This is a heavily revised version of an article first published in PC Gamer UK, last year. It's based on a presentation given by Ray Kurzweil at GDC 2008, and subsequent conversations I had with the author Charles Stross and the game designer Eskil Steenberg.
This article began back in 2008, when I was sat in the audience for GDC's keynote speech by futurist Ray Kurweil. "Games are the harbinger of everything," Kurzweil was saying, as he delivered his take on the future of everything (with slight emphasis on games) to the assembled design-masses. The controversial technologist, who regularly talks about his hopes for technological immortality and transhuman ascension via artificial intelligence, was arguing that games were where the future manifested itself. "Ultimately," he said, "they’re going to be competitive with real reality." These were claims I'd heard a bunch of times before. Often, in the pub, during conversations with Kieron, as he gesticulated dangerously behind a glass of wine. Other times from developers, writers, and gamers. I realised, watching Kurzweil, that it was something I was going to have to write more about: just what kind of future do games promise?
Futurologists and science fiction writers have long been making claims about the role of technology in our lives, either speculatively in futurological texts, or simply as entertainment, in science fiction films, books, and comics. However, they've only recently begun to take videogames as they actually exist in the real world seriously as a major part of our future. Look back to 1960s visions of the future, and games aren't even a twinkle in the futurological perception And yet in terms of the reality of future-becoming-present that we actually experience they are a major factor. They're one of the most visible symbols of both technological progress, how that progress is influencing our culture. Games are a hybrid thing: a fusion of art and science, and as both disciplines push onward, so they push games ahead of them. They're the construction yard in which many of the people who are working on the future - designers, occasionally writers and artists - are to be found.
One such writer, a man who is regularly questioned about the future, is Charles Stross. He is the author of a number of books set in the near future. He's not here to predict the future, he stresses, but to write fictions that reflect on the present. "The book which, I think, is the reason I get invited to talk at computer games conferences and similar, is Halting State," says Stross. "It's a book about skullduggery in the computer games industry, and in particular about the future of MMOs." Halting State doesn't sound all that fanciful when you consider the kinds of scams and gold-farming exercises that already take place within the real world. Stross' book sees a crime inside a futuristic virtual reality MMO linked to real world espionage and crime. These days that could almost be a PC Gamer news headline, particular when you consider how real-to-game currency systems have already been rumoured to be used for money-laundering for organised crime.
For Stross, the catalyst of his imagination is the current trajectory of technology. Right now he's excited about the implications of rapidly ballooning bandwidth. "If you go back just a few years WiFi hotspots were rare, and data on a mobile phone cost extortionate amounts of money," says Stross. "Nowadays it's got much cheaper, and this trend is accelerating. We're seeing the roll out of 4G, which we can expect very high data rates, which means we can expect to see mobile devices which have the equivalent bandwidth of full bore WiFi wherever we go. And it's going to go a lot further." For gaming, you can already achieve the kind of latency required to play Left 4 Dead over mobile broadband. That is only going to become easier, faster, and cheaper.
But Stross sees another trend too, a blurring of real and game worlds. He argues that the sea-change will come with "ubiquitous location services." Those systems that can pinpoint our mobile phone down to a single street. "We haven't quite gotten our heads around the idea of having devices on our person that always know where we are," says Stross. "This is less obviously gaming related, until you start thinking about augmented reality, or live action role-play. You can play games in the real world without having arranged to meet. If you're in the same area as another player of one of these games, for example, your phone could steer you towards each other, so that you could interact."
Game developers are already working with this idea. London-based Mudlark are making a mobile phone game in which players use GPS to try and walk rings around each other in the real world. Which means a player stuck at his desk might really get in trouble...
Of course this kind of stuff comes as little more than augmentation to existing strata of gaming tech, as Stross observes: "It's not going to render the tiers of gaming we already see rendered obsolete. What it will do is allow for a greater number of games to be possible: live action roleplay, spatial location games, MMO's accessed from your mobile. These won't replace high end PCs or consoles, but they may tie into them, or act as alternatives when you're on the move."
The future of games, according to Stross, is mobile, connected, multitudinous.
And if Ray Kurzweil's speech is to be believed then we potentially face not simply expanded connectivity, but a billionfold increase in computer power in the next ten years. This has astonishing implications for the way games are going to be rendered, and delivered. Combine this leap in power with Stross' observations about bandwidth and we suddenly get a clear glimpse of what the future could hold. Last year's big storm of ideas: cloud-gaming. Games rendered remotely and then streamed to your PC, your laptop, or even your phone. It's already happening, albeit with plenty of problems along the way.
