Open Editorial

Games of the Year: The 2012 Awards for Game AI

Alex J. Champandard on January 17, 2013

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.

Like previous years, the games this year have raised the bar in many places for artificial intelligence, including AI-based mechanics that open up new game designs, using optimization and evolutionary algorithms as tools, and procedural pipelines for AAA-quality graphics. Of course, there were some catastrophes too, but we're not going to talk about those :-)

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Content Index

  1. Best AI in a AAA Game
  2. Best Non-Player Characters
  3. Best AI in an Independent Game
  4. Design Innovation in Game AI
  5. AI Technology in a Supporting Role
  6. Technical Innovation in Game AI

Best AI in a AAA Game

Vote Winner
XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The winner of the vote for Game Of The Year, by a large margin, is Fireaxis' highly acclaimed remake of the original X-COM. As well as drawing players in for hundreds or thousands of hours, the game impressed AI geeks with tactical reasoning that was very solid yet could be surprised and caught off guard by the player.

For the second year running, this award for Best AI goes to a highly polished GOTY in its own regard (BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY last year). This not only emphasizes that great game AI and great mechanics go hand in hand, but that best-in-class game design is often a sufficient condition for winning the public's opinion about the AI — almost more so than technical innovation.

Congratulations to the whole team at Fireaxis!


  • Assassin's Creed 3
  • Far Cry 3
  • Halo 4
  • Dishonored

Honorable Mentions

  • Borderlands 2
  • Hitman: Absolution


  1. How To Have Fun in an Asylum: Building Batman's AI (ULTIMATE)

Editor's Pick
Far Cry 3

Ubisoft's ambitious open-world sequel captured the imagination of players worldwide and gets's pick for Best AI in a AAA Game. The game is filled with great applications of AI, from the wild-life to the combat manager that spawns enemies, and of course its NPCs. Building open-world games is a huge challenge in general, but the development team rose to the challenge and managed to breathe life into the environment and turn the island into the main feature of the game.

Congratulations to the Ubisoft teams that worked on the game, the designers for their audacity in aiming for such bold ideas, and the technical teams for pulling it off! We hope to see more from this engine in particular, and of course other equally ambitious implementations form other game studios.

Best Non-Player Characters

Vote Winner
Hitman: Absolution

This vote was the closest ever in the history of these awards! IO Interactive's big-budget sequel to the HITMAN franchise wins the Best NPC award by a statistically insignificant margin in front of FAR CRY 3. Congratulations to the team in Copenhagen for their many years of hard work on the project!

Hitman: Absolution's success with its characters can be attributed to a combination of different things; new technology such as reinforcement-learning for animation control, grid-based reasoning inspired by KILLZONE's technology and a behavior-tree implementation of classic stealth AI. The votes did reflect some polarization, possibly due to the traditional design of the NPCs, and the reduced emphasis on sandbox gameplay like the previous iteration (HITMAN: BLOOD MONEY).

Far Cry 3 on the other hand, featured iconic and memorable characters, in particular Vaas, who received critical acclaim for the voice acting and quirky writing.


  • Far Cry 3
  • Mass Effect 3
  • Dishonored
  • Max Payne 3


  1. Reinforcement Learning-based Character Locomotion in Hitman: Absolution (ULTIMATE)

Best AI in an Independent Game

Vote Winner

This year's winning independent game is Strange Loop's VESSEL. (Disclaimer, one of the developers, Kieran, worked at last year :-) This platforming game innovates on multiple different fronts, from its use of combinations of behavior in gameplay puzzles, to the underlying simulation of the characters that blend skeletons and fluid simulations, as well as the dynamic music and audio which adjusts to the player's progress.

We think of the game as the "Braid of AI" and anyone interested in how character behavior can make interesting gameplay (or puzzles) is highly encouraged to play it! Congratulations to the team for winning this award.


  • City Conquest
  • Prom Week
  • Field Runners 2
  • Awesomenauts
  • Unity of Command
  • Endless Space


  1. Integrating Behavior and Physics in VESSEL (PREMIUM)

Editor's Pick
Prom Week

Our choice for the best independent game is PROM WEEK, built by a team at the Expressive Intelligence Studio at the University of Santa Cruz. You may recognize the influence of Michael Mateas, who previously developed Fa├žade. Prom Week takes the idea of story as a simulation further by adding the concept of "social physics", i.e. predictable character mechanics that the player can interact with for gameplay purposes.

