WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
AI is getting increasingly capable at creating quality synthetic content, and that includes books, scripts, and worlds.
Today we have AI’s building other AI’s and fake news stories, and AI’s that write their own code, and doing a better job of it than the world’s top experts, but increasingly we also have AI’s that are creating their own short films, and now they’re turning their hand at creating video games. Owing perhaps to the difficulty and extreme cost of building complex virtual worlds that can be explored and interacted with in a multitude of ways, video games have long made use of a phenomenon called Procedural Content Generation and creative computers that make their own content. Epic space-faring BBC Micro game Elite generated its own star systems on the fly way back in 1984, for example, while the likes of Minecraft, Diablo, and the SimCity series all similarly have environments spawned and sculpted by algorithms, not games designers or humans.
But Artificial Intelligence (AI) research and the rise of creative machines are opening new avenues in the ever evolving dance between human game developers and their algorithmically-intelligent tools, and now AI’s can now create entire 2D and 3D games from scratch, unassisted – and that could be just the tip of the iceberg.
“I have a personal fascination with what technology can do,” says Michael Cook, a Ph.D student at Imperial College London in the UK. He makes things that make other things, and explores the limits to how much computers can be taught to create.
“Procedural content generation feels a bit like violating laws of the universe – creating something from nothing, again and again,” he continues. “Of course it’s nothing like that really, but you get a rush from seeing something appear suddenly.”
Cook’s game AI design engine is called ANGELINA, which stands for A Novel Game-Evolving Labrat I’ve Named ANGELINA, catchy, has evolved steadily through multiple variations since 2011 just as it itself, evolves its own video games. ANGELINA at first created its own simple arcade games, then moved into Metroid styled platformers and onto more unique fare.
Cook likes to ask questions that break people’s assumptions. He sees value in challenging the status quo and looking for answers to questions in unusual places, and ANGELINA is part of that.
For a while ANGELINA generated ideas by reading the Guardian website, maintaining a text file with the names of all the people known to it alongside a numeric value of its opinion of them based on its reading. It inexplicably developed a fondness for Rupert Murdoch during this time, all the while using its smarts to add texture to the 2D platformers and games with self-created mechanics that it designed in a process described in detail as part of a Eurogamer interview with Cook from 2013.
More recently, ANGELINA has participated in game jams such as Ludum Dare, where it competed against human players, and recently it finally made the jump to creating 3D games using the popular Unity engine. As part of these initiatives, ANGELINA learned how to design a game from a single theme word or phrase – something abstract like “alone” or more straightforward like “fishing” or “you only get one,” which was the theme for Ludum Dare 2018.
ANGELINA can also select appropriate graphics and sound effects for the game environments it creates with help from a multitude of databases and other sources, and then layer those onto unspectacular maze games that have level layouts and mechanical rules that ANGELINA sets with code it writes itself. You can see a video below of Cook playing through and commentating on the design choices that ANGELINA made in creating its Ludum Dare entry, To That Sect.
For 10 days in November, ANGELINA took a backseat to other procedural-generation game projects though. Cook ran PROCJAM over that period, which is described as “a game jam about making stuff that makes other stuff” that attracted 138 submissions ranging from procedurally generated games to new Pokemon and tile generators. Cook got a kick out of seeing the creativity and collaboration on show at PROCJAM, largely because it helps drives more discourse about procedural generation and game design.
“The successes [at PROCJAM] are pretty modest,” he says, but his work has already started to get people thinking about these problems in new ways. For game design, AI is another way of tackling problems. In a world where most current genres and core gameplay mechanics have been around for years, refined again and again to a sharp point, he and others think AI could bring something new to the table.
“AI will invent genres that humans could never have possibly conceived of, I believe,” says Cook. “One day people will steal ideas from [AI], not because they want the fame or the pride, but because it’s the current mobile trend and it’s too good not to steal. It’s a cynical and sad aspect of the future, perhaps, but also I like to think it would be a moment of huge validation for AI.”
In the meantime though he says AI’s benefits will be more subtle.
“Computers are quite good at considering options equally,” explains Cook. “They can’t forget things, they don’t get tired, they don’t get confused by emotional needs. People, however, are prone to fatigue and conscious or unconscious biases. An AI can show them something that they stopped considering as an option earlier in the process.”
So, as a result of Cook, and others work, you can expect AI to do more of the heavy lifting when it comes to creating new environments, whether those are in first person shoot ‘em up games or platform games, or in even in Virtual Reality environments. And overall it adds yet another skill to AI’s increasingly impressive arsenal of talent.