Open Editorial

Games of the Year: The 2011 Awards for Game AI

Alex J. Champandard on January 27, 2012

Every year runs its Awards for Game AI, shining the spotlight on the best releases of the past year. There are six different awards, ranging from technology to design and of course overall game of the year. For each, we've included the community vote results as well as the editor's choice.

This year has seen an incredible set of games that raised the bar in many places, including better integration of the AI and gameplay, overall polish of the character behaviors, and applications of artificial intelligence to other areas of games. Of course, there were some catastrophes too, but we're not going to talk about those :-)

Anyway, without further ado...

Best AI in a AAA Game

Vote Winner
Batman: Arkham City

This year's winner of the community vote is Rocksteady's sequel to their highly acclaimed debut, ARKHAM ASYLUM. The game convincingly received more votes than any of the other nominees, beating out some solid competition in RAGE, RESISTANCE 3 and THE SIMS: MEDIEVAL. Congratulations to Rocksteady for a great game and winning the 2011 Award for Game AI!

ARKHAM CITY features some of the smoothest and most fluid animations seen in any game, in particular between the player and the endless hordes of brutes in the game as well as the interactions with the environment. Such smooth movement in combat obviously require AI for the NPCs, but increasingly animation systems are scaling-up significantly and using techniques refined by game AI developers over the decades.


  • RAGE

Editor's Pick
Resistance 3

In a year packed with shooter releases, each with more innovations in design and technology than previous years, our editor's pick almost had to be a shooter! The one that sums up 2011 best is RESISTANCE 3 for its polished combat design, varied enemies and challenging gameplay. The game won accolades from the press for not only being the best in the series, but for being the definitive shooter on PS3.

From an AI perspective, Insomniac's work is notable for iterating over the enemies in the game — and introducing new ones — that fit best with the desired gameplay. The team put AI hand in hand with combat design (in fact the two have become inseparable this year), a solid understanding of level design principles, and a high-level AI reminiscent of RTS games and AI directors that allows the designers to shape the gameplay. RESISTANCE 3 is also one of a growing number of AAA titles using the open source Recast library for navigation. Finally, the developer & publisher emphasized AI during the promotion of the game — so bonus points for that!

Congratulations to the RESISTANCE 3 team for their hard work on the game! An honorable mention should also go to RAGE (and Id Software) for similar reasons: varied enemies, polished combat, emphasizing the AI during the promotion of the game and robust animation and navigation technology. Impressive, particularly for the first title in a new franchise on a brand new engine!

Best Non-Player Characters

Vote Winner
Portal 2

How perfectly fitting is it for an artificial intelligence to win's Best Non-Player Character award? This year's clear first place for the vote of best NPC was PORTAL 2, which received your praise for its portrayals of GlaDOS and Wheatley in particular. With this sequel, Valve has taught game developers many valuable lessons, in particular that you don't need expensive motion capture animations to make a great character; all you need is world class writers instead!

While there isn't much AI behind the characters in PORTAL 2 as many of them obviously rely on scripts, it's inspiring to think about how such simple animation techniques can combine with well written dialog to portray rich characters. Hopefully, we'll be seeing these ingredients combined and made interactive in HALF-LIFE 3...



Editor's Pick
Uncharted 3

While this iteration of the series felt like an incremental evolution of the principles established by UNCHARTED 2 (which also won this award two years ago), Naughty Dog has expertly refined and tuned its techniques for portraying game characters and moved further to the forefront of the games industry.

In particular, Nathan Drake's companions stand out in the game as genuine and interesting characters — thanks to a combination of great writing, acting, motion capture, animation and of course AI. The addition of the close combat system in UNCHARTED 3 also increases their levels of believability, not to mention the combinations of interactive animations and prepared cutscenes. UNCHARTED 3 also features one of the richest walk cycles ever seen in a game, in the way player avatar interacting with its environment and uses varied animations based on where the character is looking.

Congratulations to the Naughty Dog team for its inspirational work, and winning this award for the second time! An honorable mention also goes to BioWare for the characters in STAR WARS: THE OLD REPUBLIC, as an evolution of the technology in the DRAGON AGE franchise that won the community vote two years ago. As Kevin Dill pointed out, the gestures used during conversations are particularly impressive.

Design Innovation in Game AI

Vote Winner
Dark Spore

In a year mostly full of sequels, Dark Spore won the community's vote for innovative design, in particular it's AI Director. The topics of experience management and player profiling have become increasingly important recently, as more developers try to make their gameplay a bit less chaotic and closer to what the designer intends.