The underlying system, Comme Il Faut is well documented via multiple publications, and emphasizes how many opportunities there are still in this area! However, despite a nomination in the Independent Games Festival (IGF) and accolades from experienced developers in industry, the game didn't succeed in reaching as broad an audience as many expected/hoped.


  1. Enabling Playable Social Models and PROM WEEK (ULTIMATE)

Design Innovation in Game AI

Vote Winner
Crowd Interaction in Hitman: Absolution

There was strong competition for design innovation in this year's awards, but HITMAN: ABSOLUTION won with its use of crowds. First and foremost, the underlying crowd-simulation technology that IO Interactive built brings scenes to life in a way previously unseen in AAA games. But beyond the experience, the crowds also add to the gameplay, providing obstacles and concealment, as well as responding to gunfire in a plausible way.

With the next generation of consoles around the corner, we can only be hopeful to see more developers experiment with this kind of technology, and find even more interesting and innovative game mechanics. Congratulations to the technical team at IO for being able to pull off this crazy idea!


  • Social Physics in PROM WEEK
  • Behavioral Gameplay in VESSEL
  • Enemy Steering in FIELD RUNNERS 2
  • Supervised Flower Breeding in PETALZ



AI Technology in a Supporting Role

Vote Winner
Physics-Driven Motion in MAX PAYNE 3

Over the years, Rockstar has invested a lot of time and money into its animation systems, and this year MAX PAYNE 3 wins the award for its use of AI there. The underlying implementation is based on Natural Motion's euphoria, combined with some proprietary physics simulation technology from the R.A.G.E. engine. The result is a highly interactive protagonist that you can throw down stairs while controlling his movement, and yet still respond to collisions in a reasonable way.

This kind of animation technology requires significant support from AI-style reasoning to understand the immediate surroundings of falling characters, and determine how to respond at a high-level, then affecting control on the underlying simulation. This kind of environmental awareness is becoming more and more important for animation, even for traditional ragdolls.


  • Evolutionary Algorithm as Design Tool in CITY CONQUEST
  • Bots AI in DOTA 2
  • Procedural Generation in SSX
  • Language Recognition in SCRIBBLENAUTS UNLIMITED

Editor's Pick
Evolutionary Algorithms in City Conquest

Our choice for the best use of AI in a Supporting Role is City Conquest, an iOS tower defense game that features symmetrical gameplay against opponents. The game was designed by industry veteran Paul Tozour, who used evolutionary algorithms as part of the design process to help balance and tune the various units and towers in the game (among others).

Genetic algorithms are popular in academia, but haven't found their place in AI engine runtimes. Tools, however, seems like an ideal place for them, and Quake 3 in particular had some of its weapon selection parameters evolved. The kind of techniques behind City Conquest have significant potential to help designers understand their mechanics better and iterate quickly over them. Hats off to Paul for attempting this in such a bold fashion!


  1. Making Designers Obsolete? Evolution in Game Design (BLOG)

Technical Innovation in Game AI

Vote Winner
Hierarchical Planning in Transformers: Fall of Cybertron

This year's winner on the technical front is TRANSFORMERS: FALL OF CYBERTRON. The game, developed at High Moon, features a hierarchical task network planner. Over the past few years, HTN have become the spiritual successor to GOAP (goal-oriented action planning, based on STRIPS technology) thanks to the pioneering work done by Guerrilla Games on KILLZONE 2.

The planner in FALL OF CYBERTRON takes the implementation further by accurately tracking side-effects of operators on the world. For non-planning geeks, this is a subtle improvement, and furthermore it can be hard to distinguish a planner from a behavior tree in practice (especially in action games). But the result of this vote also hints at the general appeal to the public of planning as a concept! Expect to see more :-)


  • Reinforcement Learning Animation in HITMAN: ABSOLUTION
  • Tactical Reasoning in XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN
  • Procedural Art Pipelines in SSX



Editor's Pick
Procedural Pipelines in SSX

Arguably the most important technical innovation this year, from our perspective at, is the inclusion of procedural techniques within AAA pipelines to produce top-quality graphics. The team that worked on SSX bought into this idea fully and took the implementation as far as possible in one game. Congratulations to EA Vancouver for trying this and pulling it off!

The designers on SSX used the pipeline entirely to craft the tracks, and only the final artist touch up was done manually. The developers hope and plan to go 100% procedural with better education/training in the future! Expect this technology to spread around Electronic Arts and the rest of the industry incrementally as well...


  1. Procedural Generation of Mountains and Tracks in SSX (PREMIUM)

Your Games of the Year

What games had the biggest impact on your year? Which ones will you continue to play in 2013, 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!

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