Home Blog Reinforcement Learning in Game AI: Game-Playing Agents and Game-Level Design Techniques

Reinforcement Learning in Game AI: Game-Playing Agents and Game-Level Design Techniques

Published: June 21, 2023
Editor at Plat.AI
Editor: Ani Mosinyan
Reviewer at Plat.AI
Reviewer: Alek Kotolyan

Picture this: you’re playing your favorite video game, and with each attempt, your digital opponents are becoming increasingly clever, adjusting their strategies based on your gameplay. 

How is this happening? The answer lies in the fascinating world of AI and reinforcement learning (RL).

With RL, game-playing agents learn from their environment and can provide gameplay that challenges even the most experienced players.

This blog unravels the complexities and excitement behind this technology and its revolutionary impact on game-playing agents and game-level design techniques.

What Is Reinforcement Learning?

Reinforcement learning is a subfield of machine learning (ML) that focuses on training agents to learn from their environment through trial and error. The basic principle is straightforward: an agent interacts with its environment, makes decisions, is rewarded or penalized, and adjusts its strategy accordingly.

The goal of RL is to enable the agent to make the best possible decisions based on the feedback it receives. This feedback is provided as rewards or punishments, which the agent uses to adjust its behavior and improve its decision-making process over time. 

The rewards can take various forms, such as a score or a numerical value assigned to a specific action. Conversely, a punishment would include subtracting from the score or points. The RL is programmed to maximize its rewards. As a result, it will adjust its behavior to increase its reward.

It’s like training a dog – when the dog performs a trick correctly, you reward it. The dog, eager for more treats, repeats the behavior. In reinforcement learning, the agent, like the dog, is guided by rewards to maximize its performance.

One of the earliest examples of RL in gaming is in Backgammon, where a neural network-based agent was trained to play the game using the TD-gammon algorithm

TD-gammon is an AI program that uses neural networks to achieve remarkable performance in playing Backgammon. The agent used in TD Gammon learned by playing against itself and learning from its mistakes. As a result, this agent achieved a level of play superior to the best human players at the time.

Using RL, game developers can create agents that can learn and improve their gameplay strategy over time, creating a level of challenge that keeps players coming back for more.

Supervised vs. Unsupervised vs. Reinforcement Learning

Reinforcement learning isn’t the only example of the application of machine learning in video games. Other areas of ML that developers sometimes use in video games include supervised and unsupervised learning:

  • Supervised learning can be thought of as a guided learning approach. In this method, models learn from a labeled dataset where the input and the correct output are known and provided during training. For example, given the labeled data of images of dogs and cats, a supervised learning algorithm can learn to classify new images of dogs and cats.
  • Unsupervised learning operates without labeled data. Instead, the model is given a dataset and tasked with finding patterns, structures, or relationships within the data. Imagine a music streaming service aiming to categorize its vast music library into various genres. Instead of manually labeling each song, the service uses unsupervised learning to analyze the characteristics of each track – like tempo, rhythm, and melody – and clusters similar songs together, effectively categorizing the songs into distinct genres.

Supervised and unsupervised learning can be helpful in specific tasks like image recognition or training an AI to recognize objects or characters in a game. However, they are limited in their ability to create adaptive and dynamic characters that can provide engaging gaming experiences.

This is because supervised and unsupervised learning rely on predefined rules and patterns to identify and classify data. As a result, they can only recognize and respond to situations they have been specifically trained on. This can make it challenging to create characters that can adapt to new situations.

On the other hand, reinforcement learning works by learning from feedback that it receives from rewards or penalties. Reinforcement learning is fundamentally about learning the best action to take in a given situation to maximize a reward. It is a continuous loop of interaction, feedback, and adaptation.

In video game development, reinforcement learning is particularly well-suited because it adjusts its behavior in response to the feedback it receives, with the goal of maximizing its reward over time. As a result, the agent learns from its mistakes and improves its decision-making process, akin to a trial-and-error procedure.

Reinforcement Learning and Game AI

Game developers are constantly searching for ways to improve the player’s experience, and reinforcement learning is a promising approach to achieving this goal. This section will explore the intersection of RL and game AI, focusing on how it is used to create NPCs (non-playable characters), train them using neural networks, and generate novel and exciting game levels.

AI Game Programming

AI is revolutionizing the way NPCs operate by providing game developers with more tools and methods to create intelligent, adaptive, and dynamic game characters. Traditionally, NPCs in video games have been programmed using rule-based systems or decision tree examples, which resulted in NPCs that behave predictably and lack human-like adaptability. By contrast, RL allows game developers to train NPCs using trial and error. This allows NPCs to learn from their experiences, adapting their strategies in response to player behavior.

For instance, in the popular video game Dota 2, OpenAI’s artificial intelligence system, OpenAI Five, beat top-ranked human players in a best-of-three competition. This is because OpenAI was trained using reinforcement learning, allowing it to learn the game mechanics and strategies from scratch without prior knowledge or pre-programmed rules.

