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Games of the Year: The 2014 AiGameDev.com Awards for Game AI

Alex J. Champandard on December 31, 2014

Every year AiGameDev.com hosts the Awards for Game AI, shining the spotlight on the best releases of the past twelve months. 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 as the last, the nominations were already highly competitive!

In 2014, we've seen many innovations in game design (for example different ways of framing battles) and AI patterns in simulations (like AI directors and open-world systems), as well as improvements for next-generation consoles (such as large crowds of pedestrians or large numbers of active enemies), prolonged interaction between AI and player (e.g. persistent enemies), and of course procedural generated worlds.

  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 in a Supporting Role
  6. Technical Innovation in Game AI

For those of you new to AiGameDev.com, the site is run by developers for developers — whether enthusiasts or professionals. We try very hard to stay on top of anything interesting and relevant, including the games that are listed here. You can assume we either already know or have personally met the individuals behind all nominated games, and/or that their studio is a member of the site. If that's not the case, we're working on it! (See details for signing up. :-)

Best AI in a AAA Game

Community Vote
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

The grand winner of this year's awards, earning the community vote for Best AI in a AAA Game, is Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. The game took the whole industry by surprise this year, when many were expecting other big publishers to deliver on their big franchises. However, it's Monolith that delivered a title that will have the biggest impact on industry.

Like the winners in previous years, its overall quality of the game and high level of polish that secured the award. However, Shadow Of Mordor was also nominated for a variety of other awards here, ranging from game/AI design (thanks to its nemesis system) to AI technology (because of its use of planners) — innovating on many fronts.

Here's what you had to say about the game:

“I think, or at least hope, that Shadow of Mordor will go down as one of the most important games of recent years for starting the trend of giving non-story NPCs individual personalities, memories of past encounters and in many cases, a survival instinct! All things lacking in most combat games where NPCs are nothing more than short-lived target dummies.”
Richard Matthias

Congratulations to the team at Monolith and we look forward to the next iteration in the inevitable sequel!

Nominations

  • The Sims 4
  • Planetary Annihilation
  • Alien: Isolation
  • Far Cry 4

Honorable Mentions

  • Dragon Age: Inquisition
  • Assassin's Creed: Unity
  • Titanfall
  • Sunset Overdrive

Editor's Pick
Planetary Annihilation

As the largest real-time strategy game Kickstarter, Planetary Annihilation had high expectations for its release. Uber Entertainment delivered on that vision with a technical masterpiece with many interesting components (e.g. the curve-based replay system) that's fun to play and replay — especially in Skirmish against the AI.

From the AI perspective, many new challenges had to be solved by the team, in particular inter-planetary resource allocation, an AI that can reason strategically on a sphere, and scaling up to huge number of units. On top of this, the implementation focuses on building a skilled AI using a neural network and a form of reinforcement learning. This makes it interesting to play against for learning purposes and challenging while levelling up!

References

Best Non-Player Characters

Community Vote
Alien: Isolation

This year's vote for Best Non-Player Characters was very close, and it was Alien: Isolation that won the award over Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor with a statistically insignificant margin. Creative Assembly's faithful recreation of Ridley Scott's 1979 classic movie won praise for its authentic environments and tense gameplay in particular.

What makes Alien: Isolation particularly interesting from an AI perspective is the Xenomorph — which interacts with the player over the course of the entire experience. Sustaining such a prolonged interaction is rare for modern games, and the entire experience relied on its artificial intelligence. Thankfully, it not only lived up to expectations but has often amazed the critics and players alike.

Nominations

  • Dragon Age: Inquisition
  • Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
  • The Sims 4

Editor's Pick
The Sims 4

There are few other franchises that systematically expand and promote their AI from one release to another — if you don't include the expansion packs. In fact, The Sims explores a unique space in design and technology that no other games even consider. For this fourth iteration focused on emotions of the Sims in particular.

