Why are you Making Games? (With AI?)

In the past few months we’ve been able to talk to more people about what we’re doing at Timewarp (Yay!). (Spoiler – we’re working on the on our first game Mafia Pigs and looking for Alpha testers right here!)

As we’ve explained what we’re doing, the same (very natural!) question has come up many times.

Why did you leave a field you worked hard in for many years (Web APIs) and jump into something totally new – Games?

Even more confounding, why do it with AI? isn’t AI going to put us all out of a job?

These are great questions! The “making games question” is also very understandable since almost everyone who writes code probably dreamed of making games at some time or another.

Like many others, the first lines of code I ever wrote were for games. First this was copied line by line from PC magazines in late 80s, then writing a never to be finished text adventure in GW Basic. I later developed a computer Go playing engine called Gobi that got pretty good at solving certain parts of Go play but that’s as far as I got in terms of building an actual game.

Despite this being an obvious motivation, the pure joy of game creation isn’t my reason for making games today. The reason is rather different and rooted in the belief that today’s games are the seeds of our online interactive future and that we need better ways to facilitate their creation. Even more specifically myself and the rest of the team at Timewarp has two strong beliefs:

  1. That as online worlds become more interactive and “game like” it will be critical that anyone can be creator in such worlds – even if they do not have deep technical skills,
  2. That AI (Artificial Intelligence) can play a major role both in making these online worlds more vibrant and in helping creators bring them to life.

So while Timewarp does develop games, what’s really going underneath is that we’re building a platform to enable others to create and extend those games. A platform that makes it much easier to manipulate the behavior and logic behind a game than anything available today. AI helps us to do this by acting as a support for human creators and as technology that allows the worlds being created be rich and dynamic.

The hope is that it becomes as easy to create an online world that participants can explore, interact with and play or work in as it is to create a professional YouTube video or a Website today.

Great examples of games that allow user creation today include Minecraft, Roblox, Gary’s Mod, The Sims and the ever continuing Warcraft III modding community. Each of these modifiable games has unleashed a wave of creativity. There is still much more to do in terms of making game creation (and creation in games) available in many game worlds!

As well as this main driver for “why” games. I’ll go a little deeper into some of the reasons.

Games drive technology

Technology gets better if it is used to try to solve problems at the limits of what it can do. The programmer who can’t wait a day for an algorithm to run tries to optimize the algorithm, the hardware designer pushes the performance further and further as applications need more power. Games have always been one of the biggest drivers in technology. This is true both in terms of raw power required to run the leading games and in terms of imagining the possibilities of the format.

The interactive worlds of games such as Cyberpunk 2077 (yes, it had problems on release but the created world is incredible) and the amazingly atmospheric world of Ghost of Tsushima are just two extremely impressive examples. These worlds pushed the boundary of the possible in terms of technology (in Cyberpunk’s case possibly too hard on the PS4!) but also showed just how immersive things could be.

The same is true in AI. Computer Go seemed a nearly intractable problem in the mid 1990s when I worked on it. The solutions were way below human level play and required complex, careful optimization. When Google’s Alpha Go AI beat one of the worlds top human players Lee Sedol in 2016 it was a milestone achievement. A truly incredible feat of engineering.

What made Alpha Go even more remarkable was the way in which it learned how to play at this level. I mastered the game not through painstakingly re-created human knowledge but playing endless internal tournaments to train the algorithm. Since this landmark Alpha go has gone on to play and win at many other games (including Starcraft II) as well as finding applications in other areas such as mathematical proof discovery.

Interactive online worlds are key to our digital future

It seems certain that online interactive spaces will be a huge part of the future.

Video, images, documents and streaming are all well-developed today, but the creation of worlds you can step into and interact with opens up huge possibilities (even if those worlds are 2D, 2.5D or text rather than VR) – it is the interactivity and responsiveness to actions that it is important.

Games have already shown the way by creating some of the most amazing experiences to date, but it seems obvious that the same technology can produce valuable experiences for business such as models of buildings that can be manipulated by architects or biological simulations which can be controlled by scientists.

Some games like AmongUs and Animal Crossing have brought millions of people together in what is essentially a social setting supported by a game mechanic.

In this context we think it’s critically important that almost anyone can be a creator of such online worlds and within such worlds. It should not just be in the power of software engineers to craft such experiences. The more people that can create, the more diversity and richness will come into being and the more the social and economic benefits of creation will be shared around.

The more technology can support broad swathes of people to create the impactful it will be.

But what about online subverting the real?

Do we really want all that screen time?

Many of the science fiction stories about future online worlds are deeply dystopian (here’s looking at you Neuromancer, Snowcrash, Ready Player One…). More on how I think we avoid that in a future post! However, one very valid question is: If we’re creating these more interactive worlds will we not be increasing screen time to unhealthy levels? Worse is it part of disconnecting people from the real world?

Surely we should be going hiking on the weekend? Not spending it in a virtual world?

I’m 100% a fan of getting out into nature, spending time with people in the real world and believe hugely in the benefits of this.

However, for me, much like the rise of the Internet, the Web and other communications technologies, the online world is an incredible engine for learning, productivity and social experiences. When used in the right way, online interactive spaces will make possible work and play that simply isn’t available today. They will also create opportunities for those who aren’t fortunate enough to live somewhere where work (or even nature) is abundant. It would be hard to imagine a world without email today or a world in which you could not just reach out to a leading individual in your field of choice via LinkedIn or Twitter. These technologies have made new things possible. Including the potential for projects that develop solutions to pressing world problems.

So we do need to take care that these new technologies are applied in ways which allow people to keep a balance between online and the real world.

I’d also argue that in today’s age much of the screen time is in the form of passive viewing rather than active creating. While we will always need both, a shift to more active participation, choice making and creation during online experiences will hopefully be healthy in empowering people to get more out of their time spent in front of a screen.

The team and our first game

The last BIG reason for working on games and creator teams is the awesome people I get to work with. The mix of engineering, game talent and artistry is a fantastic. Having fun at work is definitely a big plus!

We’re now close to chipping the Alpha version of our first game Mafia Pigs. We have a long way to go but it’s super exciting to be able to share something.

We’d love feedback on the Alpha test so please consider signing up on Steam (wishlist and signup for the test!) so we can send you the build when it is available! Even if you don’t consider yourself a gamer we’d love feedback. Hopefully the experience we’re creating will be fun and engaging no matter how game-savy you feel yourself to be!

I’ll be posting more about the industry and our progress over the coming months. Glad to be back! 🙂

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