GUIDE: AI middleware

GUIDE: AI middleware

By Ed Fear

June 10th 2009 at 9:30AM

A look over the most significant AI tech on the market

Once upon a time, artificial intelligence was the Next Big Thing – but its potential to surprise and amaze gamers has dulled of late. Ed Fear takes a look at the tech that hopes to put AI back in the game…

When Havok showed Develop the demos for its new Havok AI product at GDC, the first question was: why?

But actually, the real interesting takeaway from our discussion with the company’s MD Dave O’Meara was how they felt that the AI middleware market was still relatively untapped. Havok, really, had merely seen an opportunity for someone to stir things up, and they’d taken it.

Whether the three other companies would agree with O’Meara’s assertions is most certainly debatable. Long-term and established players like Autodesk (née Kynogon) and PathEngine would probably rally against such claims, given that they’ve managed to sustain themselves for a good number of years based on the fact that no-one wants to write their own low-level pathfinding code. Which, at its core, is exactly what Havok is offering.

The real potential avenue for development is that which German firm Xaitment is exploring: AI middleware beyond just pathfinding. Naturally, the arguments against this are strong: AI is a something particularly unique to each and every game, and attempting to build a model that suits all could end up satisfying no-one. But while the coding and construction of finite state machines might not be as pressing or as irritating as pathfinding, if it helps people create more impressive AI in less time then there’s certainly a chance it could work.

What should be lauded about Xaitment’s approach, though, is that its efforts to wrap all elements of AI construction in easy-to-use graphical UIs could divorce design from implementation, possibly leading to the rise of a new dedicated role: the AI designer. Only when that happens will AI’s potential really be unlocked.

Havok AI


Developer: Havok
Clients:
Undisclosed
Platforms: Undisclosed
Price: Available on request
Contact: Via website

Detailed in last month’s issue of Develop, Havok’s move into the AI market may have caused a few furrowed brows. But, really, it makes sense: all of Havok’s products deal with crunching complex gometric data, which fits in with navmesh generation, and its experience with physics means it can do dynamic pathfinding and predict the results of moving objects. Plus, of course, it ties in neatly with the company’s physics, animation, behaviour and destruction tech.

www.havok.com

Kynapse 7


Developer: Autodesk
Clients: EA Mythic, Sega , Sony Online Entertainment
Platforms: PS2, PS3, PSP, Xbox, Xbox 360, Wii, PC
Price: Available on request
Contact: middleware@autodesk.com

Autodesk went big on its middleware push at GDC this year, and Kynapse played a big part. Now at version 6, the latest edition adds a remote debugger, allowing programmers and designers to examine objects at real-time, plus pause and step through the simulation and record for later playback. Dynamic pathfinding performance has been enhanced, plus hierarchical 3D pathfinding and a new flat pathfinding mode, which simplifies implementation using streamed data.

www.autodesk.com

Brainpack


Developer: Xaitment
Clients: Gas Powered Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii
Price: Available on request
Contact: Via website

Xaitment’s modular AI middleware offering has matured significantly over the past few years. It’s now divided into five components: xaitMap for automatic navmesh generation, xaitMove for movement behaviours such as seeking and fleeing, xaitControl for hierarchical probabilistic finite state machines, xaitThink for autonomy and learning by experience and inference, and xaitKnow for authoring world descriptions. The BrainPack bundle is free until a publishing deal is signed.

www.xaitment.com

PathEngine


Developer: PathEngine
Clients: Rare, The Creative Assembly, Lionhead
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Price:
€4,500 – €25,000
Contact: generalcontact@pathengine.com

PathEngine’s eponymous pathfinding middleware is so mature that the company’s frequent updates largely concern optimisations and new features to help developers rather than any massive new additions. But then, when you’ve got a product used by heavyweight triple-A studios, you’re obviously doing something right. The tech uses augmented navmeshes for ground management, static and dynamic obstacle detail, pairs pathfinding and collision and doesn’t alias over long distances.

www.pathengine.com