Amidst all the focus on Second Life and the emerging press coverage on its tenth anniversary – with Gamastura being the latest, providing a very short, punchy and positive piece based on the All Things D article which I examined here over the weekend – it is easy to miss the fact that another of LL’s products, Versu, has also gained a little media attention.
Versu, the Lab’s interactive storytelling application for the iPad, launched back in February with little fuss or flag-waving. Since then, there’s been little news. It doesn’t appear as if the library of titles available for it has grown to any degree, and there has been little in the way of any word from the Lab as to the future of the product. Versu hasn’t been updated since March 2013, the promised Android version has yet to surface, and there has been no news on the Lab’s broader plans to allow users to write and publish their own stories.
However, in June, UK magazine New Scientist published a piece on Versu, AI gets socially savvy, written by Douglas Heaven. The article was born out of Richard Evans, one of Versu’s co-creators, presenting a paper entitled Versu: A Simulationist Interactive Drama, at the Games and Media Event held in May 2013 at the Imperial College London. Heaven’s piece also appeared in New Scientist Online under the title AI makes social game characters all too human.
It’s a fascinating read. Not only does it give a greater insight into the power and versatility of Versu – something which is potentially easy to dismiss when first encountering the product on paper -, it also suggests ways in which applications such as Versu could be used to assist with or study a range of real-world social and other situations.
FLIRTY, shy or gossipy… these aren’t the typical traits of a bit of computer code. But a simulation system that gives computer-controlled agents a sense of social propriety could change that, leading to more realistic interactions between humans and characters in games.
So opens Heaven’s piece, before going on to give some background on Evans himself, who is not only one of the two minds behind Versu, but also worked on The Sims 3, before going on to set-up LittleTextPeople with Emily Short, which the Lab acquired in January 2013, and from which Versu was born. Interestingly, one of the motivations to generate such a rich depth to Versu’s non-player characters was the frustration Evans had with the behaviour of characters in The Sims 3 where, Heaven notes, computer-controlled characters would suddenly behave inexplicably, shattering the illusion of realism – such as visiting a neighbour’s house and having a bath…
To avoid this, Versu characters are not scripted, per se, as the New Scientist piece notes:
Each of its computer-controlled characters is governed by a deep model of social propriety. They react to rudeness, disapprove of bad manners, and they know a violated social norm when they see one. They gossip, show off and flirt. To make such behaviour possible, Evans streamlined the code that defines characters’ beliefs and desires. This allows them to weigh the consequences of many possible actions before deciding how to behave…
The behaviour of the agents [characters] is not scripted. Instead, they each have a unique set of goals and desires that govern their behaviour. No two play-throughs are likely to be the same.
This approach allows the Versu characters to “play out their own soap opera independently”, which can have some very surprising repercussions, as Evans noted in his presentation. In it, he relates that when testing Versu, he was surprised to find he was being snubbed by one of the characters. It wasn’t until he examined the game’s logs that he found out why. Earlier in the game, he had been rude to another character, who had gone on to tell others of his unpleasantness, with the result that Evans found himself snubbed later in the game.
Because Versu uses social rules to govern the actions and reactions of non-player characters, it is seen as a particularly powerful tool for modelling human interactions, which is in turn bringing it to the attention of academics as well as gamers.
Evans also sees a wider potential for the technology developed for Versu, suggesting that it could be used in a wide variety of activities – such as helping soldiers learn to interact with civilians in a war zone, or young people to deal with bullies.
Of all the new products launched to date by the Lab, Versu is the one which has piqued my curiosity the most – and it is also the one I’ve found to be the most frustrating, given it is restricted to the iPad and lack of any further news on it coming out of the Lab. Evans’ paper and this New Scientist article therefore both provide welcome insight into the app, and on its potential for the future – assuming the Lab shares in those aims and remains committed to developing and enhancing Versu.
- AI makes social game characters all too human – New Scientist on-line, June 28th
- Versu website
- Versu on the Apple App store
- Versu coverage in this blog