The characters still have their quirks, and moreso, flaws in their common sense — as any human under the microscope. However, this still makes for engrossing gameplay and solid entertainment value even if you only watch! Let's hope for a smooth development for the next major iteration.

Best AI in an Independent Game

Community Vote
Third Eye Crime

It's Moonshot's long-awaited Third Eye Crime that won year's community vote for Best AI in an Independent Game. It's a stealth game where the enemy's model of the player position is a probability distribution over the level, also known as an occupancy grid. The game shines particularly for its clever exploration of these core mechanics via a series of puzzles over three Noir-style episodes.

Like many other AI-focused games, Third Eye Crime hasn't had as much success reaching a wide audience or grabbing the attention of the press. However, the PC version in particular was penned as "love letter" to the Game AI community thanks to its full Lua source release and additional debug visualizations. We appreciated the touch controls on tablets, but either way you'll struggle to find a modern stealth game with stronger core mechanics.

References

Nominations

  • I Am Dolphin
  • Banished
  • Endless Legend
  • Door Kickers

Honorable Mentions

  • The Last Federation

Editor's Pick
Banished

Banished is a medieval city simulator developed entirely by Luke Hodorowicz. It's impressive enough for a single developer to have built a game of this quality, but it was also among the team's most played games of the year — filling the niche that the previous year's Sim City left open.

From an AI perspective, Banished solves a variety of very challenging technical problems including efficient pathfinding at city scale, worker assignment in dynamic conditions, and scaling up to large cities. But most importantly, its the detailed simulation of each villager that makes this a gritty "rogue-like" city builder where you feel a strong connection to your inhabitants — especially when things result in horrible and miserable endings!

References

Design Innovation in Game AI

Community Vote
Nemesis System in Shadow of Mordor

In a year of increased competition in both AAA and indie games, there were many notable design innovations on both sides — and more so than in previous years. However, the clear winner of the Community Vote for Design Innovation in Game AI was Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor for its nemesis system.

Here's what you had to say about it:

“While the AI in Shadow of Mordor is great in all respects, it's the nemesis system where it really shines. A lot of this is actually down to the quality of the voice work and the range of game conditions the designers have recognised. The systemic gameplay should also be noted — when missions are failed or abandoned, open-world gameplay continues in that state and you can wander into random Uruk captains at any time, which gives pre-designed missions a more organic feeling.” — Richard Matthias
“Nemesis was, in my opinion, the most important feature in Shadow of Mordor. Although the system seems really simple, its real power probably came from proper balancing and, what is I guess most important here, informing player about what happened in the Ork society, and WHY. Often really sophisticated systems fail to provide fun not because they're inherently broken, but because they're not properly communicated to the player. In most open-world games players enjoy toying with provided systems, trying to figure out the way they work. It is not an easy task to create such thing — so congrats, Monolith devs!”— Maciej Kurowski

The design is already inspiring many derivatives that we look forward too, and I'm sure you can imagine it working it a variety of other franchises. Congratulations to the design team at Monolith!

Nominations

  • Open-World Systems in Far Cry 4
  • Occupancy Grid in Third Eye Crime
  • Multiplayer AI Enemies in Titanfall
  • Emotions in The Sims 4

Honorable Mentions

  • The Last Federation

Editor's Pick
Open World Systems in Far Cry 4

As one of the best sandbox games of the year, Far Cry 4 took the AI of its predecessor and made it shine with a variety of forward-looking improvements. Lead AI at Ubisoft Montreal, Julien Varnier, covered many of those in his keynote at the Game/AI Conference 2014. However, one of the most interesting design innovations was the integration of AI, game systems and level design.

Each of the objects in Far Cry 4 — and the level editor — are annotated with specific rules and behaviors, ready for combining with other items in the map. This is similar to The Sims' smart object concept, but in this case the items include their own behavior trees which can interact with each other (e.g. animals). Level designers can easily build emergent ecosystems by combining objects together, but only the AI team gets control of the underlying parameters and behaviors.

