Even the tiniest tweak in a game the size of Candy Crush Saga can have huge repercussions for King’s entire business.
Which is why the firm appears to be taking a steady approach to letting AI loose on its crown jewel; it could all go very wrong, very quickly. CTO Steve Collins, the man in charge of all things tech and AI at King, describes the firm’s current use of buzzy new tools as a way to optimise the player journey – and cut out the boring bits of game development.
“Most of the roles in our organisation will be improved with these technologies,” Collins tells us. “Just like any new technology that comes in, new tools will make jobs easier, or take away some of the more mundane or more repetitive parts.”
“I ask engineers how much time they actually spend doing something that they consider to be creative, and they say about 15-20% of the time. I’d love that to be 100% of what they do.”
Some folks in the mobile business are using AI to generate vast numbers of ad creatives and testing them in their UA; but with a brand as big as Candy Crush, it seems King is staying out of that arms race for now.
“We’re optimising on the basis of what players are actually doing in the game,” says Collins. “Just to use a simple analogy, you wouldn’t expect your Netflix feed to be the same as your friends’ Netflix feed. Similarly, we try to create experiences inside the games that adapt the gameplay itself.”
“Are you more of a social player? Let’s make sure you’re more aware of opportunities to try and beat a friend at a game, or challenge people to a tournament, something like that. Or just communicate and chat. Whereas if we know that you’re much more of a solo player, we try to not do those things because that gets in your way.”
There’s a darker side of this type of player customisation though, we suggest to Collins. If a player is spending a huge amount of money or watching ads endlessly, and the game is designed to offer more of what the player wants, is that healthy long-term?
“You’re absolutely right, a business could go down in some of those directions you’re talking about which is disrespectful to the player,” says Collins. “But they’ll tell you fairly quickly by not playing the game anymore, and they’ll come away feeling like the game is trying to exploit them.”
“Yes, we have a business, we do want people to transact in our games and we do want people to watch our ads, if that’s the way they want to transact,” he continues.
“But because our game is 100% free to play we make the assumption from day one that a good portion of our players are never going to commercially interact with us at all. And we want that player to be super successful as well because we benefit from them playing the game – we’re learning from their play and can make it more fun for other players. You don’t go down any of those routes you’re talking about because it won’t be fun anymore.”
We spoke to Collins before the completion of Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard, which of course includes King. Now, as part of Microsoft, a company that has made huge investments in AI recently, Collins will have even more resources and tech to play with.
But ultimately, he can’t just flip a switch and let AI take over game development. So while some fear AI will end up wiping out jobs for artists, designers and programmers, Collins says that’s unlikely to happen; it might appear to be simple, but Candy Crush Saga is an “incredibly sophisticated piece of software,” he adds.
“Creating an operating a game like Candy Crush requires a lot of moving parts – that’s not going to be replaced by an AI.”