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An art gallery MMO - we spoke to the creators of Occupy White Walls about the AI that guesses which art you like

Turning the MMO upside down

When I went exploring in Occupy White Walls last month, I stumbled into something special. OWW is an upcoming MMO (see what they did there?) where every player can create their own architecturally ambitious gallery, fill it with art of their choosing, and open it up to other players. Every mug who walks into your gallery earns you money, which you can use to make it bigger and better. It's currently in free public alpha.

I had a few questions for developers StikiPixels about balancing money with creative freedom, whether OWW might become something that real world artists can use to support themselves, and how their fancy AI manages to suss out people's artistic tastes. So CEO Yarden Yaroshevski collaborated with his team to give me some answers.

RPS: First of all, what is Occupy White Walls? What will most players aim to do in it?

StikiPixels: OWW is a new type of MMO for creative people in which the actual gameplay is creativity and self-expression. Different players will aim for different things; some will be all about in-game creativity - through building, designing and decorating their spaces - others will focus on discovering new art and curating their collections, while artists will aim to spread their own work around and directly interact with fans. All of this is happening within an abstract (and gorgeous) social experiment.

RPS: One of your taglines is “All the art, none of the rules”. There's a tension between allowing people complete freedom to make wild creations and gating access to that behind the economic system. How have you approached balancing that?

StikiPixels: Our objective is to take quiet thoughtful activities, like designing spaces, making, looking and selecting art, and make them as engaging and creative as possible. When you design things you always have some limitations, in the real world you have a specific plot to build something, you have to do it in a specific timeframe, it has to last, it has to fit with the environment …and it has to be nice! We don’t think that it’s much fun to design things without a challenge. There is a different sense of satisfaction if you design something in an hour or a month. Keep in mind that the economy is in its infancy at this stage and will be tweaked as we go along.

This specific slogan refers to Art in ‘wall-based museums’, where often only 10% of the collection is on display and even that is subject to all sorts of decisions and rules that don’t take into consideration each individual ‘user/visitor’. And let’s not even get started with the ‘art market’...

RPS: Have you thought about having a separate ‘creative’ mode, where people are free to make what they wish?

StikiPixels: We see the whole game as 'creative mode'. Sure, there are some limitations from the economy system\technical performance, but our vision is to allow anyone to build whatever they like and express themselves. If you're going for huge, super-elaborate spaces it can take a while, but most people can realise at least some ideas immediately. This is a part of our ‘Fair to Play’ design philosophy. If anything, perhaps we should add 'survival mode'?

RPS: Tell me more about your plans to allow artists to upload their own work into OWW. Have you considered allowing players to charge real or in-game currency for access to private sections of their galleries? Why, or why not?

StikiPixels: Our vision for OWW is to liberate art from its economic boundaries, not reinforce them. It would make no sense to claim that we want art to be available to everybody and then allow paid-entrance galleries in the game. There are actual museums for that. We don’t want the game to become a marketplace at this stage. We want to be more of a game than Minecraft, and more meaningful than Facebook as a way to communicate.

For now, we’d like to stay in our virtual fantasy land, so players buy (in-game) art with game currency. If you are a living, participating artist you will earn game currency when players buy your work - although the main draw for artists, we believe, will be the interaction with fans who will post their artworks in their gallery, thus introducing it to their visitors etc…

Artists can list links in their profiles, which can include social media and also private websites - if a player contacts an artist and buys an artwork in the real world that's awesome and we won’t charge any commission...

RPS: Can you see OWW being something that artists use to help support themselves financially? Might you let people buy and sell real artworks through the game, or via a tied-in website?

StikiPixels: We definitely hope that OWW will be something artists can use to help support and promote themselves but we will not be there to sell artwork (in the real world). We’re not in the business of selling art and we don’t want to take any commission from art sales.

We’ll do what we’re best at, making games! Artists are always free to link to their own site or wherever they already sell artwork.

RPS: What information does the AI, D.A.I.S.Y, use to determine your artistic tastes?

StikiPixels: Short answer: Machine learning. Longer answer: Machine learning and some really smart systems that support it. AI is such a difficult thing to explain without giving away the secret sauce that makes Daisy, well… Daisy… But we’re going to try anyway!

D.A.I.S.Y. (Discover Art Intended Specifically for You) sees the art you “bought”, then tries to understand the piece by “looking at it” and comparing it to every other art piece you have liked to build a profile. That profile is then weighed against other people’s profiles to find similarities. But then we do something special, we make the AI doubt itself so that it wants to experiment with what art it will show you, to introduce you to new concepts and ideas. If it’s right it will have learned more about your taste. If it’s wrong then it will move on and make a note.

A fun fact about Daisy - when we turned her on for the first time the first thing she did was cheat her way to get the results we asked for.

RPS: Is it possible that D.A.I.S.Y’s algorithms could wind up entrenching the popularity of already popular artists, rather than bring more obscure works into the spotlight? Is that something you’ve sought to specifically address?

StikiPixels: That’s a great point and we’ve especially addressed it through some clever design (the ‘self-doubt’ mentioned earlier). This is actually one of the places the AI can shine, as opposed to a human curator - D.A.I.S.Y. is completely agnostic and only driven by what it thinks (and doubts) an individual player would like. For example, every time it shows you 9 works it basically prioritises all the art in the game (based on what it thinks you’ll like) and shows the top 9.

Let’s say that the 9th work is a painting by an emerging artist, but the 10th artwork is a Van Gogh, a human curator will choose Van Gogh instead of the unknown artist because that’s human nature (we are obsessed with fame), but not D.A.I.S.Y. Incidentally that’s also why all artworks in OWW cost exactly the same in-game currency, we don’t want to influence the players’ choices, even incidentally. In a way, we replace ‘popular’ with ‘relevant’.

Lastly, D.A.I.S.Y is only one way to discover art in OWW, the other way is by visiting players’ galleries and finding art through their choices (with the last update, it’s possible to buy art from players galleries). Their choices are of course ‘human’ and outside the realm of D.A.I.S.Y., although it is aware of them and learns from those too...

RPS: If D.A.I.S.Y has as much potential as you say, it seems a shame that it might only be accessible to people who play the game. Have you thought about including it in something browser based, or anything like that?

Yes and no - yes people suggest this, and no because just showing art to people on a website isn’t especially engaging. The ‘secret sauce’ that allows D.A.I.S.Y. to be so ground-breaking is that it is run within a virtual world - the average player is exposed to dozens of artworks every hour, which generates a ton of data for D.A.I.S.Y. to work with (every individual interaction of a player with D.A.I.S.Y. helps improve recommendations to all other players).

Another aspect is what players can ‘do’ with the art. On a website, you could save the image locally, perhaps or just watch and move to another one. But in OWW, every artwork is a ‘unit of self-expression’ that the player can use in a meaningful way to express herself in turn - this adds ‘gravitas’ to players choices and in turn results in better data for D.A.I.S.Y that drives better recommendations etc.. So the short answer is maybe D.A.I.S.Y will show up elsewhere but for now we are focused on finishing the game.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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Matt Cox avatar

Matt Cox

Former Staff Writer

Once the leader of Rock Paper Shotgun's Youth Contingent, Matt is an expert in multiplayer games, deckbuilders and battle royales. He occasionally pops back into the Treehouse to write some news for us from time to time, but he mostly spends his days teaching small children how to speak different languages in warmer climates.