This approach of relying heavily on BT-injection, then removing parameterization and scripting support that's traditionally exposed for level designers may only work in simulation-heavy games, but will enable deeper and richer content that's powered by procedural gameplay rather than special case scripts.

AI Technology in a Supporting Role

Community Vote
Crowds in Assassin's Creed: Unity

The transition to next-generation consoles brought with it increased expectations, and the latest Assassin's Creed is the first notable game to make the most of it in its depiction of revolution-torn Paris. It won this year's community vote for AI Technology in a Supporting Role thanks to its huge crowds.

Certainly, everyone is aware the game shipped with its fair share of technical issues overall, some of which were related to the crowds. However, as our readers posted in their comments, the scale of the ambition itself and the sense of awe this brought to the world is what secured Unity's award.

Here are some of your comments:

“Despite some issues like too aggressive LOD-ing, visible sliding, performance, crowds in new Assassin's Creed made me feel that the game's world is really "living & breathing" — as marketing people say about every game with more than 3 NPCs :-) Many open world games try to achieve immersion through realistic graphics, interactive environment and other stuff, and they usually fail by pretending there are only 10 people living there!”
Maciej Kurowski

Congratulations to the team at Ubisoft Montreal for pulling this off!

Nominations

  • Practice Mode in Hearthstone
  • Auto-Pilot AI in Titanfall
  • Drivatar in Forza Horizon 2

Editor's Pick
Bots, Bots, Bots and DOTA 2

In a year troubled by online launches, games featuring bots are always very welcome! However, we've also seen increasing focus of bots in two places:

  • Using bots as part of the multiplayer AI, for example as the auto-pilot AI for Titanfall.
  • Bots as beginner training tools, for instance in Hearthstone's practice mode.

The most notable implementation in this area is currently DOTA 2's; experienced players often praise the bots as a great tool and recommend it to beginners. Valve earns our Editor's Pick for Artificial Intelligence in a Supporting Role because of it. We'd love to find out more how the bots work!

Technical Innovation in Game AI

Community Vote
Animation Rig in Destiny

The biggest challenge in the "realization" of character behaviors is by far the animation. You can't portray any kind of movement, gesture or emotion without a suitably animated skeleton. Bungie took the problem head on with its new cross-platform engine powering Destiny, and developed a very powerful system capable of retargeting animations to any skeleton at runtime — among many other things. It won the community's vote for this year's Technical Innovation award.

The implementation is based on a runtime rig, similar to the rigs implemented in animation editing packages like Maya, but at runtime. This is based on a set of IK solvers that take animated end-effectors and in turn applies the motion to a detailed skeleton. This offers many benefits such as runtime control (e.g. by AI) as well as animation compression and correctness of the results in dynamic environments. It's an amazing achievement and we expect to see many studios follow suit!

References

Nominations

  • Offline Mission Planning in Planned Assault
  • Monte-Carlo Tree Search in TOTAL WAR: ROME 2
  • Goal-Oriented Action Planning in Shadow Of Mordor
  • Biomechanical Animation in I Am Dolphin

Editor's Pick
Monte-Carlo Tree Search in Total War: Rome II

It's been a strong year for Game AI technology in general, but one that stands out is Creative Assembly's integration of MCTS into TOTAL WAR: ROME II and its campaign AI. Strictly speaking, the game did come out in 2013, but its technology was only presented in 2014 at the Game/AI Conference. As many other innovations in underlying technology, the application of MCTS isn't necessarily noticeable by players but it has many advantages from the development perspective.

Benefits of Monte-Carlo Tree Search include the ability to make design and balancing changes to the game itself, then letting AI adapt accordingly, and more — as we previously covered. Compared to more traditionally scripted systems or rule-based approaches, this helps bring us closer to the goal of having reusable AI algorithms that do all the hard work for us!

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