Model-based reinforcement learning (RL), which finds an optimal policy using an empirical model, has long been recognized as one of the corner stones of RL. It is especially suitable for multi-agent RL (MARL), as it naturally decouples the learning and the planning phases, and avoids the non-stationarity problem when all agents are improving their policies simultaneously using samples. Though intuitive, easy-to-implement, and widely-used, the sample complexity of model-based MARL algorithms has not been fully investigated. In this paper, our goal is to address the fundamental question about its sample complexity. We study arguably the most basic MARL setting: two-player discounted zero-sum Markov games, given only access to a generative model. We show that model-based MARL achieves a sample complexity of $\tilde O(|S||A||B|(1-\gamma)^{-3}\epsilon^{-2})$ for finding the Nash equilibrium (NE) value up to some $\epsilon$ error, and the $\epsilon$-NE policies with a smooth planning oracle, where $\gamma$ is the discount factor, and $S,A,B$ denote the state space, and the action spaces for the two agents. We further show that such a sample bound is minimax-optimal (up to logarithmic factors) if the algorithm is reward-agnostic, where the algorithm queries state transition samples without reward knowledge, by establishing a matching lower bound. This is in contrast to the usual reward-aware setting, with a $\tilde\Omega(|S|(|A|+|B|)(1-\gamma)^{-3}\epsilon^{-2})$ lower bound, where this model-based approach is near-optimal with only a gap on the $|A|,|B|$ dependence. Our results not only demonstrate the sample-efficiency of this basic model-based approach in MARL, but also elaborate on the fundamental tradeoff between its power (easily handling the more challenging reward-agnostic case) and limitation (less adaptive and suboptimal in $|A|,|B|$), particularly arises in the multi-agent context.
Speakers: Kaiqing Zhang, Sham M. Kakade, Tamer Basar, Lin F. Yang