The AI programmer is one of the most specialized game creation career paths.
They create the neural networks and algorithms that make the characters in a game behave the way they should.
AI programmers are prized members of any game’s development team. In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about AI Programmers and how to become one.
What is AI programming?
AI programming is a significant part of a game’s development.
Essentially, the idea of AI programming is to build the code and logic that makes Non-playable characters (NPC’S) act in a way that seems realistic. Any enemies, wildlife, citizens and even many objects players will see in a game have AI programming to govern how they work in response to a player’s actions.
The job of an AI programmer can be described as “programming the brains of a game”. They do this by writing decision trees with programming code.
AI has to know how to respond to a number of things that could happen in a game, as when they don’t they might act in unpredictable and potentially game-breaking ways, and the players will notice.
The decision trees the AI programmer writes are there to help the AI avoid this.
So what does this look like for the player?
For example, let’s imagine an enemy soldier in a shooting game. AI programming tells these soldiers that they have to search around for the player’s character, and fire at them when they come into view of their camera (which the AI programmer would have created).
But they also have to react to being hit themselves. As the enemy soldier searches, the pathfinding that the programmer gives them allows them to avoid getting stuck by walls and objects.
Their digital intelligence tells them to walk around barriers instead of towards them and might adjust accordingly if something in the game’s environment changes.
After all, it would be pretty unfortunate if the player moved a garbage can and the AI could not find a way to pass it. How accurate the AI is when they fire at the player is also a big part of their program. Two inaccurate and there’s no challenge.
Too accurate and the game becomes impossible. All of these factors and more are governed by the systems the AI programmer put into place.
At the end of a game’s development, the AI programmer will work with the QA testers to see what bugs and problems might arise when their code is met with actual players.
You never know for sure how well your AI works until players actively start trying to break it, and this part of the development process helps the programmer prepare for it.
It’s easy to see why this would be a complicated area of game development, even for those with lots of programming experience. Creating a digital neural network is far from easy. But that’s why AI programmers are so important.
By building up the AI’s logic, they make the difference between an unbalanced, clunky game and a timeless classic.
How to Become an AI Programmer
Becoming an AI programmer isn’t easy, as AI programming is not an entry-level position. These programmers need to have a thorough understanding of game programming, and a love of complex computing systems.
AI programming is fundamental to gameplay, so the job tends to go to those programmers who have the most experience. Most AI programmers start out first as game programmers for a minimum of three years before specializing in the field of AI.
Even then, there’s the issue of education. They are all but required to have at least a degree in the computer sciences, game programming, physics, or math.
In fact, the average AI programmer typically has a master’s degree, and Ph.D.’s are not uncommon for this position.
It’s one of the most complicated areas of programming, and the field is advancing all the time with new technologies and techniques that could easily become the next industry standard in a few short years.
If the AI of your game is lagging behind what everyone else can do, it’s a serious problem that can make your game feel dated.
And so these developers need to keep up with the latest trends and advancements in AI programming.
This is a job that’s difficult to obtain, as it requires higher education, plenty of game dev experience, and an understanding of evolving trends.
AI Programming Jobs and Career
In order to get hired as an AI programmer, you’ll also need to put some time into making a portfolio. A development portfolio is what you show to potential employers to prove you have experience in programming.
It should be a collection of your very best work and targeted towards the job you want.
So if you want to specialize in AI, you’ll need to emphasize some of the AI you’ve programmed on games you’ve worked on before.
Maybe you designed the AI for an epic boss battle you’re really proud of, or maybe you created an NPC in a game that moves around the game’s world in a realistic way, interacting with objects and the player. Whatever the case, be clear about what exactly you worked on.
Some employers will even make you do a programming test, to see if you actually have the coding experience you say you have.
The more experience as a programmer you have, the better your portfolio will look, so if it’s not accepted at first, keep trying!
You’ll likely have to work as a general game programmer, or under an AI programmer for some time before you have enough material to prove you can specialize in the role.
So if it’s such a difficult position to obtain, why become one?
Well to start with, AI programmers have an average salary of $81,000 a year, with some making as much as $100,000. On that alone it’s no surprise that it’s a highly competitive position.
But another reason developers choose to go into this field is simply that it’s fascinating.
