Why are computer players so often so dumb? The answer is that we expect computer players to make complex, intelligent decisions super-fast.
When we make computer games, we know that players have a very low tolerance for waiting for computer opponents to “think”. Historically, that has meant that computer players either cheat like crazy or are play terribly (or both).
In one of the minor video game history footnotes, Stardock’s Galactic Civilizations was the first commercial computer game to have a multi-threaded computer AI. This meant that while the player was taking their turn, the computer players could generate their strategy in the background.
The last version of Galactic Civilizations came out 6 years ago and a lot has changed. These days, most people have computers with multiple cores. Dual-core. Quad Core. 6-core, etc. Each core is, effectively, its own CPU. When it came time to design the computer AI for Stardock’s upcoming Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, I had the opportunity to think about how to make of all these cores.
The result is that not only do computer players "think” while the player is taking their turn. It can “think” all the time because each computer players gets its own core (ideally) or at least is shuffled off onto another core. So your animation and mouse input and sound can play on various CPU cores and the computer players are explicitly sent off to other cores so that their thinking doesn’t slow down the game.
This extra CPU horse power matters because Fallen Enchantress is a fantasy strategy game. Fantasy strategy games are notorious for having terrible computer players because the number of choices a computer player faces every move is massive. Fantasy games usually involve having to cast spells, deal with units that have special powers, deal with Heroes/Champions who are leveling up or upgrading.
If you’re playing Diablo 3, or have played some other RPG, you can probably appreciate the challenge in deciding the “right” powers, abilities, and spells to use. Now, imagine having to make those decisions in less than 30ms. Now imagine having to do all that except instead of controlling one unit you’re controlling 1,200 of them.
It seems a bit ironic that it’s not first person shooters or other seemingly cutting edge games that benefit the most from these hardware advances but rather good old fashioned strategy games.