Monthly Archives

January 2017


Frankie seeks revenge at Casual Connect in Berlin

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Only two weeks until Casual Connect Berlin! We’re super excited to participate in the Indie Prize and hope to get a lot of feedback from the show. We’ll be at booth 1014 so come by to check out the latest build and say hi if you’re attending.

Radu and I will both be there, shuffling between our booth and various meetings. We’re not just there to take part in the competition – we’re also looking to connect to publishers, investors and press.

Most importantly though, we’re looking for feedback. We’ve put a lot of work since Indiecade to expand the game. We’ve added two brand new systems in place which should add tactical depth to our combat system and give players more things to do (you know… other than smashing bad robots to bits). I can’t wait to see how people react to them and if they’re as fun as we think they are.

Hallo Berlin! Wir sind froh dich kennenzulernen!




Implementing robust AI for SecondHand: Enemy Positioning

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This is part one of a series of posts I’m going to do about SecondHand’s AI, check out the intro here.

Problem Definition:

Since SecondHand has heavy emphasis on melee combat, for the enemies to be challenging and dangerous they need to be able to reach a position where they can attack. This is especially challenging given the twin-stick nature of the game combined with high physicality. The problem is compounded by the high number of enemies and the multiplayer aspect.

Simply put, the problem we’re trying to solve is: what is the best position for an enemy agent to be at any time?


  • different enemies have different preferred locations depending on range and personality (some prefer to flank, others prefer to attack head on)
  • lots of enemy agents at the same time
  • multiple targets
  • a varied environment
  • chaotic & physical combat
  • needs to be easy to set up

But what I consider one of the most important aspects is that it needs to be robust. Why? Because AI robustness goes hand in hand with good level design and balancing.

Our 3-step solution:

Step 1: sample positions around the player

Step 2: score those positions (make this part easily extended and parametric)

Step 3: pick one to use based on the scores. 

This is how the end result looks like, pay attention to how the enemies bunch up around the players:

Let’s cover the steps into more detail.

Step 1: Sample generation and filtering

The player is the target, so we’re going to sample positions around the player’s position. Since multiple enemies are attacking the player, we want that “being surrounded” flavour to the action so we’ll start out by generating concentric rings of positions. We update these positions every frame.

Architecturally speaking, we abstract the generation into a SamplePositionGenerator that provides points to the positioning module. So we can have any number of generators that generate any number of points.
Here’s our radial positions generator doing its thing:

So now we have some points, but obviously some are invalid due to them being off navmesh. We need to filter those out. Let’s build a Filter that takes a point, that does a nav-mesh line of sight check towards the center. No use going to that position if the enemy can’t see the player, right?

Ok, so we have some candidate positions at this point. Onward to scoring!

Step 2: Sample scoring

Everything that happens from this point forward is enemy centric. Each enemy agent will have its own scoring stack and parameters (for those worrying about performance, I’ll talk about that later).

Each position needs to be evaluated and given a score, and we want the scoring to parametric. This is why we create multiple scoring stages that we can stack and form a final score.

In diagram form, the process looks something like this:

In the diagram above, we construct scoring stages that have a score calculator (evaluates and scores a position) and a modulator (modulates normalized scores). We feed in positions, score them, normalize the scores into 0 – 1 range, and then apply things like falloff, inversion and weight. You can follow the flow of data based on the numbered stars.

What’s the payload you might be asking. The payload contains data needed by some calculators, such as the positions of the other enemies or the parent of the position being evaluated. The position itself is contained in the payload but for the sake of clarity, the diagram shows it as separate.

Modulation is separate because it needs normalized scores to function. It also biases the results based on the stages weight. So when combining results, if distance to the target is more important the distance stage will have more weight in the stack. The types of modulation available are Inverse, Power with custom exponent, Inverse-Square.

I’m going to show you how a stack looks and behaves in practice. Let’s start with a simple distance to target. Each enemy has a preferred distance to its target. A parametric distance stage result will look like this:

Remember, it’s important that the scoring function should be something really simple like distance, dot product, average distance to other agents, etc. Also, if the function is parametric it becomes reusable and a very good tool in creating personality with the same building blocks.

Note that in the distance example, the preferred distance is the parameter that varies.

Here’s the preferred_distance parameter changing at runtime.

In the distance example, you can see modulation at work.Inverse being applied, but also the pow function with a varying exponent to make the “habitable” zone thinner or wider.

Here’s another example with dot product between A (enemy pos, position) and B (position, target pos). Functionally, we’re telling the enemy he prefers points between the player and himself. We’re messing with the pow exponent to create wider or narrower cones.

