Officially Unintelligent: AI War Versus RPS Part 1

By Kieron Gillen on August 28th, 2009 at 6:02 pm.

When I blogged about AI War’s demo, an idea struck me. It’s eight players co-op mass-scale space-RTS against apparently only of the most vicious AIs yet seen in gaming. Could we get enough people together to have an eight player game? No, we couldn’t. Seven? No. Six? No. Five? No. Four? No. Two? No. One? No. But three? We totally managed a three-player game. So Quintin, Alec and myself gathered one afternoon to start a battle for the future of humanity against an unrelenting evil AI. Nothing would ever be the same again, except for all the things that were totally unchanged.

The game is longform. You’re looking at over ten hours for any of the game’s suggested numbers of planets. Being a little bit scaredy, we thought we’d try a smaller one to get the hang of it. Fifteen planets? That sounds about right. The aim of the game… well, there’s two AI home-planets out there in the solar system. You have to locate and destroy both of them. The problem being, doing exactly that. It makes no pretense of being an symmetrical game, with the AIs acting more as hostile terrain. Push too hard, and it pushes back. Destroying almost any of its structures gets it increasingly angry, amping up its technology and similar. The trick is balancing the few. Well, the trick is many things, many of them we don’t know. I’m the most experienced, having played all the tutorials (across five bloody hours). Quinns sits between, having played a little of the intermediate tutorial. Alec played the basic tutorials and decided that was enough for him.

We select a 15 planet solar system – to keep it tight – and set the AI to level 7 – which is basically the AI playing as well as it does, but with no artificial cheats. We fully expect it to steamroller us, especially because it takes about fifteen minutes to work out how to pick planets. Anyway, this is our solar system…

It’s actually after about a half hour of play, because we’ve done a little conquering. All three of our zones are in the top right. Could we have picked more? Maybe we could have. You may note we’ve all hid in a small area so we an all help each other (i.e. help Quinns). Is this a sound tactical move? We don’t know either. There is much we don’t know.

In our first three hours, we’ve discovered many useful tactics. Like how if you hold down one key, all the paths in the game appear which makes everything jolly pretty.

More practical tactics? Well, tricky. We tentatively amp up for the first attack on the solar system which we all can see. It takes some time. Quintin has selected a starting planet with not nearly enough metal on it, and spends all his time desperately trying to scavenge it. It doesn’t help that he decides the way forward is to construct enormous starships rather than the mass of Bombers which catches Alec’s fancy. He trips over a minor problem that building time is actually separate from the resource requisition. The build timer, rather than sapping resources as it builds, only takes it when the timer is complete. So if you don’t have the fifteen-trillion bits of iron when a battleship is ready to build, it won’t roll out. A delay in realising it leaves Quinns home system pretty undefended when a wave of attackers come in. Forces are mobilised to help protect him. Everyone ignores the Astrotrains.

Ah. The Astrotrains. Initially greeted with a yelp from Alec thinking it a reference to the splendid Transformers triple changers, these are nearly indestructible AI creatures which wander around, hurting anything on its routes. Not a lot, but they’re pretty much indestructible. At least to us. We spend a lot of time ignoring them.

Meanwhile, I’m off having a little explore of nearby places, while making my own Blunder – being making a couple of factories, then forgetting to tell one to make any bloody thing. Still, both Alec and I are starting to build our specialist crafts. Depending on where you start, you get your own unit. Alec has a ridiculous fast cloaked ship with autocannons – whose main use is to outrun the rest of the fleet and get slaughtered, at least until knowledge of the “everyone go at same speed” button deseminates throughout our party. I have raiders, who ignore the tractor beams around jump-gates, making them ideal for – well – raiding. Quintin can make space-tanks, except he hasn’t got enough iron, so doesn’t make space tanks.

Anyway, secured, we attack. We win! A completely minor solar-system pacified.

