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Ubisoft debuts NEO NPC AI prototypes | GDC 2024

Ubisoft has shown three behind-the-scenes demos at GDC this week on the potential of AI when it comes to building NPCs.

Dubbed NEO NPCs, Ubisoft’s efforts involves combining AI responses with narrative back stories and prompts designed to avoid making the NPCs appear ‘soulless’.

The project is an R&D initiative led by Ubisoft’s Paris alongside its Production Technology department. There were three experiments in total, and all of them using voice commands.

The first challenged players to build a relationship with an NPC called Bloom. The gamer has been hired to join a resistance group, Bloom is your buddy and you’re encouraged to build a rapport with him. He’ll respond to your questions and also react depending on whether you’re angry, sad, boastful, anxious and so on. You’re encouraged to try and explore his back story, learn about other characters and find out information about the resistance. Ask the right question, and it’ll trigger scripted information relevant to the game.

The objective of the demo is to “enhance narrative immersion”, Ubisoft says. And building the relationship would allow the player to ‘level up’ their relationship meter, which would unlock more behaviours.

The second experiment also featured Bloom watching a stealth mission with a drone. Here, Bloom will react to what is going on, while also responding to questions and input from the players. Bloom will respond to events, and if there is a critical moment in the gameplay, he will prioritise reacting to that over any in-game conversation. He’s aware of the status of the mission and his surroundings.

The final experiment was around planning a stealth mission with an NPC called Iron. In this experiment, Iron has a suggested approach to the mission in terms of how to break into a building, how to subdue a guard and how to take out the cameras. Players are then encouraged to challenge the approach and Iron will respond on whether that is something that could work.

Here if you go too far off topic, the NPC will steer the player back to the task at hand.

“We’ve seen experiments from players and devs just attaching ChatGPT to lots of games, which made the NPCs able to talk,” said Xavier Manzanares, who is the director of the project. “This was interesting, it sparked interest, but it also saw negative stuff where people were saying it was soulless and less interesting than we thought.

“On our side we decided to not just do a broad LLM into an NPC, but to think about what is a meaningful interaction between the player and an NPC. For that, we started to work a few months on ‘what is awareness? What is natural language?’ We worked on the back story and emotion, so a lot of values on the emotions and ethics that we as a team wanted in an NPC. So we decided to go down that route.”

He added: “GenAI is a tool, it is a tech, it doesn’t create games. It has to be connected to design and it has to be connected to a team that wants to push something.

“And when it comes to the question we always ask is: ‘What is in it for the creators? What is in it for the players?’

“We didn’t want to rush anything, and today is just the first experiment.”

I was shown the demo by Virginie Mosser, who worked as the narrative director on the project. And she said in the release: “My creative work has become much deeper since I get to work on their [NEO NPCs] psychology. I have to give them a soul and do so with a certain finesse that we have never before allocated to NPC creation.

“As a writer, seeing my characters come to life and actually converse with me for the first time has been one of the most fulfilling and touching moments of my career.”

Manzanares concludes: “It could be the start of a fantastic paradigm shift. For the first time, the game world actually listens to and dynamically responds to the players. Social interactions and skills become part of the gameplay. Smarter NPCs like our NEO NPCs have the potential to become a breakthrough addition to the traditional NPCs we see in games today. They provide the ability to create even more immersive worlds and emergent stories.”

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