The idea, as you are probably aware, is quite simple: processing power could be centralised in tohuge banks of professionally maintained servers - an easier option than for us to be continually fiddling with processors, graphics cards, and drivers (if less fun, as I would miss my tinkering). If services like the game-streaming OnLive are to be believed - and their claims are matched by the claims of futurologists - then the system you browse the net on will be all you need. As long as the bandwidth is there and your system can decode some high-res video, it'll be all you need to play increasingly sophisticated, ultra-high-fidelity games of the near future. The game will be "played" on a rented machine at a secure location, and even cheap laptops will be transformed into awesome gaming machines.
But all this does little to actually change the future of games. It's little more than an alternative distribution model, and that's neither convincing, nor particularly exciting. No, there's something else more significant going on here. Like every other rapid progression of technology, increases in processing power won't be developing in isolation: there's also the implications of things like nano-tech, bioengineering, and materials science. Because of this Kurzweil's predictions, even more so than science fiction writers like Stross, are outlandish ones.
Kurzweil argues that the progress of the computer is a progress inwards. It's going to become increasingly part of our our biology, and that means it's going to become part of what it is to be human. Continuing the "smooth curve" of our cybernetic integration with things like mobile phones (which, in practical terms, render us telepathic) or even wrist watches - which firmly position us in time - the future will deliver more and more tech into the body. Within a couple of decades nanobots will be in our very blood, says Kurzweil. These will allow us to experience games in "first-person", where our very eyes are the screen we carry around and use. Reality, he says, could be reduced a window in the corner of our specially augmented consciousness. People chuckle about this in the GDC audience. It's too ludicrous to be taken seriously, obviously...
By 2029, claims Kurzweil, AI will surpass the human brain. Artificial intelligences will be joining us, will have already joined us, in games worlds, and the real world. Even before that near-human intelligences will be making all aspects of our life easier, and our time in games more enjoyable. They will almost certainly be the stars, or even the co-creators, of the future generations of gaming entertainment.
"It's the holy grail of much of game development," says Stross, when I ask him about artificial life and the idea of wholly created people. "Character development is even harder than building environments. What you need to be able to do is not necessarily recreate human intelligence, but simply to convince players that what they're interacting with is interesting." If it moves and barks like a dog, people will treat it like a dog, even if it's on a screen. The same is going to be true of people.
"People are interested in people, at least when they're not shooting them," says Stross. "MMOs are popular for this reason, they become more interesting the more you play them, not because the game gets more interesting, but because your relationships with other players becomes more interesting. It generates incredible loyalty." (Could you be loyal to an artificial person? Could games create AI that were tuned to be friends or, perhaps even better, enemies you'd be motivated to fight with?) MMOs of the future must aim to be places that are populated by both human and artificial intelligences.
The crucial issue here, as Swedish coding-mastermind Eskil Steenberg points out, is that AI can be asked do a lot of things that that people cannot, or will not. "You can't get people to play all the boring parts in a game like guard #324," says Steenberg. "But what you can do is to have the game makers record what the guard should do. The obvious problem with this is that the recorded actions of the guard cant react to anything unusual the player does. The solution is to program an artificial intelligence, that can control the guard and that can react to what the player does. The smarter the program is, and the more things it takes in to account, the better the experience will be for the player." Artificial intelligence, and not pure power/bandwidth muscle, is where the true germ of our gaming future will lie.
This seems obvious: elements of artificial intelligence are popping up everywhere in games, from enemies in Halo to your neighbours in The Sims. But Steenberg takes it further. If artificial intelligence can bring characters to life, why can't it start bringing the rest of the game to life? "If we look at other things in games, like story, levels, characters, events, cinematics, conversations they are all provided on the disc," says Steenberg. "They have the same limitations of the guard with the recorded actions, they cant react to what the players do. The two solutions would be to either have people making all the content while you are playing the game (something that is impossible to do fast enough), or just like in the case of the guard, you write a little program that does it for you." And, to a small degree, we're already seeing that happen with Left 4 Dead's director. In the sequel, it will even change the layouts of the levels. It's also happening in Steenberg's own game, where the AI settlements make war on the player-constructed outposts.
"Procedural content is not random content," says Steenberg. "Just like the AI actions on the AI guard aren't random. It follows a set of carefully set up rules that governs its actions. The more things you take in to account the better the content gets. We are seeing some nudging in this direction: destructible environments, ragdolls, physics, and AI directors. All these technologies remove the need for canned content and replace it with a bit of code." Eventually, perhaps, games will be building themselves ahead of us, responding to us with intelligence, with creativity. Whole systems that are generated by our actions. They won't be static, nor any more predictable than the real world. (The butterfly effect becomes a game-design principle.)
