Company Overview: Founded in 2004, xaitment originated from research efforts at the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence. Today xaitment has offices in Germany, California, and China. Back in July 2011, Mike Walsh joined the company as CEO. Prior to xaitment, Mike was the VP of sales at Havok, the physics middleware provider. The company also recently raised $1.6 million in September 2011. The company’s products include xaitMap, xaitControl. And as of Feb 23rd, xaitMap for Unity and xaitControl for Unity. And as of Feb 23rd, they launched xaitMap and xaitControl for Unity, two products that integrate right into the Unity interface and development environment.
Wanda’s Take: xaitment has been building momentum in the AI space. They have been aggressively expanding into Asia and aligning their product by offering to support multiple levels of the development community. The company’s recent announcement of Unity support with product plug-ins only helps further that vision. With the addition of Mike Walsh to help spearhead the team in the US, xaitment is looking to build on their growing momentum in 2012.
GBR: If you were to describe the state of game AI in one word, what would it be?
Mike Walsh: If I had to boil it down to one word, I’d say “promising”. In many ways, game AI has become synonymous with pathfinding – in other words, moving game characters and agents from point A to point B. What’s more, most “tools” for pathfinding are really just libraries or scripting languages designed for coders. Neither of these concepts is very innovative.
We’ve already seen tons of innovation in the graphics world, the physics world, the audio world, with the tools that have been created and continue to be created. With all that is going on in the broader world of AI – Siri, Watson, talking bots, AI-driven story engines – I feel like it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing that innovation spill over into the AI arena, whether it’s AI-driven dialogue, AI that helps characters make better/more realistic decisions, or AI that can actually influence animation, such as facial animation.
With our focus on helping studios create smarter characters, xaitment is definitely following all of these trends closely, and actively pursuing our vision of making it easier to create smarter game characters.
GBR: How is xaitment innovating with its products?
Mike Walsh: There are a number of things we’ve done to innovate with our products.
First, we offer two modules for AI – xaitMap and xaitControl – rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. xaitMap is used for NavMesh generation, pathfinding and the creation of movement. xaitControl gives developers a graphical means of modeling character behaviors and game logic. The two work together, but can also be used separately.
Secondly, we’ve taken game AI way beyond NavMesh generation and pathfinding. We actually enable AI programmers and game designers to create character behaviors and game logic.
Thirdly, our tools are graphical. They aren’t just libraries or scripting languages for coders. That’s important, because it enables game designers to create advanced AI without code, which in turn liberates programmers to handle the heavy lifting of coding other really unique features for their games, whether it’s AI, graphics, physics, audio, etc.
And finally, we’ve innovated on price. Our full modules are priced fairly and as of mid January, come with source code. And as of this year’s GDC, we’re offering two affordable plug-ins that bring all of our AI functionality to Unity users for only $499 (each). This effectively makes our products available to every strata of game developer, whether they are a small indies studio or a large studio working on a triple-A title.
GBR: With the Unity plug-ins, would it be correct to say that you see an opportunity for AI in smaller, independent studios without triple-A budgets?
Mike Walsh: Absolutely. In our opinion, the best video games are about characters. Therefore, AI is important to almost every game, not just triple-A games. AI not only influences how a character gets from point A to point B, but why and in what manner. Those things greatly affect a game’s difficulty, and whether a game is fun to play.
AI is not just a triple-A issue – it’s a design issue for any studio making a game. As a small developer, however, the challenge comes when you don’t have triple-A budgets for middleware. That usually forces studios to make tougher choices when it comes to the 3rd-party technologies they choose. That was our impetus for creating the new Unity plug-ins.
GBR: Is there an opportunity in AI for social games or mobile games?
Mike Walsh: Sure. Many mobile games already make use of pathfinding. But as the processing capabilities of mobile devices grow, the games made for them will become more sophisticated, and will be able to support more advanced AI.
In current social games, we see mostly pre-defined pathing, but basic pathfinding is beginning to gain acceptance as the games become more sophisticated. And as the sophistication grows, it will be more about the behavior of NPCs and game logic. AI tools like ours could be used to help game designers create the behaviors of NPCs that add to the game play and attract more players to their games. So yes, I definitely see a fit for AI in social games, too.
I think the trick, especially with smaller mobile developers and for developers of freemium games, is finding the right business model to make middleware attractive. Unlike triple-A games, mobile games are developed much more quickly, on smaller budgets. Freemium games in indie studios are usually developed under tight budgets with the developer hoping for a pay-off down the line. In both of those cases, the developers have extremely small budgets for tools and middleware, if any at all. Again, I think our Unity plug-ins will work well for those studios.
GBR: Do you have any innovation up your sleeve?
Mike Walsh: GDC really exceeded our expectations. We had a demo pod in the Unity booth that was constantly busy, a booth of our own with lots of traffic, and we received some great feedback on the usability of our new plug-ins. Namely, people were really impressed that we were able to offer so much functionality within the context of Unity’s engine. As a result, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of downloads of both our xaitMap and xaitControl for Unity products. We are now actively looking at new platforms to support, namely iOS and WebPlayer, which will be launching soon – so stay tuned.