A new, very early-stage startup called Regression Games is joining Philly’s esports scene with some big guns on its team.
The AI-focused company will eventually develop its own games in house, but founder Aaron Vontell told Techncial.ly it was first starting work on a platform that lets players write code and develop artificial intelligence that controls characters, debugs strategies and competes in tournaments by building the best bots possible for existing video games.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad and former senior software engineer at San Francisco’s Instabase moved to the Philly area earlier this year. Although he’s been thinking about AI-enabled gaming for a while — he helped develop Battlecode, an annual AI gaming competition at MIT — he began work on Regression in May. He’ll technically be the company’s only employee until September, when an engineer joins the team, but a just-raised $4.2 million seed round will soon grow the engineering team.
The round was led by the global VC firm New Enterprise Associates (NEA) with participation from fellow bigwig Andreesen Horowitz (a16z), plus BBQ Capital, Roosh Ventures and a handful of angel investors. Vontell said he got to know the investors through his time at the NEA-backed Instabase, and knew they were who he wanted to work with on his first venture.
In addition to adding tech talent, the round will also allow for the continued development of Regression’s initial platform to test AI-driven gaming. In its first iteration, the platform will work in partnership with existing games and gaming studios to allow players control over their bots.
Instead of playing with a controller or keyboard, Regression players will program their characters and games to operate automatically.
“One of the core tenets of our a16z games fund is that games are great breeding grounds for new technologies that will then find their way into all sorts of other industries,” a16z GP James Gwertzman said in a statement. “And Regression is a perfect example. What Aaron is doing — turning the creation of AI bots into a game — is not only fun in its own right, but will likely create new frameworks to simplify AI bot creation that will have broad applicability outside of games.”
In Regression’s platform, instead of playing with a controller or keyboard, players will program their characters and games to operate automatically without moment-by-moment human input. Early players will likely need some coding skills going into playing via the platform, Vontell said, but he hopes to develop versions where very little coding knowledge is needed, leaning on the low-code and no-code work he did at Instabase.
“Over time, we’ll add tools to allow people who don’t have the experience to participate,” he said.
Vontell said he expects some testing version of the platform to be available to some by the end of this year, but he doesn’t have a hard timeline of when he expects a full rollout. The company is already growing a community over on its Discord, where it has more than 350 members. With the seed funding, he’s aiming for the team to be at five or six people by 2023, with a focus on rolling out that initial product.
“I’m excited for AI to become a cornerstone of the esports market,” Vontell said in a blog post about the round. “I imagine a future of both beginner coders and professional machine learning research centers participating in world championships to claim the title of Best AI Gamer.”-30-