This is the point things go wrong. Winning victories trigger attack waves, which prove to come for Quinns. Every scrambles to defend it. Alec – who got the new solar system – joins in. Quinns home system is covered in random ships we have to hunt down. Meanwhile, due to running off before all the resistance was wiped out, Alec’s new system becomes infested with aliens. Massive numbers built up in a special-forces base, and then are unleashed in a disturbing pink wave. Everyone pulls together to tidy up. Quinns finally finishes a space-crusier. We look for new targets.

Now, we vaguely get the idea we don’t want to conquer randomly – it’ll only make the AI angry. But we’re not really sure which way we’re meant to be going. I’ve got ideas about scouting, but everyone’s a bit kill crazy, and Quintin really does want some more iron. I suspect nothing productive is going to happen until we all get a second solar system each. At which point, we start eyeing up the next target. It’s… well, some planets are level 1. This is a level 3. We figure we can give it a shot. All the forces pile in. Alec has customised his team by researching a lot of Bomber tech. I’ve gone for fighters and raiders. Abstractly, there’s a synergy here, with Alec and I working together to protect one another. In practice, our co-ordination and priotisation differ so much that, by the end, I’ve bought a load of bombers myself just to double up. If we were good, we could have been bloody deadly.

(Actually, the research does lead to one actually useful tip. The game works on a basis where there’s a limited amount of research a player can get from each solar system. When they’ve gained it, there’s no more. However, Qunns discovered that there’s this amount of research for each player, so you can cart all your science ships between all the friendly planets, getting your brain-trust thinking on each. Yay! This doesn’t stop Kieron warning anyone from buying new tech, as he’s convinced it makes the AI angry. The AI level doesn’t move at all when it does so, however. Kieron thinks he may be wrong. Or maybe he isn’t.)

The attack on the level 3 system is somewhat inellegant. It’s actually defended by an enormous laser cannon, which fires every few seconds, insta-killing. Abstractly, we can capture it. In practice, it can annihilate us. As such, we move en masse to fuck ‘em up. It dead, Quinns makes a beachhead, Alec defends it and I make my way around all the alien bases in the system, annihilating each. Soon, only one remains.

It’s guarded by a forcefield. A level 3 forcefield. This… well, I know you need bombers for the task. We have bombers. The problem is that there’s several dozen high level enemy craft beneath it. I’m not sure how they got so many. I suspect, every time I killed an enemy defence base, they got reinforcements. So I really should have gone for it first. As it is, it’s a tough-nut to crack. But with all three of us closing in and a couple of hundred bombers diving in, we figure we’ll be fine.

We’re not. The back and forth cries of “we’re going to do it!” from Quinns analysing by how much the shield is visually shrinking and me going “We’re bloody not” because he’s looking at how many hit points he’s got left goes on for the entire length of the attack. Getting it 60% down, with a fraction of our attack squads remaining, we figure it’s time for a runaway-runaway.

We’re left with a dilemma. Can we just ignore this base, press on to other place and leave forces to attack anyone who comes out of it to harry our lines? Can we work out a way to crack it which actually leaves an army worth having afterwards? And can Quinns actually get any Iron? All will be answered in the future. Yes.

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76 Comments »

  1. Devan says:

    Nice writeup. This reminds me of my times with Sins of a Solar Empire. I also prefer that slow-and-steady expansion tactic for strategy games, which is perhaps why I was never any good at starcraft.

  2. Yargh says:

    I think you guys may have made the game a little too hard for yourselves by choosing such a small number of planets: this limits the research you’re going to get and thus will severely hamper your chances at getting the higher level units you’ll need to take the AI out.

    I bought this game after you presented the demo here and have found it to be a lot of fun, in a poking sticks into hornet’s nest way… The AI has already blindsided and beaten me once but I will have my revenge.

  3. Vinraith says:

    Great stuff Kieron. I keep wavering on whether to pick this up, but you’re pushing me towards the “yes” column.

