So here I sit at the nadir of the game AI conference year. It has been 4 months since GDC. In 4 months I expect to be at AIIDE. So I’m kinda hanging suspended in the slack of the rope between those events feeling strangely uninspired.
There are the other occasional pop-ups between now and then, I suppose. There’s GDC Austin in September, but I don’t have the online focus that is their big selling point there and the conference itself doesn’t have that heavy of an AI track. It would be like an uncomfortable date with an attractive person but with whom you share no interests — pretty to look at, nice to be seen with, but a little lacking on meaningful connection. I suppose that there are more and more of the “foreign” GDCs popping up around the world, but I’m not really in the position to go globe-hopping without an “all expense paid” invite — and I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. And I figure that those various sibling-GDCs are for those who don’t want to take the time, expense and jet lag to get to San Francisco anyway.
My same rationale of pond-hopping applies to the AI of ApplyAI — in their 2nd year. I just want the AI conferences to pathfind to me rather than me to them — at least in a hierarchical sense.
Then there’s a conference that I found out about recently, CGames 2008. I tagged some of “the guys” and no one seems to have heard of it despite the fact that it is their “12th International Conference on Computer Games: AI, Animation, Mobile, Interactive Multimedia & Serious Games”. What’s more, not many of the organizers’ names were recognized. As a friend of mine also pointed out, despite the fact that it starts at the end of July, they won’t announce the conference programme (their spelling, not mine) until July 5th. That means, if you want to wait and see if it is worth going to, good luck asking for the time off and booking travel in 3 weeks. That being said, the only selling point I could put my finger on at this time was that neither my wife or I have been to Louisville, KY (that hotbed of game development!) and the venue does look kinda purty.
So where does that leave me? Despite my claims of having managed to get stuck in a local minimum, should I really feel that flat and lifeless? I mean, do the conferences really have that much appeal? I found myself asking what it is I get out of GDC, for example. The answer surprised me.
Whoa… Too Much Information!
By the time the final day of GDC rolls around, many of us are quite familiar with the glassy stare of the industry version of “TMI”. In this case, it has nothing to do with finding out peculiar hygiene habits of your co-workers or what your boss does on his day off. “Too Much Information,” in the case of conferences, is exactly what it says. You start to see the symptoms in roundtables and conversations when people say “Remember, [important person’s] lecture on [nifty topic]? I don’t remember which day it was.” — and it’s only the 2nd day of the conference. It really starts to get bad when in the afternoon, someone says the same sentence above… and the session was that morning. (”Dude. That was 4 hours ago.”) Truly, it all starts blurring together.
Photo 1: Our very own Andrew Armstrong in the Day 3 AI Roundtable at GDC 2008. Even wearing the heroic mantle of being the Eric Dybsand Scholarship winner wasn’t enough to keep him chipper by this point.
The unfortunate effect of this is that I lapse into somewhat of a coma for a day or two after the conference ends. This progresses to sort of bewildered, technologically amnesiac effect for about a week as I try to sort through what the heck I absorbed. Honestly, but with full respect to Damián Isla for an excellent and informative lecture on the last day of GDC, until I staggered through his slides a week or so later, I had forgotten that he had discussed the bin-packing algorithm problem with regards to rearranging his squad sizes on the fly. (Yes, Damián, it is an NP-Hard problem… especially on day 3 of GDC.) It is flashbacks like that that make me wonder what else I missed from the various lectures, panels and roundtables — despite actually sitting in the room. Heck, did I even forget items from conversations that I was a part of? What really happened at the AI Programmers Dinner on Friday night? Did I learn something only to have it drain out my ears hours later when my head hit the pillow? (I do have confirmation from my wife that I at least made it back to our room that night.)
The bottom line seems to come down to the following.
GDC sure does make me feel exhilarated about stuff.
Information retention at GDC is somewhat lacking.
My brain hurts afterwards.
I can’t wait to go back and do it again.
And therein lies the problem. The statements above look startlingly like they could be in reference to any sort of mind-numbing substance… alcohol, drugs, risky behavior, 36-hour gaming binges… etc. And just like an addict, every time we go back we say “this time will be different! I will pace myself, learn more, remember more… and this time I will actually USE what I learn when I go home!”
Well… at least that’s what I tell myself.
So What’s the Payoff?
So what I’m trying to meander around to like a bot with a bad heuristic is this… many of us love going to the game conferences. Many of us cite the potential education that we can get from the various sessions. We pore over our conference schedules to see how much we can milk out of the available sessions. We curse the Gods of Scheduling that put two important lectures at the same time. (Brief aside: I thought it was bad that they put Christian Gyrling’s AI-based session across from the 3rd AI Roundtable — and then I was informed that one year they scheduled two lectures across from each other that were being given by the same guy! They need AI programmers doing their scheduling, eh?) We all justify to our bosses (and in my case, my wife/CFO) the necessity of going to GDC so that we can become über-programmers. And then we wake up the morning after the conference, fix our glassy gaze at the swag bag spilled out on the hotel table and wonder “is it over?”
So many of us cite non-educational reasons as well. (Especially now that booth babes are leaking from the defunct E3 over into the GDC expo floor.) One of the things that I can’t help but feel at conferences is that sense of camaraderie and… let’s call it inspiration. I feel good about my industry — and specifically the field of game AI. I feel that there is progress, not stagnation. I feel the pulse of this burgeoning field. Damnit, GDC makes us FEEL good! Perhaps I may or may not
learn something new remember that I learned something new, but the conference environment makes me want to come home and invent something new.
Put into the cost/benefit number-cruncher of decision theory, you will probably learn more from the latest tome of knowledge in the “AI Game Programming Wisdom” series… and that only costs ?$50 compared to a couple thousand. Yet while I feel excited about cracking open any new AI books, it doesn’t compare to that feeling of walking in to the registration desk to grab my badge holder and swag bag. So, I wish I could justify going to that CGames conference at the end of July. And GDC-Austin in September. That might help me make it until AIIDE in October… which may just get me over the holiday hump and into next year’s GDC in… March?!? It’s in March again this year?!? Man… that’s a whole extra month, ya know? Anyway, I would like to go to all of those conferences. I really need a fix right now.
So what is it you get out of game AI conferences? Do you get that tingly feeling all over? Does your brain just melt out your ears and you wonder what happened? Both? Are AI roundtables, lectures and panel discussions worth it from an educational standpoint? Or are we just looking for a little group cheerleading? Which ones do you go to and why? Is there a better way?
Regardless… I’m looking forward to seeing some of you in October.
If I can make it that long…