We’re on the ground at GDC 2023, staying on top of the latest discussions at the world’s biggest game developer event, and one conversation that’s dominating the whole tech world has reared its head again – for the biggest companies in gaming, AI is king right now. Whether you’re looking at ChatGPT, Roblox, or big mobile game developers, everyone is looking to harness the power of AI to achieve various goals. It’s a little scary how quickly it’s come to the fore, but it’s here to stay.
One of the companies hoping to make the most of AI is King, the developer of Candy Crush, which, just in case you didn’t know, is one of the biggest mobile games in the whole world. After the company presented a talk at GDC 2023 called ‘The Future of AI in Gaming’, we sat down for a chat with Steve Collins, Chief Technology Officer at King, to talk about everything AI.
“It’s the hottest thing right now, so much has happened in the last year and even in the last two weeks,” he says. With the amount of interest in AI increasing, what we really want to know is the basics. What is AI? Turns out, it’s complicated.
“AI in its broadest sense is a very big topic. So, it’s essentially trying to get a computer to make decisions in a human-like way, and it can be as simple as very simple rules, all the way to something very complicated, like deep learning and machine learning that learns from data and tries to extract patterns using statistics.”
A description like that brings up some obvious benefits, though some other benefits are less clear. With a game like Candy Crush, which has already been a megahit for over a decade, how could new AI technologies actually make a difference? Well, for King, it has benefits across the whole business, not just in-game.
“What we’re really doing now is trying to see how we can make AI available to everybody at King to use no matter what their role is, [thus] leveling-up our capabilities. So, we use AI for everything from making levels easier and more fun to play all the way through to customizing the experience for individual players.”
With that in mind, implementation is an obvious hurdle, especially if you want to introduce AI systems across multiple different games. With thirteen active games and nearly 2,000 employees in game studios in Stockholm, Malmö, London, Barcelona and Berlin, and offices in San Francisco, New York, and Malta, King has many different places it could want to introduce this new tech. Luckily, the company comes prepared.
“It turns out for companies like King, it’s not really a technology challenge, but it’s mostly about people, about ways of working and processes, and it’s an enterprise transformation. I mean, that’s a terribly unexciting set of words, but it’s true.” So, it’s the people that matter. And to help integrate AI even further, King is bringing in more people, with its acquisition of Peltarion last year.
“They are a Swedish company based in Stockholm, actually just down the road from where our headquarters are, and our teams have worked together before in the past on a number of different projects”, Steve explains.
“Peltarion’s sort of expertise is twofold. One is how to embed AI in a large enterprise. They’ve done that for many, many different companies in their history as a company. And secondly, it’s just deep expertise on machine learning and deep learning specifically, which is really exciting for us.
“So we acquired them last year and spent a lot of last year sort of embedding Peltarion inside of our organisation, and now we’ve created an entirely new sort of AI and machine learning organisation at King with over 50 people now dedicated to this.”
King has three different teams in this group, with one focusing on the future with research and development, another dedicated to internal education, and a third “strike force” or “special projects” team that go into the game teams to support them.
This open-armed embrace of AI is happening everywhere, and, as any man in a suit who lives on the west coast that says “crushing it, bro” whenever you do anything good will tell you – it’s the future, along with business meetings in the metaverse and NFTs.
I’m not discounting that it is the future, that’s not up to me. But the scary speed at which everything is happening – while ethical issues around AI are still hotly debated, and questions over workforces shrinking are still unanswered – leaves me feeling sceptical.
Well, at King it’s the opposite. “I think what you find is, as newer technologies become available, the capabilities of your team grows, and we have a huge amount we’re trying to do with King. We’ve got an enormous ambition for our games and for our players”, Steve says.
“So, as we take on more of this technology, we need more people to take advantage of that. There’s no question of AI replacing King. You know, we have great designers, we have great testers, we’ve got great coders, and in all cases, we think that their jobs are going to change over time, the nature of what they do will change over time, but they’ll be enabled to do more. And that’s what’s exciting for us.”
Still, this loud release of numerous AI tools that have been brewing for years may mean that people remain sceptical. It all feels very new, a little too new to know how these tools can actually help and hinder us. How is the games industry actually going to benefit from all this?
“I think the truth is no one knows, things have changed so rapidly in the past year. 2022 was a very, very big year for AI because it introduced things like Chat GPT, Midjourney, Stable Diffusion. And these are based on research that happened in 2010, 2015, but now they’ve become available in a very obvious way. And even in the last couple of weeks, we’ve had the latest releases of GPT4, which is even better. Again, we’ve got Midjourney 5 which is really great, creating sort of artistic content.
“And I think… the games industry is thinking, ‘what does this mean for us?’… And it’s very hard to have a crystal ball, but I think this is going to make life better for everybody. I think this is one of those technical innovations that democratises access to design, to art, and to content creation.”
And how does all this innovation change King’s games? Is Candy Crush going to get a chatbot to keep you company? Well, no. “I think we will be able to create even more engaging games. I think we’ll be getting even better at exciting our players and providing great experiences because we will be able to tailor and customise the gameplay experience down to nearly individual levels.
“That doesn’t mean to say every player is going to get a different game. It’s not that at all, but we’ll be adapting the games to how players are reacting to what’s fun for them just to deepen the engagement. And I think that the more we can use AI, the more we can use automation, we can really create those custom experiences for players.
“You know, we’re about making the world more playful, making the world more fun. So this removes even more barriers for us to do that.” How it all plays out, however, we just have to wait and see.