    While it’s always best to buy direct from the developer, I would also note that Gamersgate has this on (slight) sale right now. It’s $13.50 in the US, no idea what it is in your crazy eastern hemisphere monies.

  4. Acidburns says:

    The problem with Sins is that by the mid-way point you know who is going to win, which is a shame because I thought the game had potential.

    I guess this is kind of a counterpoint to it….the AI gets harder as your forces get stronger.

  5. Railick says:

    I don’t think Quinns is going to get enough metal, that is all.

  6. Dominic White says:

    For those of us out in Greater Europeland, AI War is 9.79 Euros from Gamersgate.

    http://gamersgate.com/DD-AIWAR/ai-war-fleet-command

    I’m rather tempted to get this and talk my brother and a couple of friends into grabbing it to. This article is the main reason why – it sounds like a very good game for tight knit groups.

  7. Marcin says:

    War is hell.

  8. cowthief skank says:

    Amazing!

  9. Senethro says:

    Quinns sounds like a jolly useful kind of chap!

  10. The Pink Ninja says:

    I wake up hot, panting and sweating from dreams of MMOs like this.

  11. blargy says:

    Gosh I really want to get it but it is not on steam.
    Does it have any DRM or needing a serial or installing any secondary programs if I buy it from gamersgate?

  12. Vinraith says:

    @blargy

    Gamersgate has no client, it just has a “wrapper” where you have to provide your GG login information to install the game. After that it runs just like a retail copy would.

    You can also buy the game direct from the developer, in which case it has no DRM or login of any kind attached to it.

    Both are superior to Steam, of course, which requires the client be running not only to install, but also to run the game.

  13. Vinraith says:

    Direct link to the developer’s page:

    http://www.arcengames.com/aiwar_features.php

  14. blargy says:

    @vinraith
    Ok thanks for the info that I can get it from the developer directly
    I don’t mind having 1 program run in the background, but the main reason I like steam is that all my games that I have ever bought are there so I can re download anytime if needed.

  15. Arnulf says:

    …and it might get the AI angry.

    Angry as in, “Well, there are actually some annoying humans in the same universe that’s mine. I forgot that those appear from time to time. Note to self, squash ‘em!”?

  16. Tei says:

    You guys love arcane games even more than I do. This game is really obscure, but the premise (promise?) is huge. I congratulate you guys for tryiing to open that for all us :-)

  17. DMJ says:

    Why aren’t you out finishing playing this game so you can complete this action report?

    Get back to work!

    This is why I read RPS!

  18. Yargh says:

    Railick says:
    I don’t think Quinns is going to get enough metal, that is all.

    I seem to recall that in coop play you can gift resources.

  19. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yes, you *could* gift resources. Don’t think it’s going to happen.

    KG

  20. rei says:

    That sounds like a lot of fun. Somehow it reminds me of Dwarf Fortress in the geek-dream-I-can’t-believe-hasn’t-been-done-before sort of way. I only wish I had friends.

  21. JonFitt says:

    This type of article is one reason why I read RPS. I like the long form write ups. For me there is no better way to sell a game than a funny well written play through description.
    I’m going to look up the GalCiv one Tom Francis wrote because that’ll make me want to play GalCiv, and I have that one :)

  22. JB says:

    After reading this article I think I’ll have to re-install the demo and give it another try.

    Damn you, Gillen.

  23. JB says:

    Also, I just had the “next generation of smileys” ad (with the annoying sounds) appear on the page after my last post went up. Thought I’d read that it was being killed off from RPS?

  24. Kieron Gillen says:

    Can’t do anything about it unless you give us the link of where it leads to.

    KG

  25. pepper says:

    Quinn wont get his metal.

    On a lighter note, is Quinn one of those people that still get surprised by a tank rush?

  26. Vinraith says:

    I think people are being unnecessarily cruel to Quinn. It’s not like choosing a bad starting position in your first real try at a game is a mistake we haven’t all made at one time or another.

