Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Possible Next Step for Total War Games

I am no longer convinced that the chaotic nature of battlefields in Total War games is a deliberate reflection of real battles.

Perhaps I believed back that in 2000 when the original Shogun Total War was released to rapturous praise. One of Creative Assembly's major innovations was the fact that troops no longer followed orders like blind automatons and their effectiveness was strongly affected by morale, by environmental conditions and by the leadership of their general.  When the BBC used the Rome Total War engine for their battle re-enactments in the show "Time Commanders" they emphasised this confusion further by implementing a chain of command with a generals and lieutenants.

But ....

12 years and many incarnations of Total War later I think we have to accept that a major element of the confusion comes from the simplistic artificial intelligence (AI)  of Total War troops.While graphics and presentation have improved immensely over the years this vital aspect of game seems to me not to have improved substantially. Pathfinding remains problematic. I have yet to see a Total war troop able to man a wall  properly (although Shogun 2 seems to have neatly sidestepped this problem by putting the interiors of their castles on raised platforms). Working with groups of units is still a nightmare. Half the time your cavalry will race ahead into certain death while your infantry walk along behind. Half the time your group will try to blindly stick to a rigid formation despite terrain which makes it impossible. A unit of archers who have run out of ammunition will respond to an attack order by running in with their pocket knives!

I have no doubt that AI is a tricky problem to solve with so many different types of unit on the battlefield and so many possible scenarios but I have a thought which might offload the AI problem from Creative Assembly and allow players to make their own contribution:  Introduce officers with programmable AI. Instead of a lone general who provides little other than passive bonuses equip your  army with Captains and Lieutenants to whom you can can give detailed orders in advance. You could assign troops to the officer and set them an objective ("Hold this point" for example or "Capture that building"). To overcome AI shortcomings give players a simple programming interface which allows us to give more detailed instructions such as when to use certain formations and whether to attack head on or try to go around the flanks.

I got this idea after playing Dragon Age II. They have a simple programming interface called "Tactics" which is really a sequence of IF ... THEN.... statements which govern the behaviour of your characters when they are not being directly controlled.  I imagine something similar might be possible to implement in Total War for these "Officers".  It wouldn't be perfect and I have no doubt you could still get better performance micromanaging troops individually but I do think it might be a possible evolutionary step for the franchise.


1000damage said...

Not a bad idea. It'd be tough to worry about such things in the heat of battle. But I could imagine sitting in the trenches, preparing your comrades with last-minute direction before a big rush.

mbp said...

Hi there 1000D. I expect you would need to give most of your orders before a battles starts but changing orders during a battles would be be possible but tricky. Perhaps there should be a time delay before any new orders are carried out to reflect the delays in the chain of command.