GameBaba Universe

Gaming maps are getting larger. To bring those locations to life, each area has to be strewn with non-playable characters (NPCs). However, that throws up a new challenge which is how the main character interacts with the NPCs. Writers have to write dialogues for hundreds of these NPCs—and that can be exhausting.

Ghostwriter AI tool by Ubisoft (Photo credit Ubisoft News)

To fix that, Ubisoft announced on Tuesday 21 March 2023 that it has developed an in-house AI tool called Ghostwriter. The tool which was created by Ubisoft’s research and development (R&D) department, La Forge, can write unique dialogues for NPCs which helps to save time and cut down cost.

The first reaction from game industry workers was that Ubisoft’s Ghostwriter AI tool would replace video game writers. However, Ubisoft mentioned that the intention of the Ghostwriter AI tool was not to replace video game writers, but rather alleviate one of the biggest challenges that writers faced: writing barks.

“Artists, writers, and coders will always be at the heart of the development process, and while AI can assist creators in their workflow, it’s the artistic vision and perspective of individuals that are essential in the creation of games,” said Ben Swanson, R&D Scientist at La Forge Montreal.

“Barks” is the background chattering—often repetitive which you hear when you move through a crowded city in a game. Something like Ellie in The Last of Us saying “Watch out!” to Joel

According to Ubisoft, the Ghostwriter AI tool “generates first drafts of barks—phrases or sounds made by NPCs during a triggered event”. The writers now take the draft and polish the narratives. Spearheading Ghostwriter AI tool development was Swanson.

How it all started

Swanson developed an interest in the creative application of Natural Language Processing (NLP) during his Ph.D. in Computer Science at Brown University. During his studies, he encountered two creative writers from Brown and Rhode Island School of Design on Digital Literature.

One of the lessons introduced him to the idea of creating art using generative models and he has been exploring the possibility of merging creative writing and technology. In 2021 when he declared interest to join Ubisoft, he was fascinated by a Game Developer Conference (GDC) talk delivered by the Watch Dogs team.

“I actually saw a talk on the narrative design of Watch Dogs: Legion, and I was very impressed,” Swanson said. “I thought to myself, ‘I wish I was working on something like that with teams of professional scriptwriters,’ so, I applied.”

Eventually, Swanson connected with the La Forge team who at that time were looking for solutions to some of their technological challenges. “It was perfect timing because they wanted someone to do exactly what I wanted to do,” Swanson said.

Working with a team of La Forge members in China with a specialty in UX/UI and web application development, the Ghostwriter AI tool was born.

The role of Ghostwriter AI tool in the future of video games

Ghostwriter AI tool interface

Barks and crowd chatter are instrumental to the immersive experience of video games. The experience from enemies discussing during combat to NPCs talking to each other and a conversation triggered when entering an area collectively works to make the gaming world more realistic. They make the game come alive beyond just the main character.

However, the scripting of all the different dialogues is time-consuming—the time that would have been invested in the game’s core plot. The Ghostwriter AI tool was designed to free up that time and give the scriptwriters some creative control.

“Rather than writing first draft versions themselves, Ghostwriter lets scriptwriters select and polish the samples generated,” Swanson explained.

With Ghostwriter, the scriptwriter needs to first create a character and the type of utterance or interaction they want to generate. Ghostwriter will create variations and the scriptwriter can choose the most suitable option and edit as needed. The process makes use of pairwise comparison for evaluation and further improvement.

What this means is that Ghostwriter will provide two choices for each generated variation. The scriptwriter compares and makes a choice. The tool learns from the scriptwriter’s choice and after thousands of selections made by humans, it will become more accurate and effective.

While the benefits of the Ghostwriter AI tool are enormous, Swanson mentioned that the challenge has now moved to adoption. The team is working closely with scriptwriters to understand their need to make the tool better in the unique worlds of each game.

Apart from learning how to use the tool, scriptwriters need to understand how to integrate it into the production process of their video games. Nevertheless, Swanson is optimistic that Ghostwriter will eventually become an integral part of video games’ future.

Not everyone is excited about Ghostwriter AI tool

Image from Watch Dogs Legion (Photo credit Ubisoft Toronto)
Image from Watch Dogs Legion (Photo credit Ubisoft Toronto)

Like every new innovation, it may take a while for people to accept and use Ghostwriter. Amidst the ongoing fears of massive layoffs and AIs taking over human jobs, we found an article on TheGamer by Tssa Kaur that criticized not just the idea but the entire Ubisoft open worlds.

“This is stupid and misguided,” Kaur wrote. “I’ve spent time studying the craft of writing and nobody benefits from lazy shortcuts like this—not the writers, not the work, and certainly not the audience. Ubisoft’s open worlds feel bland and lifeless. Removing humans from this process won’t help.”

Kaur was of the opinion that the better choice, instead of spending millions of dollars to create an AI alternative, would have been to hire more skilled writers to fix the problem. Another suggestion the writer gave was to trim down the size of Ubisoft game worlds.

“I shudder to imagine the poor writer who will be tasked with editing scripts and dialogues generated by AI,” Kaur added.

Kaur also claimed that if the scriptwriters want the tool as Ubisoft claims, it is a sign that they are overworked. The ultimate fear is that Ubisoft may entice other big studios to do the same and eventually rob video games of their human touch, voice, and emotions.

Our verdict

Some of Ubisoft's biggest titles (Photo credit Ubisoft News)
Some of Ubisoft’s biggest titles (Photo credit Ubisoft News)

While Kaur raised important points which should not be swept under the carpet, we believe the writer’s views—which likely stems from the fear of being rendered jobless too—were a bit biased. They were more emotional than logical. From the video demonstration of the Ghostwriter AI tool that we saw, the scriptwriter can choose, edit, or reject the generated prompts on the go.

However, Kaur sounded as if all generated prompts will be piled up and given to a single writer to edit. Also, Ubisoft has come out to emphasize that Ghostwriter will not take over human inputs—and we have no reason not to believe them for now.

Swanson also explained that Ubisoft has no intention of using the Ghostwriter AI tool to “generate plot, character backstories, lore, or any of the other core elements of [a game’s] narrative”.

Moreover, it is a human writer that chooses the prompts and sets the tone. Therefore, the fear of voice inconsistency or a bland gaming environment should never arise.

Kaur’s claim that the environments of Ubisoft’s games are usually bland is totally subjective and we beg to differ from that opinion. From Far Cry to Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft has pulled off some of the most engaging and rich gaming worlds that we have seen.

Without a doubt, there is a place for Ubisoft’s Ghostwriter AI tool. Considering the fact that barks can run into 100,000 lines of dialogue, the use of AI tools will definitely help to speed up the process. Moreover, most of those dialogues are repetitive variations.

While we believe that most gamers will not enjoy seeing their favorite scriptwriters thrown out of their office desks, what gamers hate more is delays in title releases. If the use of the Ghostwriter AI tool will solve the problem, it is OK to give it a try.

Are you in support of Ubisoft using AI to write NPC dialogues in games?


Remember to share and bookmark this website to stay up to date on all the hottest news in the gaming industry.