Chapter 1. Introduction to Game AI

In the broadest sense, most games incorporate some form of artificial intelligence (AI). For instance, developers have used AI for years to give seemingly intelligent life to countless game characters, from the ghosts in the classic arcade game Pac Man to the bots in the first-person shooter Unreal, and many others in between. The huge variety of game genres and game characters necessitates a rather broad interpretation as to what is considered game AI. Indeed, this is true of AI in more traditional scientific applications as well.

Some developers consider tasks such as pathfinding as part of game AI. Steven Woodcock reported in his “2003 Game Developer’s Conference AI Roundtable Moderator’s Report’ that some developers even consider collision detection to be part of game AI[1]. Clearly, some wide-ranging interpretations of game AI exist.

We’re going to stick with a broad interpretation of game AI, which includes everything from simple chasing and evading, to pattern movement, to neural networks and genetic algorithms. Game AI probably best fits within the scope of weak AI (see the sidebar “Defining AI”). However, in a sense you can think of game AI in even broader terms.

In games, we aren’t always interested in giving nonplayer characters human-level intellect. Perhaps we are writing code to control nonhuman creatures such as dragons, robots, or even rodents. Further, who says we always have to make nonplayer characters smart? Making some nonplayer characters dumb adds to the variety and richness of game content. Although it is true that game AI is often called upon to solve fairly complex problems, we can employ AI in attempts to give nonplayer characters the appearance of having different personalities, or of portraying emotions or various dispositions—for example, scared, agitated, and so on.

The bottom line is that the definition of game AI is rather broad and flexible. Anything that gives the illusion of intelligence to an appropriate level, thus making the game more immersive, challenging, and, most importantly, fun, can be considered game AI. Just like the use of real physics in games, good AI adds to the immersiveness of the game, drawing players in and suspending their reality for a time.


Deterministic Versus Nondeterministic AI

Game AI techniques generally come in two flavors: deterministic and nondeterministic.


Deterministic behavior or performance is specified and predictable. There’s no uncertainty. An example of deterministic behavior is a simple chasing algorithm. You can explicitly code a nonplayer character to move toward some target point by advancing along the x and y coordinate axes until the character’s x and y coordinates coincide with the target location.


Nondeterministic behavior is the opposite of deterministic behavior. Behavior has a degree of uncertainty and is somewhat unpredictable (the degree of uncertainty depends on the AI method employed and how well that method is understood). An example of nondeterministic behavior is a nonplayer character learning to adapt to the fighting tactics of a player. Such learning could use a neural network, a Bayesian technique, or a genetic algorithm.

Deterministic AI techniques are the bread and butter of game AI. These techniques are predictable, fast, and easy to implement, understand, test, and debug. Although they have a lot going for them, deterministic methods place the burden of anticipating all scenarios and coding all behavior explicitly on the developers’ shoulders. Further, deterministic methods do not facilitate learning or evolving. And after a little gameplay, deterministic behaviors tend to become predictable. This limits a game’s play-life, so to speak.

Nondeterministic methods facilitate learning and unpredictable gameplay. Further, developers don’t have to explicitly code all behaviors in anticipation of all possible scenarios. Nondeterministic methods also can learn and extrapolate on their own, and they can promote so-called emergent behavior, or behavior that emerges without explicit instructions. The flocking and neural network algorithms we’ll consider in this book are good examples of emergent behavior.

Developers traditionally have been a bit wary of AI that is nondeterministic, although this is changing. Unpredictability is difficult to test and debug—how can you test all possible variations of player action to make sure the game doesn’t do something silly in some cases? Game developers face an ever-shortening development cycle that makes developing and testing new technology to production-ready standards extremely difficult. Such short development periods make it difficult for developers to understand cutting-edge AI technologies fully and to see their implications in a mass-market commercial game.

At least until recently, another factor that has limited game AI development is the fact that developers have been focusing most of their attention on graphics quality. As it turns out, such focus on developing better and faster graphics techniques, including hardware acceleration, might now afford more resources to be allocated toward developing better, more sophisticated AI. This fact, along with the pressure to produce the next hit game, is encouraging game developers to more thoroughly explore nondeterministic techniques. We’ll come back to this point a little later.

