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Living characters set to jolt gaming industry

Typically relegated to a vicarious existence as the on-screen extension of their players, video game avatars have never really had a life of their own. But imagine the appeal of being able to engage in a deep conversation about last night's baseball game with Lara Croft.
May 1, 2004

Typically relegated to a vicarious existence as the on-screen extension of their players, video game avatars have never really had a life of their own. But imagine the appeal of being able to engage in a deep conversation about last night’s baseball game with Lara Croft.

Thanks to industry clients and a US$2-million Advanced Technology Program grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce (awarded to high-tech projects likely to impact the U.S. economy), Newton, Massachusetts-based Zoesis Studios is aiming to create a new generation of richer, thinking computer beings that will ultimately change the way video games are played.

Combining elements of artificial intelligence and cognitive and computer science with the principals of animation and drama, Zoesis builds digital brains for its on-screen characters that make them aware of social reactions and environment. These digi-characters are able to react to what the player does, engaging in a two-way relationship rather than simply playing out prerecorded audio and video clips. In other words, the character has a mind of its own.

At the Game Developer’s Conference in March, Zoesis introduced its latest ATP-funded video game prototype The Pearl Demon. The game charges players with stealing treasure away from a greedy monster, and this antagonist is programmed to give unique physical and verbal responses when players text in communication. ‘It’s still in the demo stage,’ says Zoesis CEO Ellen Bossart, ‘but the goal is that you should be able to say totally out-of-context things like ‘How about them Red Sox,’ and the demon will respond in a way that is appropriate.’

In 2001, Zoesis applied its technology to the commercial websites of McDonald’s and Heinz via personalized ketchup bottles and cheeseburgers. Research showed that brand appeal amongst site users went up 40% while these characters were up. With help from the second part of the ATP grant, Bossart hopes to tackle complex humanistic entities next, so kids might soon be able to interact in a more meaningful and personal way with spokescharacters such as Ronald McDonald on-line.

Although Zoesis’ main focus is to perfect limb-based interactive figures, the studio is also working on an e-learning application to help kids build emotional and social intelligence. Set to debut as a consumer product in Q4 2005, Bossart believes the communication avenues these on-screen characters can forge will help kids who are uncomfortable in social situations.

Zoesis’ long-term goal is to open up a new relationship-building genre in the video game market, which currently centers around action-adventure and role-playing game play and rakes in US$10 billion a year. The plan, says Bossart, is to focus on comedy and romance as themes: ‘For example,’ she muses, ‘if you did an interactive soap opera with real characters, could you imagine the potential?’

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