How the computer games industry is embracing AI

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Promethean developer working with a VR headsetImage source, Promethean Developers
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Promethean is incorporating AI into its game development tools

Andrew Maximov has been working in the computer games industry for 12 years, but despite all that experience he still marvels at the amount of money spent on building the biggest titles.

"I used to work for PlayStation and the last game that I worked on, just production alone cost us $220 [£176m], and then you double that for marketing, and you are in half a billion dollars for every game that you put out there, which is a bit unsustainable for most companies."

He believes that artificial intelligence (AI) will play a crucial role in keeping the soaring costs of game production down, and save video game designers vital time by automating repetitive tasks.

His company, Promethean AI offers developers a set of tools to craft their own virtual worlds. Mr Maximov hopes to disrupt the way games are currently produced.

"What we're trying to do is replace that with a system that can learn directly from artists, so that artists can be the authors of their own automation."

Humans will still play a key role in the production process. AI will work hand in hand with the human and enable them to be more creative.

"We can create a vision for a game and then the artist can click a button and ask an AI to give them feedback. Then they will get examples from their library of concept art and digital ideas that are relevant to their project," Mr Maximov says.

Sometimes the AI comes up with surprising ideas.

"I remember once we were trying to build a police station and we asked the AI to populate it, and it came back with a doughnut on every desk.

"Another time, we were building an apartment and it kept consistently putting a sock under the coffee table. We wondered if it was a bug but it turned out we had labelled it a bachelor apartment so I guess that it was logical to some extent," he says.

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Big computer games are getting complicated and expensive to produce

Californian software firm Inworld is also employing AI to build elements of computer games.

It has created an engine that allows developers to add realism to game worlds and emotional depth to characters. The firm is also working on what it calls a narrative graph, developed in partnership with Xbox, which will use AI to help create storylines.

Chief executive Kylan Gibbs tells the BBC that he believes AI will allow developers to "dream bigger than ever before".

"The engine allows developers to add AI agents that can see, sense, and perceive the world around them, while also interacting with players and taking in-game actions. When you can imbue virtual characters with advanced cognitive capabilities, it unlocks a completely new paradigm for storytelling and gameplay," he says.

Nick Walton is the chief executive of gaming firm, and he believes AI has the power to personalise the gaming experience.

"We are at the start with AI and as it advances we will see very dynamic, adaptive worlds with characters that feel alive, with story arcs where you as the hero are doing unique things and having a very unique impact on the world.

"You could play a game where you find a town that no-one else cares about and no other player has spent time in, and you can get really invested in it and develop relationships with all the characters in it," he tells the BBC.

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AI might deliver richer worlds for games enthusiasts to explore

His firm developed AI Dungeon, a game that allows players to choose from a variety of worlds and create their own stories within it.

"It's kind of like those old text adventures where you type an action and then the game determines what happens next.

"But the key difference is that instead of having a developer pre-imagine everything they might do, the AI can dynamically decide what happens next. So any action is possible."

He said that he was surprised by the success of Dungeon, the first version of which was launched in 2019.

"It was started as a side project that I just put on the internet and within a week 100,000 people had played it," he says.

"I think there's just a lot of replayability because the story is different every time and you can take it in any direction. And there's this ability to have true choice which has always been a goal for many games."

Greater reliance on AI could have a knock-on effect to the humans in the industry.

The chief executive of computer games giant EA, Andrew Wilson, recently told delegates at a conference that around 60% of the game publisher's development processes could be affected by AI tools. The firm recently laid off, external 5% of its staff, around 670 jobs.

Mr Maximov does not necessarily see AI replacing humans but rather allowing humans more "creative dignity", something that has been lost at some of the big games publishing houses where developers are given very repetitive tasks to do.

"There are a lot of developers that had watched Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and were inspired to go and do something great but are now spending their days placing rocks outside a castle for a year," he said.

"There's a lot to be said for reclaiming the true purpose and value of these jobs, giving every artist the opportunity to say 'I can now make my own game'."

Mr Gibb agrees. "We've heard from narrative designers and developers that our platform adds greater interactivity and engagement to games, but requires deep and thoughtful inputs from humans. To create the illusion of intelligence, Inworld characters need to be given rich backstories, memories, knowledge, and goals - all designed by a writer. It's about augmenting human creativity."