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Wednesday, 12 September, 2001, 16:05 GMT 17:05 UK
Video games getting tougher
Quake II
Facing computer foes in games like Quake II
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward in Prague

Computer games like Quake and Half-Life that pit human players against legions of belligerent computer-controlled foes look set to get much more challenging.

Researchers are working on ways to turn the computerised cannon fodder into canny crackshots that can outthink as well as outgun you.

The research has already produced opponents that can predict what human players will do next, tune their strategy accordingly and learn new tricks to surprise you.

The work may one day mean that players of computer games looking for a real challenge can download artificial opponents that are veterans of many previous encounters.

Realistic computer-controlled agents

Computer games such as Half-Life have earned praise for the realistic way that computer-controlled agents take on the human player.

They have been able to generate predictive targeting system, that shoot where the target is heading

Andrew Vardy, AI researcher
But the contest is not really equal because the artificial intelligence behind the computer-controlled enemies has access to lots more information than is available to human players and can react much faster.

"AI techniques in games often cheat," said Andrew Vardy, an AI researcher from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. "Current methods of putting AI in games tend to be predictable and inflexible."

By contrast, the agents Mr Vardy is working on use genetic algorithms that mimic evolution to develop control systems that help them react to other elements, such as obstacles, ammunition or enemies in the game world.

Battle hardy

The control programs evolved by this method have been tried out in a simple world that pits six computer-controlled agents against one human player.

The current generation of smart agents did a good job of defending themselves against foes, said Mr Vardy.

"They have been able to generate predictive targeting systems that shoot where the target is heading," he said.

Mr Vardy said that the techniques could be used to create artificial players that learn the best way to defeat human opponents. The best artificial players could then be posted on the net for everyone to play.

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