Neural Network Video Games

Another exciting application of RL in game AI is developing neural networks video games. In these games, the AI agent is trained using deep learning techniques, such as convolutional neural networks (CNNs) or recurrent neural networks (RNNs), to learn complex behaviors from raw game data.

One notable example is the game Super Mario Bros, where researchers at Google’s DeepMind used RL to train an AI agent to complete the game with maximum efficiency. The agent, called Deep-Q-Network (DQN), learned advanced techniques such as wall jumping and shell throwing, which are typically difficult for human players to master. 

As a result, the AI agent achieved a score of 600,000 points, which was comparable to the score of an average human player. However, the DQN received this score after playing the game for just a few hours, whereas it would take a human player years of practice to reach this level of proficiency.

Game Level Design

In addition to creating intelligent NPCs, RL can also be used to generate novel and exciting game levels. Game level design refers to the process of creating the layout, challenges, and overall gameplay experience of a specific level or section of a video game. This involves designing the terrain, obstacles, enemies, and rewards that players will encounter as they progress through the level.

There are two types of game levels: 2D levels and 3D levels. Here’s a table that outlines some of the key differences between 2D and 3D-level design:

Aspect2D-Level Design3D-Level Design
Game MechanicsTypically, 2D games rely on simpler mechanics like jumping and moving left or right.3D games offer more complex features like aiming, crouching, and camera control.
Perspective2D games are presented in a flat, side-scrolling perspective.3D games provide a three-dimensional perspective.
Terrain and SpaceIn 2D games, the terrain is usually limited to a single plane, with obstacles placed on that terrain.3D games allow more varied terrain and space, such as hills, cliffs, and multi-level environments.
Environmental HazardsEnvironmental hazards are limited to pits, spikes, and other simple projectiles.3D environmental hazards include lava, poison gas, falling debris, and other complex obstacles.
Exploration and SecretsHidden areas are often revealed by finding hidden paths or follow-ups. Exploration and discovery are more open-ended, with players able to explore vast environments.

AI can help develop these levels by using techniques such as procedural generation. By using machine learning algorithms, AI can generate complex and challenging levels while still being unique and fun for players to explore. Additionally, AI can assist in designing levels by analyzing data on player behavior, preferences, and interactions to optimize the game’s level design.

Game-Level Design Tools

Game-level design is an aspect of game development that requires specialized tools and software to create immersive and engaging experiences. These tools can be used with reinforcement learning to create more immersive and dynamic game experiences.

3D Studio Max

3D Studio Max is a professional 3D computer graphics software used to develop Grand Theft Auto V, World of Warcraft, and Halo 4. It offers various features like polygonal modeling, texture mapping, rigging, animation, and particle effects. Also, its powerful scripting language, MAXScript, allows developers to automate repetitive tasks, freeing up time for more creative work and reducing the potential for human error. 

3D Studio Max becomes even more powerful when integrated with RL techniques. The integration of MAXScript with RL offers the potential for more varied responses and dynamic gameplay. By utilizing RL, developers can train AI agents to interact with the game environment in ways that are not solely predetermined, leading to more immersive and unpredictable gameplay experiences.


Maya is a 3D computer graphics software developed by Autodesk, Inc. It was used in The Last of Us Part II, Fortnite, and Overwatch. Maya offers advanced automation tools, realistic lighting and shading, and powerful scripting capabilities. It also supports various file formats, making it easy to integrate with other tools and platforms.

By leveraging AI and RL, Maya can facilitate the creation of more realistic character animations. Developers can imbue characters with lifelike behaviors and adaptability by training AI agents using RL algorithms.


AutoCAD is another popular game-level design that is widely used in the architecture and engineering industries. While it was not specifically designed for game development, it offers various tools like advanced drawing and editing to create 2D and 3D layouts. 

Game developers can then use reinforcement learning to train AI agents to navigate and interact with these environments. RL algorithms can generate optimal paths, identify potential obstacles, and adjust the behavior of NPCs based on their interactions with the game world. Video games like Minecraft, SimCity 4, and Age of Empires III rely on AutoCAD to build geometric and dimensional constraints.

Sum Up

Reinforcement learning has shown great promise in enabling game AI to learn and adapt to complex environments and tasks. Through trial and error learning and reward-based feedback, RL agents can achieve superhuman performance in games ranging from classic Atari titles to modern strategy games like StarCraft III. 

Looking ahead, the future of RL in-game AI seems bright. As research in RL continues to progress, we can expect to see more sophisticated and adaptable game AI that can provide new and exciting experiences for players.

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Tigran Hovsepyan

Tigran Hovsepyan

Staff WriterTigran Hovsepyan is an experienced content writer with a background in Business and Economics. He focuses on IT management, finance, and e-commerce. He also enjoys writing about current trends in music and pop culture.

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