July 06, 2023

Happy Thursday.

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Today's edition: 1,557 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Unity's AI dreams

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.

  • A 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.
  • A 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."

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 on the fly for someone committing a liquor store holdup. Another: 100,000 AI-driven characters in a virtual Brooklyn to populate a Godfather game.
  • 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.

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 test bed 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.

  • 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.”

2. Apple's latest all-star

Jet Dragon. Screenshot: Grezzo

Apple’s subscription gaming service is slowly but surely extending its reputation as a platform for iconic Japanese game developers to try something at least a little new, this time with a dragon-racing game called Jet Dragon from a team led by Koichi Ishii.

Driving the news: Jet Dragon follows the June 2022 release of Air Twister from former Sega hall-of-famer Yu Suzuki and 2021 role-playing game Fantasian from a team lead by Final Fantasy lead creator Hironobu Sakaguchi.

Details: Ishii is considered the father of the Secret/Legend of Mana series of games that became popular on the Super Nintendo in the 1990s.

  • Since the late 2000s, he’s been CEO of Japanese studio Grezzo (rough translation: “diamond in the rough”), which has developed numerous games for Nintendo, including a run of remakes of popular Zelda titles.
  • The inspiration for Jet Dragon, Ishii tells Axios, came about five years ago from watching Red Bull air races and a longtime dream to make a game about dragons. Production started in early 2022.
  • “Rather than the traditional ‘defeat or be defeated’ combat format, we wanted to depict competition through the form of races, emphasizing the aspect of ‘competing against each other,’” Ishii said over email, via an interpreter. The team wanted the management and training of the dragons to be a core element.

Between the lines: Jet Dragon was partially born from a desire to make a mobile game and help the team gain expertise developing on the Unity engine, but the company still plans to focus on more traditional console games, Ishii says.

3. Nintendo reports wage gap

The Nintendo World Store in Tokyo. Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

Just 4.2% of managers at Nintendo Company are women, a number unchanged since the company first reported that gender-based stat in 2021, according to recent company filings.

Driving the news: Nintendo’s annual report, published yesterday, offers further insights into the workforce at the main offices of the game maker in Japan, including a stark gender divide in pay.

Details: Women at Nintendo make, on average, 72% of what men are paid, according to the annual report, the company’s first to include the pay breakdown.

  • Nintendo attributes that to issues of tenure in a place where workers stay at the company for an average of 14.3 years (and where veteran employees are mostly men).
  • “The pay gap between male and female regular employees is mainly due to differences in the length of service and average age,” the company noted: “There is no difference in treatment between men and women in terms of salary or evaluation systems.”

Between the lines: The data covers Nintendo’s Japanese offices, which employed 2,779 workers as of the end of March.

The big picture: Japan’s gender wage gap is the largest among the G7 nations, followed by the United States’, Reuters reports.

  • In 2021, Nintendo noted it intended to increase the proportion of women in management: “We are recruiting women and creating an environment in which women can build successful careers.”

4. Need to know

Emile Morel, creative director of Ubisoft’s Beyond Good and Evil 2, has died at the age of 40, IGN reports. The studio where he worked, Ubisoft Montpellier, paid tribute to Morel, calling him “a boundless source of positive energy.”

🚨 A French gamer has been sentenced to three years in prison for faking a hostage threat against Ubisoft’s offices in Montreal in 2020, Montreal CityNews reports.

🤔 Apple is asking an appeals court to postpone the enforcement of a court-ordered ban on so-called anti-steering practices in its app store.

  • Apple intends to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, according to court filings. Its rival in the case, Epic Games, is asking for the mandate to be enforced starting July 7.

🏈 A judge in California has denied a request by the college athlete licensing group The Brandr Group to put a temporary restraining order on the licensing of athletes for Electronic Arts’ 2024-slated NCAA football game.

  • Brandr is suing amidst controversy over the athletes’ rights and the rumored $500 being offered to athletes for inclusion in the game.

👀 The New York Times is beginning to run ads in the mobile version of Wordle, for people who don’t subscribe to its Games service, Axios reports.

5. The week ahead

Oxenfree II: Lost Signals. Screenshot: Night School Studio

Friday, July 7

Saturday-Sunday, July 8-9

Monday, July 10 and Tuesday, July 11

  • Quiet days.

Wednesday, July 12

Thursday, July 13

Friday, July 14

6. I played… God of War: Ragnarök

God of War: Ragnarök. Screenshot: Sony Interactive Entertainment

I finally finished Sony Santa Monica’s God of War: Ragnarök (played on PS5 for 74 hours, 35 minutes; also available on PS4).

I really enjoyed the full mythological adventure, but mostly want to praise, without spoiling it, its final hours.

  • I don’t mean the part that would usually be called its ending, but instead what comes after: a rare, playable epilogue.
  • Many video games remove control from players and roll credits right after their big final battle or shove players into the infinite gameplay grind of a so-called end-game.

Ragnarök does something different. After the game’s climactic battle concludes and the credits roll, players are nudged to revisit familiar locations and check in with the game’s cast.

  • Characters chat about how things have gone, offer hints about what they may do next. There’s a bit of action, but more quiet moments.
  • Ragnarök already calls for a considerable time commitment, but my advice is that, if you play it, don’t just play to the end. Play after that to experience a rare, deftly directed extended farewell.

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🐦 Find me on Twitter: @stephentotilo.

Thank you to Scott Rosenberg for editing and Kathie Bozanich for copy editing this newsletter.

Time for some dragon racing.