  27. Tony says:

    Man, I love these writeups.

  28. PleasingFungus says:

    Man, this sounds splendid. I tried the demo after the previous post, but wasn’t convinced… and apparently there’s a sale on at Gamersgate.

    If I hadn’t just bought two new games yesterday, I’d be sold. As it is, I’m quite sorely tempted. Hope this series continues soon!

  29. Railick says:

    We’re not being cruel to Quinn, the game is ;P

  30. army of none says:

    This game looks /amazing/

  31. Alec Meer says:

    You are all correct – AI War is super. Only really makes sense when played co-op, however.

  32. Railick says:

    I understand how this is like a tower defence game as it was kind of mentioned in the last post about it. This game sounds more like Sins of A Solar Empire to me, more like a grand scale space RTS where the enemy becomes more powerful as you attack it (Which is cool and I can see how that is KIND of like a tower defence game because the enemies get stronger as you carry on in those types of games)

  33. Yargh says:

    you also get to place static defences with varying abilities to defend against increasingly heavy strikes.

  34. Vinraith says:

    @Alec

    Really? I’d have thought a game that pays this much attention to its AI would be brilliant for single player, am I wrong?

  35. Railick says:

    Is it even REALLY AI or is just a series of stat increases depending on how you attack them?

  36. Velox says:

    I’ve been at this game for a few weeks now, and it’s bloody brilliant. The AI is really very good. There are lots of types/personalities, which are quite distinct – you definitely have to play differently based on which sort of opponent you’re facing. I’ve them it do some pretty nasty, evil, unexpected things too.

  37. Railick says:

    Very interesting.

  38. Chris Park says:

    @Vinraith:

    I would say that around 90% of existing AI War players play it solo most of the time. We’re getting more and more players enjoying the co-op, which I am really glad for, but they are still in the minority and most of them also play solo in addition to that. Personally I think it’s by far the most fun in co-op, but if you like other single-player RTS games you will be right at home in single-player here.

    (Oh — I’m the developer, by the way.)

    By the way, as good as the AI is in the 1.013 release that they are presumably using in this writeup, it gets a lot better in the 1.201 version, which should come out of public beta hopefully on Monday.

  39. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yeah, I disagree with Alec here. I think it’s fine SP.

    And is worth noting, it really was total luck of the draw about the iffy starting positions. None of us realised where the game said how much iron there was in a system until about half an hour into the game.

    KG

  40. Chris Park says:

    For the curious, there was also some discussion on the Arcen forums about the likely results of three new players jumping into a 15 planet map on difficulty 7.

    The short list, if you don’t want to click the link:
    - It should do pretty well as an intro to the game, though victory may be quite difficult for the inexperienced at that size map and that difficulty. Knowledge is going to be tight, and the AI waves are going to be right on top of them.

    - Playing on maps below 40 planets cuts out a lot of the grand strategy elements, but there’s still plenty left to be quite enjoyable. It’s just a bit of a different scenario from the main game as it was designed to be played, not that it’s not fun this way, too.

    Tips based on that:
    1. Make sure someone gets Mark III/IV bombers before the end.
    2. Careful not to put the AI home planets on alert before you are ready to go smash them, or you might be very sorry.

    But either way, this is exploratory and it sounds like good fun. :)

  41. Chris Park says:

    Oh, yes — about the starting positions, it is total luck of the draw, but you will have either good metal or crystal, so the fact that he is metal-poor probably means that he is crystal-rich.

    So, solutions:
    1. Go take a metal-rich planet to complement.
    2. Build more stuff that costs more crystal than metal.
    3. Use Metal Manufactories to convert some of that metal into crystal.