By developing the AI, you are essentially learning to control all the creatures in a game’s world, and how to give them life. This knowledge has other applications as well, with some AI programmers delving into the field of robotics or software development with the skills they’ve learned programming games.
For those who love to figure out what makes in-game characters tick, and who have an interest in neural networks, software development, and even robotics, AI programming can be a dream job.
But don’t be discouraged. As difficult as it is to become an AI programmer, there are some things you can do to give yourself an edge when it comes to getting this job.
AI Programming Tutorials And Tips
Despite the high level of education professional AI programmers in the industry tend to have, there is a lot you can learn on your own that can give you the edge you need to get into this field.
AI Video Tutorials
There are many courses and video tutorials you can find to teach you AI programming without breaking the bank. If you’re new to computer programming, what you’ll want to focus on is learning to program AI in the Python programming language.
It is the language of choice for AI, as its Syntax is fairly easy to learn and understand in comparison to other languages. FreeCodeCamp.Org has an excellent four-hour tutorial on youtube.
But if you want something more specific to AI, Clever Programmer has a nine-hour video that will teach you the basics of making AI in Python. It actually covers how to create facial recognition AI, as well as human detection AI for self-driving cars.
While not necessarily catered towards game programming, this video can give you a solid grounding in several complicated types of AI and is a great way to start.
Finally, there is codingame.com, which is a programming practice platform, offering detailed tutorials on a whole host of programming languages.
They’ll teach you how to design and test a game, and have a host of prebuilt programming challenges and competitions to help you get a feel for AI creation. All in all, these are a great place to start.
AI Programming Books
There are also a number of books that can definitely be a valuable resource when it comes to programming game AI. To start, there is the Programming Game AI By Example.
Despite looking complicated, it actually does a great job at walking you slowly through concepts like path planning, inter-agent communication, and fuzzy logic that even beginners can understand.
The only weakness is that this book specifically uses the C++ programming language.
If you’re wanting something a bit more visual, try out the book Artificial Intelligence For Games. Written by veteran game programmer Ian Millington, this book teaches you how to program AI with examples from actual games.
Best of all, it comes with a CD-ROM full of source code and demonstrations to help you practice your newly found techniques.
AI Game Competitions
Once you’ve gotten in some practice, consider joining in on an AI programming competition. You can win prizes while creating
AI that will compete with AI designed by other programmers. Even if you don’t win, it’s a great way to meet other programmers, learn their techniques, see where you’re succeeding and where you’re falling short, and generally, just a fun way to practice.
It’s also a great networking event, where you can gain the attention of game industry veterans.
Some examples of great AI programming competitions are the famous Kaggle Simulations, where you submit a programming agent to compete against other players’ agents in a game environment.
There’s also Bomberland, a competitive programming game based on the classic Bomberman games.
AI Blogs And Podcasts
Since AI programming is a career that relies on keeping up to date with the latest advancements in the field, following these blogs or podcasts is a great way to keep up with the latest news.
Distill, for example, is an academic journal that regularly posts articles about different facets of AI programming and machine learning. The topics can be pretty complex for beginners, but there are interactive elements in most of them to make them easier to understand.
For a Blog with a more personal touch, check out Colah’s Blog. Christopher Olah is a researcher that works for Open AI, an AI research facility in California.
He often posts about the newest research into artificial intelligence and tries to explain the concepts in a clear concise manner. Since Open AI is already at the forefront of the industry, this blog is practically straight from the source.
Finally, I highly recommend checking out This Week In Machine Learning AI, or TWIML. This is a podcast all about AI programming, with over 500 episodes under its belt. They talk to different experts on different topics every episode, making it a virtual treasure trove of information.
How To Stay Ahead of the Game
Designing the AI of all the creatures in a videogame is a little like engineering your very own world. By learning how NPC’s think, you can truly make a game feel alive. But this ability doesn’t come easily; there is a lot of work to do to become an AI Programmer.
However, every line of code, and every digital agent you create serves to bring you one step closer to this goal. It’s all going to come down to experience, a passion for making games, and your own personal interest in what makes them work.
If you listen to these blogs, read the books, and attend the competitions mentioned in this article, you’ll be ahead of the curve. Keep working on your code, and studying AI techniques, and soon enough you’ll be a professional AI Programmer.