"Ultimately," says Steenberg, "we can replace more and more of our game content with code, and we will get more and more flexible games that can react to the player in entirely new ways." For this far-sighted Swedish developer, what is exciting is not new hardware, but software solutions devised for the hardware we already have. "I would argue that technology has digressed gaming," says Steenberg. "The higher you put the bar, especially for graphics, the more you sacrifice in gameplay. In a 2D block based game like Super Mario Bros, implementing destructibility is easy, while in a modern 3D game it is hard so most people don't bother. Another example is AI. Halo 3, had to scale down their AI for Halo 2 because the added graphics made it impossible to have the same number of visibility tests and path finding tests. In a text adventure it was easy to let the player chose his or her own name and then have it be pasted in to all the dialog, in a "modern" game with recorded voice, you simply can't do that."
Steenberg argues that the future of games is one in which software will have to find solutions for the enormous problems that following the curve of increasing hardware sophistication has presented us with. "The examples of how things that used to be simple have now become hard are numerous," he explains. "Dwarf Fortress and similar games give a hint to where games would be, if graphics and sounds didn't stand in our way."
So perhaps despite the technology, and the better visuals, the march towards photorealism and perfectly rendered worlds is actually opposing progress. Perhaps the coming decades of gaming lie down another path, a path of smart AI and communal, multiplayer story-telling where humans and AI mix to make their own gaming experiences. Stross had his own observations about this: "When you see DC and Marvel comics on the shelf, we don't pick them up expecting them to have made progress towards photorealism, although given computer tech and photoshop tools, they could go for it if they wanted to. What they're looking at is a better way of telling a story. The ability to generate realistic 3D visuals is a red herring in terms of representing progress, at least if we're looking at a changing game experience."
And so we come back around to Kurzweil's speech. "Play is how we principally learn and principally create," said Kurzweil to the game developers. In saying that he points to another reason why the coming decades of gaming might be more about how we interact and how we play, than about how hi-tech the platform is. It's the exact reason why the billion-fold increase Kurzweil predicts might not be the key factor in our gaming future. The key factor will be our own interest in creativity. We have to want games to do new things.
Stross agrees on this point, highlighting the crudest of gaming technologies, and their sophisticated results: "The reason pen and paper RPGs don't die is that it's about consensual story-telling. It's about creativity. Most people don't want to be creative, but one in a hundred people want to get involved: they're bored by passive consumption. Consequently, they're willing to pay for more stuff." This is backed up by the revelation that MMO players actually buy more single player games than other gamers. How much, indeed, do pen and paper obsessives end up investing in their hobby?
The point, it seems, is not that games are "going to be competitive with real reality," but that games are going enrich "real reality", and be interwoven with it. "Virtual reality" was never a good term. As American writer Steven Shaviro points out, it should always have been know as "prosthetic reality". Games are going to extend our reality, and they're going to do it by being smarter, and more varied. The future is gaming heading off in all kinds of different directions. There will be no single, defining trend, other than their diversity. "The global turnover of the games industry is about $40bn, which is comparable to Hollywood," explains Stross. "And yet we don't think of Hollywood as a single monolith of "the movie industry" as we do can tend to do with "games industry", we don't confuse Pixar with slasher horror movies. We wouldn't expect directors and producers from one area to have any knowledge or even familiarity with another area. The same will become true of games." Stross continues: "Games have really not been around that long, and it's still possible to be genuinely revolutionary. Imagine, by comparison, being an engineer working for Airbus or Boeing. You'd be shaving percentages off fuel efficiency, and never having a chance to be genuinely creative. That's not true of the games industry, which still has an exciting future ahead of it."
That future might not even involve the hardware changes that the big manufacturers are trying to push on us, if Steenberg is to be believed. "Technology doesn't really matter in my opinion, I would be very surprised if people don't play games with mouse/keyboard, and joypads in twenty years time. Despite the 'one console dream' we are getting more and more platforms that are more diversified then ever. So in conclusion I say that there is no one future, there is lots of them, and to me that sounds very good."
I tell Steenberg about Kurzweil's vision of a super-AI mediated through blood-borne nanbots. "Do I win anything, if I am right and he is wrong in twenty years?" Sure, how about shiny badges with RIGHT and WRONG on them? "StarTrek badges?" says Steenberg. "I'm assuming we will all be working on a starship for the Galactic Federation in 20 years..."
Maybe we will. This much is certain: there'll be games on that Starship, wherever it goes.