AI Conferences: Education or Pep Rally?

Dave Mark on June 18, 2008

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.

Is my brain bleeding out my ears?

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?”

We had to take this photo about 5 times because it was Friday… and my brain hurt. This is one of the discarded versions where I looked like a zombie. Click to see it better.

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…

Discussion 13 Comments

zoombapup on June 18th, 2008

Personally, I find GDC useful for only one thing. Meeting my buddies. You talk about being in a coma after GDC. The last time I came over, I had a particularly heavy night out and was in somewhat of a coma DURING the GDC, to the point where I simply lost a day. I just have NO memory of the day in question, even though I'd arranged to meet some mates from GarageGames that day. It just kinda disappeared. I'm very wary of attending conferences like GDC anymore, because the cost and time is so large (for most things) that I really have to justify it to myself and my bosses (who pay for it all). The more useful conferences to me, are the ones where they have refereed papers and presentations, because at leas with those I can follow up the references and speak to the people involved. I've found the games AI stuff inspiring at times, but also sometimes quite useless because they never have enough time to go into great detail and yet its the detail that contains the devil. If there were some in between state, where you could actually get enough discussion AND depth going, I think we'd be going somewhere. But those things dont come overnight. They come from longer term relationships and discussions, I guess thats the real value in conferences overall. Not the conference itself, but the bonds formed during them. For that you invariably need to be a regular attendee, mostly you need to be a productive regular attendee that has something to contribute too. But the feeling of being amongst peers has a lot of "feel good factor" for me too. I love talking shop, I love talking creative approaches to thorny problems, I love the general camaraderie that tends to be there in the games industry. Frankly, what I miss is the follow up, in depth collaboration.

alexjc on June 18th, 2008

Phil, I was going to post something very similar. GDC started out with a small group of passionate people, and in my experience, those kinds of events are always more interesting and productive -- not to mention better for networking. These days, certain events have turned into a huge enterprise trying to cater to the greatest common denominator. It serves a purpose, but there's definitely something missing as far as I'm concerned -- just like you said. In fact, I only tend to go to conferences when I'm invited to speak. But generally, I get the impression that the conference business at an interesting crossroads for many reasons I won't go into here... (I don't want to say too much about this publicly, we can talk more about it in Paris next week. But I've learned a lot from organizing the upcoming Game AI Workshop! :) Alex

zoombapup on June 18th, 2008

I've learnt a lot about organising these things from doing events at the Uni. Definitely opens your eyes to how well some conferences are run (considering the complexities involved). Incidentally, if you need any help next week (moving stuff around or whatever) just ask. I'm really looking forward to it!

Dave Mark on June 18th, 2008

[quote=zoombapup;2976]You talk about being in a coma after GDC. The last time I came over, I had a particularly heavy night out and was in somewhat of a coma DURING the GDC, to the point where I simply lost a day. I just have NO memory of the day in question, even though I'd arranged to meet some mates from GarageGames that day. It just kinda disappeared.[/quote] Which is why I don't do too much partying that week. I network and talk - Laurie and I were booked every night that week - but I don't want to shortchange myself the next day. The week is exhausting enough without the added "challenge" of a hangover or very little sleep.

zoombapup on June 18th, 2008

What can I say, I'd been to a private party with some of the most amazing people in the games industry that night and then went on to a few bars that were so incredibly seedy that they made "the longest bar in san hose" look palacial. What I dont understand is that I basically realised where I was two days later as I was sat on the floor of the GDC. The garagegames guys came over to me and said "where were you yesterday" and I simply couldnt answer. I really dont think I was THAT drunk. I reckon I got spiked with something. But it really was good to meet all those people. Strangely enough, I know far more US game developers than I know european. I mean almost all of the US based FPS devs I would know by name and reputation, but I think there are maybe a half dozen european programmers I know (outside the ones I've worked with). Funny how that works :)

