You know what developers realised a few years back? “Ooh, level up mechanics exploit that part of the brain that gives us a chemical reward for achieving a goal, let's use that to pad gameplay!” You know what the problem is now? People are getting impatient for their fix. They want to level up faster and preferably not put in all the leg work themselves. You can't just shorten the time span though, as that would decrease the feeling of reward. Instead, “next-gen” developers are turning to offline XP earning, where an AI version of you levels you up instead.
Just look at two upcoming games from different developers: Call of Duty Ghosts and Forza 5. Both games employ a measure of AI involvement in your multiplayer gameplay, where when you're not playing, a computer controller version of you will battle against your friends and random gamers, to see how your virtual self stacks up against the world. In CoD Ghosts, you have a squad that levels up as you do, as well as letting you customise their equipment and perks, to flesh out their abilities. In Forza, your driving personality is mapped onto an AI counterpart, which plays for you when you're not online, unlocking credits for you as it goes.
While this is quite a novel idea – even if it is named something ridiculous like drivatar (seriously, I'd love to have sat in on that brainstorming meeting) it seems like in some sense, the point was missed with these technologies. In the original Forza 5 demo, the presenter described players as “never being alone,” as even when your friends aren't online, you can play against them. Personally I play my friends/family for the conversations we have during play and for the shared experience, not because they're perfectly matched to my playstyle. Covering up that I'm feeling lonely with AI isn't going to cut it.
On top of that, while I'll be able to play against a more realistic AI, more often (couldn't I do that to my heart's content in single player anyway?) the effect of my drivatar on my gaming experience is negligible. I'll just login and collect the XP earned by my AI pal. What's the point in creating this awesome digital version of me, if I can't see it in action.
CoD Ghosts' Squad Mode, does take this sort of “offline” play to a slightly higher level and a better one. Not only will your squad earn you upgrades and points, but you can also play with it, using it as your AI backup against other players, with their computer controlled teammates.[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLlxLx8FSuE']
That's a much more exciting way to handle it, than just adding multiplayer filler. But it's still missing a big opportunity here, because it's letting the levelling up and training of these AI controlled characters be something that happens automatically as we play. You unlock higher level teammates in CoD as you progress and in Forza, it just happens in the background.
Why not make that a big part of the game? Or even, a game within itself?
Instead of using AI as an automatic way to level up quicker (like we're playing Cookie Clicker or something) why not use the idea of training the AI, as its own game mode or better yet, the entire game? In these instances, it's just tacked on to a fleshed out gaming experience, so I can understand it taking a back seat, but it needn't.
Lots of us watch Esports these days and even those that don't consider themselves fans might have checked out the League of Legends finals over the weekend. The point is, watching people play games can be fun too and it would be even more fun if you could have some measure of control over the training of the people playing and therefore more of a stake in the outcome. So instead of simply having your team level up and customise their equipment, or your drivatar be your unelected ambassador to the world, what about offering a training mode?
For CoD squads you could have basic training, where you have to brow beat your soldiers into shape – if you must give them experience bars and points, let me choose between tactics training and fitness improvements. Let me show them techniques I know, or coordinated ways for the team to clear a room or cover open ground as safely as possible. It doesn't work quite so well for a racing game, but we've seen something like this in Gran Turismo's B Spec. What if you could combine something like that with a drivatar that could also go off and race against other players and AI?
While this idea might seem like a little hands off for a game, where ultimately I'm asking developers to let me set things up and just hit the play button, that would make for a very intense experience. Perhaps there's some semblance of tower defence gameplay there, where you set up your forces and hope that you've done everything right.
It would take some careful planning, but a house of cards AI that you have to stack up carefully using management skills, not necessarily just twitch based abilities, might make for an interesting new gameplay type. You can watch your team breeze through opponents because you've trained them well, or watch that house come tumbling down, knowing that you'll need to go back to the drawing board.
KitGuru Says: My dream game, which any developer is welcome to make as long as I get an advance (and free) copy, is a pit pit-fighting, monster training brawler, sort of like a gritty Pokemon, where the gameplay is in developing and training your fighter. The fights themselves would be relatively rare, making them a big event. There'd be realistic damage to limbs and organs, a toss up between intelligence based technique training, or raw power conditioning. It would have to strip out health bars too, as we all know I hate those.