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Four ways AI and cloud can make game dev easier (and one thing they can't do) | GI Sprint

We talk to Xbox about what these technologies can do to support – but not replace – developers

Image credit: Haiyan Zhang, Xbox's GM for gaming AI, and Brady Woods, product leader for Xbox Game Creator services

Two of the technologies that have promised to change the way that games are made and played are cloud and artificial intelligence.

Cloud has been around for a while. Entire companies, such as Improbable, have been set up to help developers create more ambitious projects by offloading processing from gaming hardware to vast server farms. Microsoft has also experimented with this in the past; some of the AI companions in Titanfall were handled by the company's Azure servers all the way back in 2014.

Meanwhile, AI has been grabbing more headlines recently thanks to the ambitious claims about its capabilities.

To discuss how cloud and AI are going to help developers create games, GamesIndustry.biz head Christopher Dring spoke with Xbox's GM for gaming AI, Haiyan Zhang, and Brady Woods, one of the company's product leaders for Xbox Game Creator services.

You can watch the full discussion below, download it here, or find it on the podcasting platform of your choice.

Watch on YouTube

They can help with coding

One of the promises of AI is that it will handle many of the boring and time-consuming tasks developers have to tackle and will instead allow them to focus on more creative and innovative ventures. Zhang says that game creators have found Microsoft's suite of AI tools, such as ChatGPT and its Microsoft 365 Copilot chatbot, helpful when creating their games.

"They have been really useful to devs from AAA to indies in the way they're not fully integrated into the development pipeline, so it can be used as an additional tool," she says.

"We have an opportunity to lean in so we can keep the creative minds working on the most creative parts of the process"Haiyan Zhang

"We've also seen great work from our colleagues at GitHub Copilot, who are bringing GPT and AI to support developers in code completion when they are actually in development. As you write code, the AI supports you and finishes snippets of code for you. Developers can gain a lot of efficiencies from these tools."

Woods adds that AI tools like the previously-mentioned Copilot chatbot will allow developers to focus more on the creative aspects of game creation rather than boring daily tasks.

"These are the areas where there's an opportunity to really lean in so game developers can focus on finding the creative and being able to do the parts that are uniquely theirs," she explains.

"Those are places where I expect we'll drive more efficiency when we think of cloud adoption. As developers adopt more of these solutions, they'll see overall time savings at every step. That's where I think we have an opportunity as an industry to lean in so we can keep the creative minds working on the most creative parts of the process."

They can help you create a game's story

AI can also help out with narrative design. Right now, you can use generative AI like ChatGPT to summarise the key points of a block of text; likewise, developers can integrate these tools into their workflow to quickly provide information that might be essential to writing a game's story.

"We're finding devs are enjoying taking all their game docs and game lore and creating a custom GPT or customising M365 Copilot so they can start querying what happened in the last game or asking for a refresher on this character's backstory, so [they] can focus on creative endeavours," Zhang explains.

One such AI tool that Microsoft has created is the Narrative Graph. This tool, built in collaboration with Inworld AI, allows creators to have a visual overview of the story of their game project.

"Narrative Graph takes all your lore and docs and creates a graph structure bespoke to the game you have designed," Zhang says.

"From there, you can edit and add additional subplots. We found that to be a really interesting experiment and exploration. We're working with internal and external developers to see where we can take this. Part of this work is exploring new tools to support game creators."

They can help you manage live service

The number of live-service titles has exponentially increased in the last decade. These often require huge overheads and large teams to support a game after its launch, which means that it's unlikely smaller indie teams will risk pursuing such a venture.

Woods believes that cloud tech, such as Microsoft's PlayFab, can reduce this pressure and make these games more accessible to smaller developers.

"There are several backend services that you need to have to have that robust content pipeline to react in real-time to your playerbase," she says.

"When you look at cloud-based tools, they're a set of backend services that simplify how you interact and iterate with your playerbase, whether it be a real-time collection of data, an events pipeline, in-game economy solutions, multiplayer services or your ability to enable party chat.

"We want to take those cloud-native backend services that help developers create those iterative cycles and tighten that loop. We want developers to be able to quickly learn what players are enjoying about their game – what is working and what isn't, then be able to push changes back into the game in real-time."

Woods says this set of complicated systems can be simplified and made more accessible with AI, which can understand and react to natural language requests.

"AI, and our ability to democratise that tool, means you are not [held back] by having a mastery of the UI or services themselves; we can democratise that ability through natural language," she explains.

"If you are not an expert in running a live service or being able to drive that iterative cycle in your game, you can move to natural language and communicate directly with the AI, which then acts as an agent to help you effect those changes.”

They can help manage your community

Another aspect of modern game development that studios need to spend time and money on is community management. This is often a stretch for smaller companies, who do not have the headcounts of their larger counterparts.

"It's about putting the tools into the hands of the creatives so they can deliver their vision"Brady Woods

"Gaming is ultimately a social activity," Zhang says. "It's where many people connect with their friends, or others around the planet, and have that social engagement.

"That means that the safety of that community is of the utmost importance. That's about behaviour in chat, people feeling that they are being included in the messages being sent, and using language that is respectful. We focus a lot on – and have spent many years thinking about – content moderation, applying that to our communities and then taking our learnings and sharing them with external developers so they can create safer communities within their in-game chats as well."

Moderation is something that Zhang says is something you can never do enough of. It's vital but also a potentially overwhelming task.

"Using the power of AI, we can scale our network of content moderators to help them do their job better and create a safer community," she says. "We want to share that with the games industry so everybody can facilitate these safer communities."

But they can't replace game developers

Much has been made of AI's potential impact on the job market. Already, there are concerns about workers being replaced with AI tech, especially in an economic climate that sees corporate giants under increasing pressure to make greater and deeper cuts to their costs.

If you share these concerns, you might take some comfort in the fact Zhang believes AI is a tool for helping creators rather than a creative tool itself – in other words, she doesn't believe it will be taking jobs.

"It is supporting game developers, design teams, development teams, post-launch teams," she says.

"That's where we really want to focus. AI is a tool driven by these incredibly imaginative teams. Ultimately, we believe that video games are an art form that expresses human creativity delivered through advanced technology. We look at what the advanced technology that really helps people and teams express their creativity is.

"AI will help us accelerate game development. We are exploring what those tools are and want to explore them with game teams themselves and figure out where the best places to leverage are."

Woods concludes: "Overall, you'll see that cloud and AI are all about driving democratisation of the ability for storytellers to tell stories and create their content, whether in linear content or game development. It's about putting the tools into the hands of the creatives so they can deliver their vision."

Alex Calvin avatar
Alex Calvin: Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist and writer covering the business of games, and has written for the likes of GamesIndustry.biz, Eurogamer, Kotaku UK, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK. He can be found on Twitter @gamesbizuk.
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