Jare on June 18th, 2008

A few years ago, I paid my own first trip to GDC (transoceanic flight and all), using my own vacation days, even though I was working at a games company. In the last couple of months there have been two events in town (VIGS and Krazy!) with interesting people talking dev and industry (Will Wright among them), and even though they were taking place literally next door, I haven't dropped by. I know that I enjoy conferences while I'm there, but I also know that, outside of seeing friends and building contacts, there's not a lot of value to get from being there. I recognize what Dave says about being motivated, but even that kind of fades out after several attendances. However, I still look forward to and devour the papers and ppts and summaries, so it's not like I lost interest in the content itself. :)

zoombapup on June 19th, 2008

It also gets a bit dull that its always the same people talking. I mean I really dont CARE what Peter Molyneux has to say anymore, because I've heard it all before. I'll buy the slides for any talk I didnt see at GDC, save myself a few k :)

Dave Mark on June 19th, 2008

I have to wonder what would happen if we were to have an AI Roundtable that lasted for more than 1 hour. Seriously, I believe that we could have ones that last half the day.

Andrew on June 19th, 2008

I found the GDC experience great. It was a learning experience (I've not exactly made a production-grade game, so it's all useful stuff). I did know to not drink too much, and get some sleep so I survived :) Great meeting people, and I preferred the roundtables - and yes, half a day minimum in my opinion. They also were a lot more crowded then the lectures - frankly, a shame they are not put on more often (more slots or longer ones) since then people could spread out the time in them a bit, and get involved more. It is however a high cost and time involvement - more so for anyone not in the USA, since a trans-atlantic flight is not a short amount of time (and I got delayed on the way back - luckily free of charge, for an entire 24 hours, sigh). Sadly, none of the other conferences do roundtables - I must enquire why at next months Develop conference. AIIDE sounds good, but is much too costly for me to make, and unlike GDC, I can't volunteer at it (nevermind the price to get there ;) ). Also; that isn't the prettiest picture of me (I am pretty sure I was tired though ;) ). Hehe, I got a seat that time - the AI roundtables were so packed, even the split-in-two-rooms one had some standing-only in them. Now doing it standing is a great way to not concentrate. More seats!

Dave Mark on June 20th, 2008

For the record, there are usually 3 roundtables during each slot rather than the 2 we had this year. That makes for 9 groups of people in 3 time periods. Day 1 had 3 rooms worth of people [URL=""]packed in one place[/URL]. Also, there are some super-duper, double-secret talks about nifty stuff for next year's GDC. Stay tuned!

smaton on June 20th, 2008

Hi, I must say that, although I've been in games business for 12 years, that I've never been at the GDC. I've attemted (and made presentations) a couple of times at the old E3s and had a lot of fun at the after show parties (especially the GT Interactive party :) ). I plan on going to the GDC next year since this year wasn't possible for me... hopefully next year... that's what I tell myself since 10 years ;) Stefan

RobinB on June 23rd, 2008

I pretty much second Andrews thoughts on the GDC; I really enjoyed my time, although I didn't learn much new stuff AI wise (only that new academic methods are rarely used at all :-)). Since I stayed 11 days, it was a superb holiday of San Francisco for me as well, which I intend to repeat next year (pending funding). I actually was at the CGames conference last November in La Rochelle. It was a quite small conference (the strikes at that time in France didn't help), and your thoughts about the somewhat ad-hoc organisation and late programmes are not far off at all... The conference was quite broad and general (my talk was the only one on AI and I think it was also the most technical), and I think there were almost exclusively academics. Also, the conference fees of 450€ (and this is including the student and speaker discount!) struck me as quite high, considering its a very small conference held in a university lecture theatre. Maybe the one in Louisville is a bit bigger and better attended, don't know.

ak-73 on June 24th, 2008

Since we're dabbling in the department of logic, this maybe a good point to draw on the classics: "It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which are vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated." Sherlock Holmes

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