We caught up with Peter Molyneux to talk about Milo And Kate, one of the principal games that Microsoft is using to demonstrate Project Natal, Xbox 360’s forthcoming motion sensing controller. It might seem like magic, but it turns out that it’s the devilish tricks behind the scenes that count behind this digital yet apparently sentient little boy.
A lot of your work over the last few years has been focused on creating AI companions for players. To what extent is Milo And Kate an extension of that?
Yeah, very, very, very much so. I guess it really started with Black And White and this idea that you can do this really simple stuff and people will find an emotional connection with the creature. We carried on working on that and had this research group at Lionhead working on this thing called ‘emotional AI’. Over the years we used part of that in the dog in Fable II, but really we’ve been working towards this simple idea, ‘Why not create a game where the character seems and feels real?’ The key thing there is that it seems real. I’m not pretending we’ve cracked the hardest problem of AI; I’m not saying this is the start of Cyberdyne Systems from Terminator. It’s a combination of some amazing, incredible research from Microsoft’s research labs, the stuff we’re doing and a lot of tricks.
My theory is very simple – people want to believe this. The idea triggered in my head years ago when I played Little Computer Person – that fired up my imagination because no one could believe that a Little Computer Person was state of the art and of course Milo is way, way beyond that – I think the real thing for me is that it really sparks people’s imagination. The people who have met Milo here, they’ve got this sense of wonder about them, so hopefully that’s proof that we’re on the right track.
What are the main tricks that you’re using?
There are hundreds of little tiny tricks. How he looks at the camera, whether he looks directly at the camera or slightly off. The amount of twitches in his face. The interesting thing is this uncanny valley and how we’re breaking through it. People who experience Milo really go away believing they can talk to him. It was really funny when we were showing the journalists at the show – a lot of them try to engage Milo in a proper conversation, partly because they thought ‘My God, this is it – we’ve got something we can really talk to,’ and partly because the tricks we were using pulled them into the conversation. We’re building up a profile of the emotion in your voice so we know when your voice is strained or excited or calm or passive. That coupled with Milo’s vocabulary of words he understands and what he’s doing on screen creates this illusion – and I’m not pulling any wool over people’s eyes – the illusion that Milo understands and is sentient. And couple that with really cheeky tricks that we’re using. For example, Milo will download dialogue very regularly behind the scenes which updates his database with current events. So, if Britain’s Got Talent is on, he’ll comment on certain acts, so that makes him feel so relevant and real that you start believing it, even if you’re a sceptic.
What stage is the project at the moment, and where do you want to take it?
This is a game, it’s a game that’s going to be made. My ambition is to complete it when Natal ships, a complete game with a story and a score and gameplay mechanics. It’s not just a tech demo. In that stage presentation I did it didn’t really come across as a game, it came across very much as a piece of technology. The way we’re measuring our progress is built on, we call them, days – we’re planning around 15 days of experience with Milo and we’re on about day eight at the moment.
Some accounts on the internet have claimed there were people with controllers around the back of the demonstrations. Have the people that have played over the last day or so purely been interfacing with the machine?
You’ve got to remember that this is very, very new tech, and quite often we need to reboot the machine, so there’s someone in the back in case something goes wrong. There’s no cheating, absolutely not. I thought actually, when they were there, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to look like there’s a puppeteer in the background,’ but there’s not, absolutely not.