The details of the AI Director were shared by Dan Kline at the Paris Game/AI Conference 2011 last june, where he showed how the enemies in the game are spawned based on the player's state — among other things. The game also uses this approach to adjust difficulty levels based on the player's selection.


  • BASTION (The Narrator)
  • RIFT (Enemy Spawns)
  • SWARM (Group Behavior)

Editor's Pick

One of the most interesting designs of the year comes from Hothead Games. SWARM is a fascinating merge of Lemmings and 'boids' with flocking behaviors, challenging you to control a group of Swarmites through hostile terrain. Your goal is to try to score points by voluntarily sacrificing your Swarmites, but preserving enough of them to reach the next checkpoint that replenishes your group's count.

What makes this game interesting from an AI perspective is the basic combination of group behaviors that lead to interesting, challenging and — most importantly — fun gameplay. You can tell your group to spread out, regroup, move in various directions, jump and use nearby items for example. The resulting behaviors are also very humorously executed, for example the Swarmites will pick up each other accidentally when you tell them to throw objects (e.g. explosives).

Best AI in an Independent Game

Vote Winner
Frozen Synapse

One of the most acclaimed and commercially succesful indie games of 2011 also won the community vote for the Best AI in an Independent Game. Frozen Synapse is a turn-based top-down tactical shooter with challenging gameplay and very deep mechanics. The game features AI bots to play against, which are relatively rare in even big-budget AAA games, so it's impressive to see them implemented to this degree of success in an independent game!



AI Technology in a Supporting Role

Vote Winner
From Dust

The cellular automata in Ubisoft and Eric Chahi's god game FROM DUST won the community vote for AI in a supporting role. The game itself is a populous-style simulation where tribes inhabit a complex terrain, though in this case it's subject to the forces of nature! Rock, sand, soil, water, laval and plants make up this dynamic and ever changing world that looks and feels very real.

Under the hood is a complex simulation that specifies how each cell in the world gets updated, depending on the amounts of material nearby and their velocities — among many other things. Getting this to run on the PS3 in particular was a huge technical undertaking that involved meticulous accounting for every bit in the world's representation!


  • MINECRAFT (Procedural Worlds)

Technical Innovation in Game AI

Vote Winner
Killzone 3

On the technical front, it's KILLZONE 3 that won the community award for technical innovation with its automatic annotation technology. Guerrilla Games worked closely with Mikko Mononen to integrate the open-source project Recast into its tools and export pipeline, in particular to provide better analysis of the terrain. This helped level designers place cover locations for the player in a much more consistent fashion, among other things.

Technically, this is achieved using voxelization under the hood, which allows for reliable processing and analysis of local space. Mikko demonstrated at the Game/AI Conference 2011 how this can be used to find not only cover, but jump links and potentially any interesting action that can be performed at the border of a navigation mesh.


  • FROM DUST (Cellular Automata)
  • LEAGUE OF LEGENDS (Level Scripting with BTs)
  • BULLETSTORM (Locomotion Planning)

Editor's Pick

One technique in particular that impressed me was the locomotion planning in Bulletstorm. The whole game is an impressive technical achievement in game AI programming, which outperforms the more established AAA shooter franchises built by bigger teams! The design of the game too is refreshingly innovative, though sales of the game didn't match the expectations of People Can Fly and Epic.

Under the hood, the locomotion is achieved in an animation-driven approach that's targetted to fit on a path. Compared to the traditional steering behaviors with reactive animation, this is not only much easier to put into place for AI characters but results in higher quality movement.

Your Games of the Year

What games had the biggest impact on your year? Which ones will you continue to play in 2012, recommend to friends, or keep on your shelf for further study of the AI?

Post a comment below or in the forums, and let everyone know what you think!

Discussion 2 Comments

nobody on January 27th, 2012

I would like to see at least one more Game AI award category: a) "Best AI that runs natively on Linux :)"* or b) "Best AI in Free (as in Freedom) Software Games"* to encourage creation of more games for free platforms :) * or similar :)

alexjc on January 27th, 2012

Thanks for your comment and thoughts. The major problem with reviewing open source game AI yearly is that most games evolve over many years, so there's no particular point in time where they are released. Few games hit 1.0, but that could be the arbitrary point chosen to review I guess. (It's a similar problem for social games, FWIW.)

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