Inworld AI had a booth on the show floor of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where the company showed off characters in a game with a new kind of artificial intelligence. These non-player characters (NPCs) didn’t have canned answers to queries. I asked a series of questions and the characters answered me in conversational ways, without long delays in the interaction.
My basic mission in the sci-fi demo was to investigate an explosion and questions some witnesses. I asked basic questions about what one robot character saw and what they were doing. But I didn’t really get much out of it, and I was anxious to move on to the next witness. Then I asked, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” And then the robot spilled its guts and told me what it really wanted to say. It was a useful clue that I only surfaced by asking an open-ended question. That actually felt pretty fun, as it made me believe that I would get the right answer from this NPC by asking the right question, rather than just fetching a piece of information in a much more robotic way.
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Asking the right question
In a demo, I realized the promise of one of the latest crazes of the GDC and the game industry: generative AI. Ever since the debut of ChatGPT a few months ago, and since generative AI art began appearing before that, everyone has been wondering how it will change gaming. A bunch of the generative AI startups that GamesBeat has been writing about have been getting funding, and, interestingly enough, Inworld AI got its start — and $50 million in funding — long before ChatGPT was released.
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Inworld AI was clearly not alone as a representative of the AI wave. On Thursday night, Fable CEO Edward Saatchi and other hosts held the AI Games Hackathon and Meetup at Fort Mason. That was all about games and films where the characters are based on AI. Also on Thursday, I dined with folks including Scenario CEO Emmanuel de Maistre, who is also one of the leaders in the generative AI movement.
On Tuesday night, Andreessen Horowitz, Salad, Founders Inc., and Lore.com sponsored a Generative AI meetup, which had about 450 people on its RSVP list and another 500 more on the waiting list, said Jon Radoff, CEO of Beamable. (He is going to moderate a panel on generative AI at our GamesBeat Summit 2023 event in Los Angeles on May 22-23).
Those people had to brave some crazy weather — including freakishly high winds and rain — to get there. (In fact, I didn’t make but I got stuck in the rain for a 30-minute walk back to my hotel. There were no Ubers in much of San Francisco for hours, as a big rig overturned on the Eastbound Bay Bridge and snarled traffic for the evening. If only AI could have told us the right place to be on that stormy night.
Despite that madness on Tuesday, GDC thrived. I made it to various parties where generative AI was a big topic. Such talk was definitely part of the many conversations I had at parties thrown by Bitkraft, Goldman Sachs and Lightspeed, and Drake Star Partners. Weili Dai’s Story Machine also showed a vision for using generative AI for art or game programming with a new startup dubbed Robot Invader.
I learned about how generative AI and other forms of AI will become so much more efficient in a matter of months, and how it could attack problems like copyright infringement and player toxicity.
All of this talk was happening the same week as Nvidia’s GTC 2023 spring event, where there were 70 talks out of 650 on generative AI. (I did a panel on the industrial metaverse).
It felt like some of the trends of yesteryear, like blockchain games and the metaverse, were overshadowed by the hotness of generative AI. You would think it quite logical for me to presume that generative AI stole the whole show at GDC 2023. I could have predicted that without even going to the event. And I wouldn’t have gotten soaked in the rain on a 30-minute walk.
Not the whole story
But I a not a robot, and ChatGPT didn’t write this story for me. There were plenty of humans — people with souls and heart — who made sure that the story of GDC 2023 wasn’t just about AI.
Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, gave an impassioned six-minute speech on the need for the open metaverse at his company’s much-watched press event on Wednesday at GDC. He warned against the encroachment of walled gardens — and their taxes — on the domain of game companies. He talked about how metaverse-like games like Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft have amassed huge audiences but we’re only part way toward the creation of something that truly deserves the name “the metaverse.” You can see his speech with a human point of view above.
Sweeney’s company also showed off facial animation from one of my favorite upcoming games, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II.
Another old timer, John Romero, won the lifetime achievement award at the Game Developers Choice Awards. Warren Spector, one of his peers, said Romero, who has an eidetic memory, is one of the Renaissance people of the game industry whose games changed the industry. He has dedicated his life to making games, and doing much of it as an indie game creator.
“A lot of people in this room are here because of John’s work,” Spector said to a room full of thousands of game developers. “A lot of people know about you because of John’s work.”
Who would have thought that one of the rebellious guys that brought us Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein 3D would have one day become the icon that so many game developers admire?
And there were plenty of blockchain deals announced this week. For instance, Immutable and Polygon teamed up on Monday in a strategic alliance. CCP Games announced it had raised a $40 million round of funding for a new game set in the Eve universe. And Nexon said that it would create a game in the decades-old MapleStory universe that would use non-fungible tokens (NFTs). I also got a look at the extraction shooter Shrapnel, which uses blockchain features in a multiplayer format.
True believers in decentralization like the team at Sky Mavis, maker of Axie Infinity, and Gabby Dizon, cofounder of Yield Guild Games, took heart at those advances in the growth of blockchain gaming. It was like a validation of the work they’ve done in trying to establish a new era of gaming.
With so many meetings and news events to cover, I was sad that I only made it to a couple of sessions at GDC 2023 itself. Happily, Stephen Totilo of Axios told me about the joys of Viewfinder, an app that lets you solve puzzles by capturing a 3D perspective. Thank goodness someone took an actual look at games at GDC 2023. I barely got to view a couple myself.
But I really did enjoy seeing so many people out and about. They were enjoying themselves and I held so many unplanned sessions with people that I saw walking on my way through GDC. Yes, it seemed like the AI stole the show at GDC 2023, but I assure you that the humans took it back. Just check out this video.
All of these events, meetings and the excitement around them explained why there were so many people attending GDC this year. The crowds were huge, as evidenced by the line around the block on Monday and Tuesday to show proof of vaccination and fetch badges.
I heard more than 27,000 had attended as of Wednesday, and that attendee number was likely to keep on rising — compared to only 12,000 in person last year. If you had some FOMO about not being there, that was probably some legit FOMO!
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