Now lets combine the two and have an enemy follow the best point.

Let’s try a fun one. We don’t want the enemies to get trapped in corners, we want them to stay away from walls. Let’s create a stage that scores point distance to the edge of the navmesh.

The multi-agent problem

At this point we’re ready to tackle the problem of multiple enemies competing for positions. When adding two enemies, it’s very much imaginable that they can choose the same point. How do we prevent that?

First idea: score the distance to other enemies, and invert the result. That will cause the points close to others to have a lower scores and the best points to be the ones farther away. Alas, this doesn’t work well in practice, because everyone is moving and influencing everyone else! What happens is oscillation, the agents will continuously change their minds and run around aimlessly.

A better idea: score point distance to the other enemies intended position. This provides a stable solution and solves the decision oscillation.

Did I mention we implemented priorities? Damn right we did — lower prio enemies get out of the way of higher prio ones. Here’s how it looks (red guy has lower priority):

Here’s some emergent order from using these really simple functions. Notice how the agents make room for a higher priority peer (the green guy that pops up):

Step 3: Choosing the final result

This is the final step and is a straightforward one. The simplest approach is to simply choose the best scoring position, but there are some alternatives that include choosing a random sample in the top x% scores.
Its also worth mentioning that you can implement decision inertia at this point. For example, keep using the same point if its score doesn’t drop below a certain threshold, or only change if the score has dropped %x percent in the last y timeframe.

Even though the system works with any number of players providing positions, we are currently using a different method to select the target player, to prevent decision oscillations where the enemy agent keeps changing its mind about its target.

Caveats & Opportunities

The scoring method described is very powerful and straightforward, but it can be very hard to debug when dealing with a lot of scoring stages. Why? Because nonlinearities get added up and form non intuitive results. A way to mitigate this is to keep stage stacks small and swap between them based on the situation( for example have one stack the the enemy is far away, and another one if it is close).

Our implementation is currently unoptimized and it currently runs fine. But that’s not to say that it couldn’t cause problems in the future. Let’s look at some numbers, say we have 10 enemy agents on screen and 2 players. If each player generates 90 points, we’re looking at 10 x 2 x 90 nav-mesh queries per frame, yikes! There’s plenty of ways to mitigate this and this topic deserves its own blogpost, but generally spreading out computation across frames is a good approach.

That’s it for this episode from the trenches. Ping me on twitter @Radu_Septimiu if you’d like to discuss this stuff or have any questions.

Radu out.


Implementing robust AI for SecondHand: An Introduction

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Things have been busy at Rikodu, but I finally decided to bite the bullet and post some technical write-ups about the systems we’re building for SecondHand. And what better place to start than AI, my favorite part of game development?

SecondHand’s Ai philosophy

When it comes to AI, all games have their own special blend of requirements and challenges that make each implementation as unique as the design itself. A good definition of what good AI is is still elusive but this quote is as close as it gets:

“To be enjoyable, an AI must put up a good fight but lose more often than win.
It must make the player feel clever, sly, cunning, and powerful.
It must make the player jump from his seat shouting,
“Take that, you little shit!”

Mat Buckland, Programming Game AI by Example

How does that translate to a fast paced action game, like SecondHand? Here’s a list of things we want the AI to handle:

  • Enemy positioning
  • Dramatic pacing
  • Difficulty scaling
  • World-building through unique behaviors
  • Level specific behaviors

Project history

Our approach was an iterative one. We started out with having a very simple state machine for the enemy agents. After it became apparent that we need the enemy agents to be well coordinated, we built an Ai Director that handled the rate at which they attacked. The spawning was handled by heavy level centric behaviors that included lots of trigger boxes and spawning waves.

At this point it was clear we were having issues in this specific areas. The enemies were unable to consistently pose a threat to the player due to positioning and coordination problems. Level difficulty was close to impossible to control. The pacing of the game was chaotic. Extending enemy behavior became really difficult due to the constraints of the state machine decision making

The current iteration

A new iteration was imminent, that brought us to where we are today, Namely:

  • use an influence map/utility system for enemy agent positioning
  • have an Ai Director to control game pacing (spawning, intensity) similar to what the guys at Valve did with Left 4 Dead (check out Mike Booth’s presentation here)
  • move decision making into Behavior Trees
  • create sufficient debug tools & visualization to be able to tweak & debug everything

Here’s how everything came together at the end of November:

I’m going to aim for a three part discussion: Enemy Positioning, Pacing and Decision MakingStay tuned!