Open Editorial

This Year in Game AI: Analysis, Trends from 2013

Alex J. Champandard on December 31, 2013

It's been an exciting year for artificial intelligence and the games industry in general as well. The economic downturn that hit the industry in 2012 is still ongoing this year, with some high-profile layoffs or closures in some AI-focused studios in particular. More are to be expected as business models change and new hardware introduces significant risks along with their huge potential.

However, more so than last year, 2013 saw some incredible growth, diversification and creativity in the whole industry – partly thanks to increasing use of AI techniques like procedural generation and to a rebirth of traditional AI genres like simulation games. (NOTE: Procedural techniques and rogue-like game design were trends for last year already, so don't expect them again!)

Old-School Sim Games

Crowd-sourcing brought back a dying genre, Bullfrog-style simulations. Prison Architect, Spacebase DF9...

The rise of Kickstarter in 2012 has yielded a very fruitful year for new and forgotten styles of games. Chief among them is the simulation genre, such as the old Bullfrog classics like Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper. In 2013, we saw games such as Maia, Prison Architect, Spacebase DF9, RimWorld (and more) all achieve popular success.

As Javier Arevalo points out on Twitter, this could be attributed to the earlier growth in popularity of web-based and mobile games. Players have sinced moved away from such shallow experiences (with the fall of Zynga as evidence) and deeper AI-driven simulations are a perfect antidote to the grind!

Purchasing Innovation

Big publishers buying innovative AI from small studios to diversify & recapture gamer's imagination.

One trend that seems very encouraging is publishers aquiring companies or licensing AI technology from smaller technical studios. This includes for example Sony's Everquest Next that's based on VoxelFarm's procedural landscape engine (see our interview) and Storybricks' utility & drive-based system (also see interview), as well as Linden Labs acquiring Little Text People and publishing Versu.

No doubt a lot of code was rewritten post-licensing to make it work, but this model seems like a very healthy way to inject more AI into typically conservative publishers and their mainstream games. It also arguably reflects desperation, as a way for less relevant publishers to gamble for better fortunes in this fast pace industry.

Brain Drain

Established studios losing key AI team members and the quality of some franchises dropping vs. previous years.

This trend has arguably been the case for years as experienced programmers move into indie development, middleware or other industries (as Andrew Fray and Mark J. Nelson pointed out on Twitter). Large game studios tend to have higher turn-over and of course this has impact on their AI teams, and the results were particularly noticeable this year.

This trend left some of the high profile franchises and studios unable to build on previous achievements, ending up with lower user scores and poorer reviews than their previous iterations. It's true that growing game complexity and engine codebase size does not help, but all of this is manageable assuming experienced developers remain in place — which sadly is not always the case.

Emergent AI

Although it's somewhat of a misnomer, Everquest Next's marketing team struck a chord by promising actual AI in MMO.

On the marketing front, the Everquest Next team did a great job (re)selling the concept of "Emergent AI" to their potential players, and built a lot of excitement in the process. However, those of you that have been following for a while know our motto on the topic: "emergence is not good enough," which gets reinforced in our interviews on a regular basis.

Of course players don't want an AI that's there only for its own selfish purposes, they want AI that's specifically crafted to give them a combination of novel situations and predictable responses. Ubisoft has done this particularly well in recenty years, starting in Far Cry 3 with it's open world AI direction and applying the technology .

More Bots

Top FPS and MOBA titles feature bots prominently, useful as a training tool and to help smooth the progression curve.

From the first-person shooters like Call Of Duty featuring bots in their Squad mode (see previous interview), to the highly competitive MOBA games offering bots as a training mode. Bots are a great way to bring the benefits of single-player AI to multiplayer games, for example difficulty and progression balancing, training and tutoring, and of course, offline mode.

Bots had their golden age when PC shooters used to be modable. Some studios (like Guerrilla or Valve) have valued bots for years, but they're now almost ubiquitous. In fact, Battlefield 4 stands out for lacking bot support and conversely Heroes of Newerth gets extra credits for its bot API! It'll be interesting to see the quality of bots improve over the next few years now they are being featured more prominently.

Natural Language Niche

Story-based or social interaction games as Versu or Redshirt found some success, but not mainstream hits.

There's something tactile about simple physics-based games or even puzzles; you perform an action and get immediate feedback, which makes the game much more accessible and arguably, more rewarding. AI-based games — in contrast — are more indirect and their rewards are indirect... Does this reduce the size of the potential audience?

PROM WEEK, released a few years ago, suffered from this dilema, and this year it's games like VERSU. While both these games received critical success, they haven't met huge popular success. It's becoming a thorn in the side of Game AI, and makes The Sims stand out as exception rather than the rule. Is it possible only EA could afford the necessary effort to make such gameplay work?

Strong Competitions

Top 5 of #ctfcomp implemented cutting-edge of FPS tech.; Starcraft contest saw solid RTS AI improvements.

Last year saw the grand BotPrize being claimed, with two Unreal Tournament bots being rated higher in "hummanness" than the average human! There are many questionable aspects of the methodology, and the results are also therefore in doubt... But luckily 2013 has made up for this, with both the Starcraft competition and our #ctfcomp saw very solid entries and some great technology.

On the Capture the Flag front, the first entries implemented many of the systems found in top shooters, for instance enemy prediction/tracking, influence mapping, corridor graphs, terrain analysis, hierarchical task network, and planning domains for both bots and commanders. Impressive for less than 3 months work! The Starcraft competition has also grown from strength to strength, with the competition infrastructure finally being able to get around the closed-sourced nature of Blizzard's RTS (e.g. accelerated simulation, spawning matches automatically). This also had an impact on the quality of the solutions, and along with the open source requirement to make all submissions available publicly.

Middleware Crunch

Xaitment silently re-acquired by iOpener Media, Autodesk de-emphasizes BT tool, StoryBricks now contracting too.

The middleware business is always variable, with certain companies performing better than others year over year. The underlying theme for AI middleware is two fold; first, path-finding is pretty much required, i.e. you need a great reason not to use one. Second, high-level AI middleware adoption is still rare (e.g. for character behavior), and we're still a long way from seeing critical mass.

Generally, this has left existing middleware vendors in a tricky position. The market is a difficult one; there are fewer high-budget AAA titles, many commercial engines include reasonable path-finding solutions built-in, open source solutions are often "good enough" and there's lots of competition. The good news is that the companies still in this market seem to be in it for the long term!

Autonomous Buddies

Top games nailed co-operation with AI; it mostly wasn't about tech., but strong design, storytelling and animation.

Creating engaging single-player stories is very difficult to do without AI buddies that are involved in gameplay, which historically has been a hard thing to do. With a powerful AI buddy you risk removing agency from the player, and with a weak AI buddy it can become a frustrating escort mission...

Top games this year such as BIOSHOCK: INFINITE and THE LAST OF US both tackled this problem head on, putting a huge focus on AI. Of course, there's always room for improvement and more research in the area, but the results are clearly a level above anything else done in games so far. Getting to this level has required an amazing amount of multi-disciplinary collaboration.