Established Game AI

Perhaps the most widely used AI technique in games is cheating. For example, in a war simulation game the computer team can have access to all information on its human opponents—location of their base; the types, number, and location of units, etc.—without having to send out scouts to gather such intelligence the way a human player must. Cheating in this manner is common and helps give the computer an edge against intelligent human players. However, cheating can be bad. If it is obvious to the player that the computer is cheating, the player likely will assume his efforts are futile and lose interest in the game. Also, unbalanced cheating can give computer opponents too much power, making it impossible for the player to beat the computer. Here again, the player is likely to lose interest if he sees his efforts are futile. Cheating must be balanced to create just enough of a challenge for the player to keep the game interesting and fun.

Of course, cheating isn’t the only well-established AI technique. Finite state machines are a ubiquitous game AI technique. We cover them in detail in Chapter 9, but basically the idea is to enumerate a bunch of actions or states for computer-controlled characters and execute them or transition between them using if-then conditionals that check various conditions and criteria.

Developers commonly use fuzzy logic in fuzzy state machines to make the resulting actions somewhat less predictable and to reduce the burden of having to enumerate huge numbers of if-then rules. Rather than have a rule that states if distance = 10 and health = 100 then attack, as you might in a finite state machine, fuzzy logic enables you to craft rules using less precise conditions, such as if close and healthy then attack aggressively. We cover fuzzy logic in Chapter 10.

Effective and efficient pathfinding is a fundamental task that nonplayer characters must accomplish in all sorts of games. Nonplayer character units in a war simulation must be able to navigate over terrain and avoid barriers to reach the enemy. Creatures in a first-person shooter must be able to navigate through dungeons or buildings to reach or escape from the player. The scenarios are endless, and it’s no wonder that AI developers give pathfinding tremendous attention. We cover general pathfinding techniques in Chapter 6 and the venerable A algorithm in Chapter 7.

These are only a few of the established game AI techniques; others include scripting, rules-based systems, and some artificial life (A-life) techniques, to name a few. A-life techniques are common in robotic applications, and developers have adapted and used them with great success in video games. Basically, an A-life system is a synthetic system that exhibits natural behaviors. These behaviors are emergent and develop as a result of the combined effect of lower-level algorithms. We’ll see examples of A-life as well as other techniques throughout this book.

The Future of Game AI

The next big thing in game AI is learning. Rather than have all nonplayer character behavior be predestined by the time a game ships, the game should evolve, learn, and adapt the more it’s played. This results in a game that grows with the player and is harder for the player to predict, thus extending the play-life of the game. It is precisely this unpredictable nature of learning and evolving games that has traditionally made AI developers approach learning techniques with a healthy dose of trepidation.

The techniques for learning and reacting to character behavior fall under the nondeterministic AI we talked about earlier, and its difficulties apply here too. Specifically, such nondeterministic, learning AI techniques take longer to develop and test. Further, it’s more difficult to really understand what the AI is doing, which makes debugging more difficult. These factors have proven to be serious barriers for widespread use of learning AI techniques. All this is changing, though.

Several mainstream games, such as Creatures, Black & White, Battlecruiser 3000AD, Dirt Track Racing, Fields of Battle, and Heavy Gear, used nondeterministic AI methods. Their success sparked a renewed interest in learning AI methods such as decision trees, neural networks, genetic algorithms, and probabilistic methods.

These successful games use nondeterministic methods in conjunction with more traditional deterministic methods, and use them only where they are needed and only for problems for which they are best suited. A neural network is not a magic pill that will solve all AI problems in a game; however, you can use it with impressive results for very specific AI tasks within a hybrid AI system. This is the approach we advocate for using these nondeterministic methods. In this way, you can at least isolate the parts of your AI that are unpredictable and more difficult to develop, test, and debug, while ideally keeping the majority of your AI system in traditional form.

Throughout this book we cover both traditional game AI techniques as well as relatively new, up-and-coming AI techniques. We want to arm you with a thorough understanding of what has worked and continues to work for game AI. We also want you to learn several promising new techniques to give you a head start toward the future of game AI.

[1] Steven Woodcock maintains an excellent Web site devoted to game AI at

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