Just over a decade ago, Eugene Joseph had a vision. The North Side CEO wanted to see a simulation with AI so clever and in-depth, that it would be able to fully understand spoken English, and respond intelligently.
Video games have long relied on dialog trees and canned dialog lines written into the story. Joseph's dream was to create a simulation where users could use their own words to control the outcome of various scenarios.
Joseph and his Montreal-based team spent around four years researching the possibilities, before settling on the idea of pursuing this concept in video game form. Bot Colony
was born, and the team spent the next couple of years feverishly piecing together the world's first intelligent-response video game.
A prototype for Bot Colony was released at GDC in 2009
-- and this is where we pick the story up. After so many years of work, the North Side team believed that it was getting close to release, but this turned out to be far from the case.
"When the first Bot Colony
prototype was shown at GDC in March 2009, we had no idea how far we were from the goal," Joseph tells me. "We were hopeful and foolish."
He continues, "In June 2010, we showed a pre-alpha version of the game at E3 in Los Angeles, and advertised the beta program at the same time. Whoever wrote on Wikipedia
that 'Most publishers have suffered a 'false launch'' knows what he or she is talking about -- more than 7,000 people from 176 countries signed up, and I felt terrible about not being able to get the game into their hands."
Since these stumbling points, the North Side team has taken several moments to really understand the scale of the project it has on its hands. "We realized that we had been incredibly optimistic about the availability date of our game, and swore not to go to any show before the game was playable," Joseph notes.
Bot Colony today
What has North Side been up to since that GDC 2009 showing, then? The answer, as it turns out, is building on its proprietary natural language understanding (NLU) technology -- and also questioning many of the decisions that it made earlier into development.
Early into Bot Colony
's production, the studio decided that its language technology was so important, that it required its own custom in-house engine.
"The language was the big ticket item," Joseph says. "The development of the language pipeline turned out to be extremely difficult, requiring lots of R&D. Progress was roughly 10 times slower than we anticipated. We kept adding people to the team. As the game was dependent on the language pipeline, it kept sliding as the pipeline kept sliding."
As a result, the team built its own data-drive engine from scratch. The Anitron engine came as a result of the company wanting to support data-driven animations, rather than key-frame based animations, from an early stage. However, later into development the team realized that Anitron would not be able to handle all of the game's functionality, and various middlewares were brought in to complement it -- but this didn't seem like a great solution either.
"The complexity (and definitely time needed) of developing an engine from scratch was something we severely underestimated," Joseph admits. "We eventually determined that in order to deliver the game we would have to use a third party engine and eventually selected the Havok Vision."
This transition from Anitron to Vision started in November 2012, and has helped the team to more rapidly build on its language-processing pipeline that understands English at large, and can even learn new concepts.
"It turns out that this pipeline has many other uses besides video games, though we did build it to be able to support Bot Colony
as a first serious dialogue application," Joseph tells me. "The proprietary graphics engine was replaced with the Havok Vision engine, and the functionality to make the AI's environment aware were migrated to Vision."
"We now have a solid story, game design and assets in place," he continues. "The Bot Colony
novel was published since then."
Up to this point, the cumulative development and research costs for Bot Colony
have exceeded $18 million. The last four years alone have cost more than $10 million, and the North Side team has tripled in size since 2009 to 45 people.
Beta and beyond
It was May 30, 2013 when Bot Colony
's first episode Intruder Alpha1
was released to beta players.
"Our artists were ecstatic that all the work they had put into building, texturing and lighting our assets was finally bearing fruit," Joseph notes. "In mid-July 2013 we had Intruder Alpha2
. While a big improvement over Alpha1
, there were still quite a few issues, and it lacked polish. We will have Alpha3
and Arrival Alpha 1
(the second episode, and first story episode) hopefully this week."
The current plan is to finally open up the beta on November 1, in the hope that more people will want to help crowdfund further development on the game. Unfortunately, the Kickstarter for Bot Colony
doesn't appear to be having a great deal of success right now.
The studio now plans to open up crowdfunding via its own website, with the sale of monthly memberships and episodes at $2.95 and $4.95 price points.
A typical conversation with AI in Bot Colony
Having watched recent videos for Bot Colony
, I asked Joseph how in-depth the AI conversations truly are, since many of the videos appear to show simply conversations about the weather and the like.
"The conversations get a lot deeper than that," he answers. "Some of those videos were created a while back when we were trying to just get something out there to give people a taste of what we were working on."
"You can think of the gameplay almost like a detective novel, only the twist is that the witnesses for the detective to question are all robots and AIs," he adds. "Unlike humans, robots are very literal in their responses and won't volunteer information without being asked."
Notably, the current build of the game understands English well enough that a player can complete all the levels available, as long as they don't veer too much off topic -- although even then characters will attempt to understand new concepts that the player puts forward, based on reasoning, facts and AI rules.
All the details on Bot Colony
can be found on the official website