    No matter how bad your start position is, there’s usually something that can be done. For new players just getting into a small map, a bad position for one can hurt a little more, but it’s still quite recoverable. AI War is all about variety and different scenarios, so they aren’t all equally “fair.” When the games are not competitively played, fairness is no longer a chief goal. I wrote a post about that a while back, but I’ll skip the link so that I’m not cross-linking in every post.

  42. Kieron Gillen says:

    Alec has Mark 3 bombers. God knows, he may even have bought 4. Alec’s crazy for bombers.

    We figure we win or lose, it’ll be entertaining.

    Edit: And quinns is incredibly cagey around Metal Manufactories. The debates are hilarious.

    KG

  43. Vinraith says:

    @Chris Park

    Yeah, I know who you are. Kudos on an excellent game, by the way. Your posting here is one more good reason to pick up the game, to my thinking.

    @Kieron

    Thanks for the feedback. Obviously almost anything is more fun co-op than not (well, with people you like, anyway), but this looks like it should be a good time in SP.

    OK, I’m sold. Hopefully we can get some RPS co-op games going.

  44. Railick says:

    Is this game one of those “Losing is fun” games like DF , if so I’m in ;P DF Sits some where in between the old Kung fu game and that stupid platformer game where you die 3 seconds into it unless you do everything exactly right. Where does this fall on that scale ? lol

  45. army of none says:

    Ahhh… I can’t get it to run, but I think this is due to my new motherboard. Will try to fix and play as soon as possible!

  46. Chris Park says:

    @KG: Awesome, good to know about the bombers. When you unlock mark III of a tech, you automatically get mark IV (but you have to capture — and hold — an advanced factory). I think you guys have a shot at it, but it will be entertaining to hear how it goes. I love all the humor in the writeup.

    Pretty funny about the metal manufactories, too; manufactories are pretty much needed in most games to tweak your income balance at different times, but their use should definitely be limited. If he thinks of it like a market in another game (Age of Empires, Empire Earth, etc), maybe he won’t be quite so cagey. Or maybe he hates markets, too. :)

    @Vinraith: Yep, I remember you from the other posting, too. I just figure it’s a good idea to identify myself wherever I go, to avoid any misunderstandings. Other people reading might not know. Anyway, I’m glad to be here!

    @Railick: It doesn’t have to be one of those “losing is fun” games, but if you’re into that sort of thing there are settings for you. The AI has difficulties ranging from 1-10, 10 being the highest, and the differences are somewhat geometric. No one has yet beaten a pair of 10s, even with a handicap, for instance. Most people I talk to play in the 5 to 8.3 range (yes, we have fractional difficulties about 7). There is currently an “impossible challenge” going on at our boards, where some players are cranking everything all the way up in the AI’s favor, giving it every boost imaginable, and seeing how long they can last. I think the record is around 15 minutes at the moment. :)

    @army of none: Details? Please make sure you have all of the prerequisites installed, the lack of those is usually what causes most install failures after run. There’s a list of those here, if you need them. Hope that helps!

  47. Torgen says:

    Question for Mr Park: If I am understanding correctly, the demo I downloaded from the link in the article above is actually the code for the full game, but throttled, and simply needs me to purchase the license key from you to be totally activated? (I don’t mind the extra five American hegemonic currencies since I know the dev is getting it directly.)

  48. Chris Park says:

    @Torgen: Yes, that is entirely correct. The demo and the full game are exactly the same files, it’s just a license key unlock for the full thing. A license key purchased through any source works with all other copies of the game, so you never have to worry about installing versions with DRM or special other software if you don’t want them (not that any of our existing partners have DRM anyway, thankfully). Thanks for your support!

  49. Davydd Grimm says:

    Hang on – “deseminate”?

    I’ll be buying this, as you chaps have made it sound jolly exciting!

  50. Archonsod says:

    Bought this yesterday thanks to Gamer’s Gate’s sale.

    The whole AI alert status is intriguing. I wonder if it’s possible, through careful planning, to defeat the AI without it ever getting higher than the initial value.