How did I get into AI gamedev?

A computer science graduate got in touch with me via an academic friend, interested to know how they could become a games industry AI programmer. They seemed interested in what kind of masters course would help their career. Although that’s definitely possible, it’s not the route I took. My full answer follows:

I’m not currently an AI programmer, but I was one in a former life, on games like Operation Flashpoint Dragon Rising and F1 2010/2011. To pimp myself even more, I’ve spoken at GDC’s AI Summit, been profiled on AIGameDev.com and published a chapter in Game AI Pros 2.

The simple answer to your question is that it’s really hard to get in as a graduate AI programmer. I don’t think specific courses would help as much as devouring sites like AIGameDev.com. Infact their sister site nucl.ai has a good intro-to-AI online course that goes beyond mere pathfinding: https://courses.nucl.ai/. You can also dig into the GDC (Game Developers Conference, the biggest event in gamedev each year) vaults for lectures under the AI tag. Most recent ones are paid only, but some are free and all 3 year+ ones are free: http://www.gdcvault.com/browse/?track_category=1402.

Hopefully some of these will inspire you towards some side-project work that you can bring along to industry interviews.

The route I took was initially becoming a graduate gameplay programmer, and making it clear to my bosses that I wanted to transition into AI as fast as possible. Many smaller studios (which is almost all of them in the UK at the moment) might not have a dedicated AI programmer, so as the “AI guy” gameplay programmer, you can grab the odd task here and there that might look good on a future CV. I used that approach to do animal AI on a zoo expansion to Rollercoaster Tycoon 3, and to prototype pathfinding for thousands of actors with very limited Playstation 2 (!) resources on a rollercoaster game that was so crap I won’t namedrop it. 🙂

That took just over two years, and once I had that I was able to apply to other studios and get jobs on dedicated AI teams. All the while learning about the realities of shipping games, even if I was sometimes working on UI instead of AI. I think that’s a much better use of time than a masters. Sorry [my aforementioned academic friend] Nick!

If you’re interested in the hot topics in the gamedev AI world at the moment (which is needless to say very different from academic AI), check out monte carlo tree search, recurrent neural networks, and AI-assisted tooling. Slightly older tech includes Hierarchical Task Planners, Behaviour Trees and Utility Systems.

Hope this helps. If you have any followup questions, just shout.

What do you think? How did you get into the industry? How was your experience different?
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One thought on “How did I get into AI gamedev?

  1. Not sure what to recommend course-wise. I never completed CompSci – bolting after a year and a half to join a games startup. The basics I suppose? Good logic and math courses. Getting comfortable with C/++11/whatever while avoiding the “other languages are teh suck!” plague.

    Other than that, I completely agree with the gameplay programming to game AI route. An essential part of AI’ing a project up is strong awareness of your available systems and their data. Gameplay programming is an excellent way of gaining that awareness.

    Keep playing around on the side while studying and working. Dig into material like what Andrew mentions, hack on new engines and tech. Collect up select projects in an accessible portfolio – the goal not being completeness, but a good showcase. Open-sourcing stuff is a good way to get quick feedback.

    I usually say that it’s healthy to write your own engine at least once. It doesn’t have to be something you publicise, super advanced or even 3D. Just some 2D tile thing or whatever, giving you the always unbeatable hands-on experience with what goes into an engine and more importantly why.

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