Jul 6, 2023 - Technology

Unity CEO: Generative AI will make better games, but won't steal jobs

Photo illustration of John Riccitiello surrounded by abstract shapes and a screenshot of their new AI tool.

Photo illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios. Photo: Courtesy of Unity

New artificial intelligence tools promoted by tech giant Unity will help game developers, not put them out of work, the company’s CEO, John Riccitiello, tells Axios.

Why it matters: Video games have become a premier proving ground for generative AI — and the locus for many anxieties about AI’s potential drawbacks.

  • The potential upside: AI could automate game development’s more tedious tasks — including generating starter art and code that developers can then refine — freeing their time for more creative endeavors.
  • The potential downside: The tech could prove a time-waster or, worse for developers, could automate tasks so well that managers decide they need fewer workers.

What they’re saying: “Some companies will try to make the same game with less to save money,” Riccitiello says, acknowledging that AI tools could compel some companies to cut staff. “And other companies are going to try to make a better game with the same or more, now that they’ve got so much more power.”

  • “My guess is that camp two wins."
  • “That doesn’t mean there won’t be short-sighted people in the near term.”

Details: Unity has announced two generative AI tools, Muse and Sentis, that it plans to offer developers globally this year.

Muse works a ChatGPT-style bot into the Unity engine, letting developers type in requests and get usable artwork and programming code. Riccitiello’s rough math: developers could be five to 10 times more productive with Muse.

Sentis works generative AI directly into games. “You can essentially embed a ChatGPT into an NPC, a character,” Riccitiello says.

  • One riff on the idea he offers: a Grand Theft Auto-style game that generates character motivations for someone committing a liquor store holdup on the fly.
  • To prove how unexpected things could get, Riccitiello makes an intentionally “outlandish” suggestion: you could virtually sit in the stands in a Madden football game and ask a virtual fan for a recipe for lasagna.

Between the lines: Developers have long used tech to randomly or, with a hard-coded ruleset, procedurally generate levels, planets, characters and more.

  • But Riccitiello considers AI like Sentis to be more than a supercharged version of that: “Somebody is going to make a Godfather game. They're going to put 100,000 NPCs in an environment in Brooklyn and they're going to be autonomous.” That, he said, “will feel like it’s in a different dimension.”

Unity also recently rolled out a “curated” AI app marketplace with 10 authorized programs.

  • That list dropped to nine within a day of the announcement after Unity said one had violated Unity’s terms and conditions.

Be smart: Unity management, like so many tech bosses, is hyped about AI, but the actual proven benefits of it are scant so far.

  • It’s early days, though gaming is often a proving ground for new tech and games made with AI or that incorporate AI are beginning to make their way to the public.
  • But Unity and Riccitiello are also hunting for a win, following struggles in the mobile ad business, bad press for the CEO and three rounds of layoffs in the past 14 months.

The intrigue: Riccitiello promises that Unity will do right by creators in terms of the datasets its AI is trained on, acknowledging a swarm of questions about it when Unity’s AI plans were announced.

  • “I can understand how this stuff gets complicated and on how people have concerns. And we do, too.”
  • “Most” of the art that Unity’s AI tools will be trained on is internal, with plans to incorporate work from Weta Digital, which Unity acquired in 2021. Some will come from licensed third parties.
  • Unity will spend “a heavy focus on making sure we do this in a way that is respectable,” he said, but added that “there's going to be legal stuff that comes up, and the landscape's going to change really dramatically.”
  • Riccitiello said that some companies may even say they have the rights to art in cases in which its creators never knew it would be used for training AI. “My guess is that we're going to find trap door after trap door, and it's going to take a couple of years for this wobbly bicycle to not feel like it's so wobbly.”

What’s next: Riccitiello expects AI to lead to nothing less than games in the “next couple of years that look unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

  • It’ll help games with characters including first-person shooters, role playing games.
  • But he also predicts limits: “I don’t think it’s necessarily going to make a better match-three game.”

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