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This Year in Game AI: Analysis, Trends from 2013 (1)

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 .


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