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NPCs in games are about to get unsettlingly smart, thanks to AI

A Ubisoft talk at the Game Developer Conference demoed an uncanny prototype in action

Published: 25 Mar 2024

A brief list of words that we’ve seen so much in the past year they’ve lost all meaning: Barbenheimer. Rail strikes. And, of course, the big one: AI. But hold that thought, because at the 2024 Game Developer Conference, Ubisoft showed off a clear benefit of the robot uprising: smarter NPCs in your favourite games.

The company that owns the Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and The Crew licences has teamed up with InWorld AI to develop what the partnership is calling the ‘Newly Evolving NPC’, or ‘NEO NPC’ to its mates.

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While traditionally the characters you rudely push past in games are simply 3D assets that dispense pre-recorded voice lines and canned animations when you prompt them, NEO NPCs work differently. Read: more scary.

A few select members from the press were shown a prototype in action, and as Eurogamer reports, the objective is to use large language model AI not just to build NPCs who can react to what you say and theoretically say anything in reply, but for their speech and actions to affect gameplay.

The scenarios in this prototype involved an NPC reacting to the player’s dialogue (which you say out loud, then the game turns your voice to text) in order to sus out whether they’re a resistance member in the game’s fictional dystopian universe.

In a combat scenario, the NPC calls out enemies when they appear onscreen and offers tips on how to complete gameplay objectives – admittedly, that sounds basically on par with what we’d expect a modern NPC to do. Nothing especially clever there.

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In another scene, the NPC offers the player several different methods of pulling off a bank heist, and reacts to the player’s decisions, ultimately agreeing on a plan together.

Eurogamer points out that the whole thing has echoes of Peter Molyneux’s infamous ‘Milo’ demo from way back in 2009. The demo showed an in-game character holding a very convincing conversation with an actor onstage, using Xbox’s then-new Kinect. And while Molyneux’s team swore it was all working and real, neither the game nor the technology ever saw the light of day.

Ubisoft’s technology comes in the wake of LLM AIs taking leaps forwards in recent years though – we’ve been hurt before, but this time we believe.

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