White Belts, Game AI and the GDC Aftermath

Everything is changing for artificial intelligence in games! These are fascinating times; everyone is at the same time a domain expert and a complete beginner. What's going on?

[This article is written by Alex J. Champandard, Editor and Grunt at, consultant in Game AI, and organiser of the (free) Paris Game AI Conference '09 in June.]

If you let me count independent student games and my early days in the demoscene, I can claim I've been in this industry over a decade now.  But I've just become a beginner all over again — in more ways than one. Let me explain...

Screenshot 1: My forum profile before and after the GDC aftermath!


Our Game AI Forums have a ranking system that displays five of our mascots with different colored belts depending on your reputation level.  A few months ago, I hit 1000 posts (a combination of replying to questions from beginners and heavy discussions with other industry programmers) and, as you can imagine, I was very pleased to get my set of black belt Game AI Ninjas!  But just yesterday that all changed... In last minute preparations for the new website, I've been busy migrating the "old" comments from the Blog over to the Forums.  The extra replies I had from the blog pushed me over the limit, and now I have my first white belt all over again.

The reason I'm telling this story is that it's a perfect metaphore for what's going on in the industry right now, and it sums up my trip GDC very well too.  Many experienced developers at GDC (including other speakers at the AI Summit) pointed out that technical progress seems to be slowing down as there's less demand for pure technological innovation in the academic sense; the best studios have mastered their trade well enough!  However, the field of Game AI is expanding and changing so quickly that many new avenues are opening up.  As a developer, it's almost a full time job to stay on top of everything that's going on these days.  So while most of the sub-fields  of Game AI have their White Belts (the expert kind), many of us are treading new ground by design -- in a sense we're all White Belts (the beginner kind).


Anyway, Phil Carlisle (industry veteran and resident expert at and I recorded a GDC AI Debriefing session last weekend with our observations from GDC, and I put up our conclusions in this article:

  Key Trends in Game AI – Are You Ready for These?

The most important point I take away from GDC and the subsequent discussion is the increased rate of innovation in AI -- mostly design driven.  For instance, the "experience management" in Left 4 Dead is one of many examples, which constrasts with last year's technology-driven AI with games like Assassin's Creed (for example) which made a big impact with its large dynamic crowds.

Things are changing quickly one the middleware front too.  Deals are always being made of course, but there are also important lessons to learn from the technology side of things -- just by looking at the products.  We did an AI Booth Crawl on the Thursday of GDC, and posted the video a few days ago (free registration required):

  Expo Floor AI Booth Crawl

The expo floor was very loud, as in the video, but that's also generally reflective of what's happening these days in industry too.  It's certainly noisy, but luckily there are also clear voices to listen to, and we see it as our job to cut through the noise to find the signal -- that's why we turned into a startup late last year, building on the success of the blog, the forums and its community.

It's a fascinating time for us! Over the next week we'll be relaunching the whole site with a brand new design, to help address many of these issues.  And the week after we'll be reopening up our Premium Membership too, which we're also taking the opportunity to revamp as well. Relaunch!

If you'd like to follow along on this fascinating journey into Game AI, don't hesitate to sign-up to that mailing list. Among other things, we'll be sending you the video of our GDC AI Debriefing shortly -- and some of the best bits from the Premium content we've been developing over the last few months!

Expert Beginner


P.S. I hope you caught our GDC summary article with the slides, notes and photos from the AI Summit:

  AI Summit Slides, Notes, Highlights and Photos


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