Intelligent Design: Inside Titanfall’s Artificial Intelligence

One of the most unique features of “Titanfall” is the way both AI-controlled enemies and Titans fit so seamlessly into the action. From the moment you touch down on the battlefield, you’ll see both friendly and enemy AI units Grunts populating the area, allowing you to rack up lots of easy kills in an effort to help your team. Then there are the moments when you’ll hop out of your Titan and give control to the AI, telling it to follow you like the world’s biggest bodyguard or stand guard to protect a must-keep point. The AI really changes the game a lot, so we were dying to learn more during a recent visit to Respawn Entertainment’s studios. We had a chance to sit down with Abbie Heppe, Respawn’s community manager, to discuss all things AI.

Xbox Wire: Why did you decide to put AI-controlled enemies and teammates in “Titanfall”?

Abbie Heppe: For the design team, it accomplished a lot of goals. It gave players who are newer something to shoot at and gave them a way to help their team. They’ll also help lead you into battle if you’re a new player. If you are a more skilled, you can use them to help you trick the enemy. Like, if I’m playing a game of Hardpoint, I’ll follow some AI in and the enemy will shoot the first ones up the stairs and I’ll then take them out. So there are those types of advanced tactics. Then there are the Spectres, which are a more difficult class of AI. If you’re already injured, they can take you out.

The kind of overarching and less specific reason is that it really helps make the battlefield feel alive. You know, you want things to run over in your Titan and punch and melee. They help to create a larger scale battle, especially because they’re not Pilots and they don’t move like Pilots do. You’ll see them get into melee fights on the battlefield and you’ll hear them say “There’s a Pilot coming through.” or “They’re not so great!” They add to the whole character of the universe and make it feel like a more populated universe. Since we’re not doing the traditional single-player campaign, it makes us feel like we have a world.

Xbox Wire: So how do the Grunts differ from the Spectres? Are the latter just smarter and stronger?

Abbie Heppe: Spectres are tough and stronger. They will attack Titans with rocket launchers, and they can also get up to the top of builldings. So they can clear a one or two story jump. It’s funny, because your brained gets trained to see that movement as Pilots. It can be a distraction. You can get tricked into thinking you’re following a Pilot and they can then fight you more effectively.

Xbox Wire: Do the best players typically leave the Grunts alone and avoid detection by not shooting a them? I noticed some people don’t just kill the first Grunts they come across.

Abbie Heppe: Yeah, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. If you’re playing Attrition mode and every kill helps your team, you should get in there and stomp some AI or take them out. I tend to remain much more focused on Pilot since I know I’ll get more points for them. If I’m a really good player, that’s the target for me. But for a newer player or someone just starting out, there’s plenty of grunt for them. So it kind of depends on the mode that you’re playing. If you’re playing a Hardpoint game and there’s AI streaming in to a capture point, yes, you’re going to want to take them out. If it’s Attrition, maybe you focus on the higher point kills. It really lets you determine your own play style.

Xbox Wire: What was the thinking behind the Titan AI?

Abbie Heppe: When you climb out of your Titan, you can set him to either guard or follow you. So if you set to follow, he’ll follow you around the map providing cover fire and you can get back in or out at any time. You can also set it to guard a point. So the Titan will, say, stand at Hardpoint B and take out Grunts and Pilots and attack other Titans. The Titan AI is a lot of fun because it’ll play just like you and use the same skills in combat. You’ll see them using the Vortex Shield and all of the weapons you’re used to using. Sometimes really crazy stuff comes from that. They’ll take rockets you shoot and use the Vortex Shield to shoot them at another enemy. There are all of these awesome combinations. It comes in really handy, because at some point you’ll want to get out of your Titan and go inside to hunt down a Pilot or take a capture point. If you have a long life and are playing well, you’re going to want to get in and out of your Titan a lot.

Xbox Wire: I noticed that you can hack some AI, like the Spectres, with your data knife. Is there a big advantage in taking them time to do that?

Abbie Heppe: It’s something that you’ll earn points for, but it’s a personal preference. That will turn them against your enemies and switch them to your side. And maybe that makes sense in certain game types, like Hardpoint, where you can send a bunch of hacked Spectres in to capture a point for your team. So it really depends on the player’s preference.

Xbox Wire: We’ve heard you guys use the term “popcorn AI” before? What does that mean?

Abbie Heppe: It kind of play into what I was mentioning in regards to players being able to rack up kills with them. They’re really easy to get tons of kills. They’re always spawning in and filling up the map, so you’ll be able to get lots of kills, like four dudes at once with the Smart Pistol or five guys getting stomped on by your Titan. So, I guess they’re good to snack on? Maybe that’s where that came from!