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Xaor's Corner: Anticipatory Intelligence


The last one of the year, and I’m looking at AI. See all previous Xaor’s Corner articles: here

The artificial intelligence in FIFA 12 has come under a lot of fire (not least from myself) for a variety of well justified reasons. It’s criticised for its lacking attacking incision and its lacking structure in defence, and it is all too often the difference between winning or losing for all the wrong reasons: whether its your centre backs brain going missing at just the wrong moment, or a goalkeeper suddenly becoming invincible – a mixture of a forcefield and Wayne Hennessey (who’s most recent performance thwarted my beloved Arsenal). Or perhaps it’s your attackers who won’t make that critical run at that critical time. In this article I want to look at one particular element of the AI, which is the way they anticipate things.

Anticipation is obviously a very important aspect of the mental side of football. It governs a players ability to read what is about to happen and then to prepare for it. It would be completely unfair to say that FIFA’s AI shows no sign of anticipation – it would be fairly hard for it to position itself at all if it didn’t have some ability to predict what was going to happen. But then there are all too many cases where it is lacking, and its clear that EA makes up for this with very high reaction rates. Like with any botched balance this leaves nasty side effects.

One of the most obvious examples resides in one of FIFA’s most-used and least-loved ways of scoring – the pass across goal. You know the story, multiple attackers get free on goal (all too often due to defensive AI frailties) and it’s a simple tap of pass and a tap of shot for an almost 100% guaranteed goal. Once the pass is made, the goalkeeper then has a few moments to scramble a save… but he never does. In real life, you’d expect him to charge across and fling himself into the air to block where he expected the striker to shoot. In FIFA though, he’ll run across, wait for the striker to shoot, and then fall limply to the ground – the ball has gone past him before he even tries to save it.

There is no sense of an ‘anticipation’ save in FIFA – keepers are always reacting to what happens as opposed to working on what they think will happen. We all know how this is balanced out – keepers have lightning reactions which all too often mean they save shots which they wouldn’t have got to, but then struggle with much easier shots. It would be better if keepers actually did anticipate shots when closer in. If the striker is really close and he pulls back his leg why shouldn’t the keeper react to save at that point, rather than reacting to save it after the ball is hit? If that happened, you could actually have more believable reactions to fake shots. Currently, keepers react in way A to a fake shot and way B to a normal shot. What should instead be the case is that the keeper reacts in the same way to the player winding up a shot whether it’s fake or not. Exactly the same can be said of blocking – if I’m a defender going to make a last ditch block I’m going to fling myself in the way of the shot before its hit, not after.

Anticipation isn’t just about guessing what is about to happen, it’s about considering lots of different possibilities, their likelihoods, and their risks, before coming up with a way of dealing with them as best as possible. This might mean coming up with a conservative solution which prevents problems, or making an aggressive gamble to win it all. It’s an example of Game Theory, a branch of mathematics, and while it’s clearly very critical in a game like chess it’s also a huge part of how people react while playing football, how the AI works on FIFA, and how we play FIFA. The best example is probably the defensive question of whether to go in for a tackle or to hold back. Going in for a tackle will give you the greatest reward if it goes right, but should it go wrong you may have taken yourself out the game entirely, whereas holding back will keep you safe, but leave you without possession.

When you consider the way that players are thinking when an attacker dribbles at a defender, you have a very complicated situation which is often a case of one man trying to trick the other. The defender is constantly trying to work out where the ball will be next – if he can work that out he can almost certainly make a tackle. When you compare that to the mechanics of the contain function, where the defender is tied by an invisible string to an attacker, it seems a rather characterless system which does little to really represent the complex nature of the encounter.

There are innumerable numbers of examples to add on top of these few. Anticipation is one of the core elements of intelligence and it is important for the game to represent this if FIFA is to feel like a solid representation of football. Particularly in the very direct examples of goalkeeping and blocking the current system feels so unnatural, and frankly you simply cannot make up for it by making the AI react with impossible speed and absolute knowledge of where the ball is going. Artificial intelligence is one of the biggest area that FIFA needs to improve on, and this will almost certainly be the case for the forseeable future, and representing the process of anticipation is one of the core building blocks of that.

I’d like to wish you all a fruitful new year – it’s been a joy doing these for the last 6 months, and can’t wait to get cracking next year, and hopefully in the not too distant future hearing a little bit about the next FIFA game!

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