans furiously and brilliantly and long term, but disagrees with itself chronically and often ends up paralysed by indecision.

We’ve had it on the coder’s couch for 6 months now, and it’s finally feeling better. It’s more aggressive, it uses naval invasions, and it doesn’t dither much more than most humans I know. It should now be well ahead of Rome/Med II’s  AI, but it’s still only firing on two or three cylinders and had much untapped potential.

One thing I am sure about – I don’t regret having the ambition that led to this. This AI will I think astound in the long term, but I am gutted that we didn’t get the AI we wanted for the hardcore fans on day 1.

I had 6 copies of Empire: Total War sat on my shelf intended for close gamer friends that I didn’t send out because I was too embarrassed about the flaws. Old friends are the harshest critics. Well they’ve gone out now.  I think the game now meets my personal unreasonably high quality threshold – not just good but great. Hopefully my friends will agree.

Blogging for Quality – by Mike Simpson

Well, I’ve finally given in and decided to start blogging. It’s something I’ve tried to resist over the years. I’ve also not posted directly on the forums, and it’s mainly because it takes so much time. Many of the issues discussed on the forums are deep and complex, and the arguments well put and compelling.  Writing considered and persuasive responses that really deal with the issue is time consuming, and that is time I can’t spend working on the games.

So it’s a choice – fix stuff, or talk about fixing stuff. Seems like a no-brainer, but things have changed. I can now add more quality to the games by talking to the community than I can by fixing issues.

Quite simply, the quality of what we produce depends directly on how much we get to spend on developing them. How much we spend depends directly on how many people buy the games. The user feedback on sites like IGN directly impacts sales, and that impacts how positively our publisher views the future of Total War, which determines how much we get to spend on the games.

Normally it’s a virtuous circle, and that’s allowed us to be very ambitious with what we try to deliver. We were not entirely happy with the state of Empire: Total War when it went out, and are only now getting to a point where we are broadly speaking happy with the game. Our own threshold for how we’d like the game to be is much higher than the commercial threshold required by our publisher. We are, like our community, hardcore fans of our own products, and any imperfections drive us nuts.

With Empire: Total War, the virtuous circle turned a little vicious. The community  used user ratings and user comments on sites like IGN and Metacritic to highlight weaknesses in the game, to try to encourage us to fix existing issues before working on anything new.

I’m not saying that we didn’t deserve to have a fair number of verbal bricks thrown our way.

However overdoing the criticism (For example I think a 67% user score on Metacritic is unfair), has the opposite effect to what is intended.  Gamers (and reviewers. retailers, marketeers and publishing execs) will be put off Total War.  That could mean fewer sales and less money to spend on adding quality to the games.

And so I find myself blogging. The aim is twofold. Firstly, I want to explain why we do the things we do, and also a little more detail about what we’re spending our time (and your money) on. That should give the community a much better starting point for discussing issues. Secondly, I want to prove we listen to the community by directly addressing the big issues.  I’ll be as honest as I can be without getting sued or fired.

Anyway, I started this by saying I’d rather be fixing the game than talking about it. That’s true, but talking about it is a pretty good second best.  I’ll start with the 1.5 patch and AI on the next update, and then go on to talk about Napoleon – what it is, why it’s the size it is, how that affects the price.

Mike Simpson