Interview — Mike Cook on Showcasing an AI at EGX Rezzed


Recently, at EGX Rezzed, I ran into something that wasn’t quite a game. Mike Cook’s ANGELINA — an AI system that he is creating to intelligently design video games — was in the Rock, Paper, Shotgun room. ANGELINA is something I have been loosely following through working with the ProcJam, one of Mike’s other projects.

ANGELINA creates games – games that don’t seem to quite make sense to me yet — but games that have been entered in game jams (like the Ludum Dare) so it has already done just as much as most developers.

ANGELINA doesn’t just make games. It designs them and evaluates them — before releasing some of them on her site. The amount of games that ANGELINA has created is very impressive, but it showcasing at EGX Rezzed is even more interesting than the concept of an AI that is designing games.

So, I felt it would be cool to talk to the creator, Mike Cook, and see how he felt about showcasing an AI.

Mike had never showcased at a large event before — not even with a game of his own creation. He has given various talks and explored expos, but showcasing is completely different.

ANGELINA all set up at EGX Rezzed

What was it like setting up ANGELINA and manning the stand over the weekend at EGX Rezzed?

It was so exciting to attend Rezzed with ANGELINA – it’s exciting to show anything at such a huge event, but to be able to show a research project was a totally unique experience for me. It’s not often you get this kind of opportunity as a researcher, and I was so grateful to Rock, Paper, Shotgun for having me in their room this year.

The event itself was really exhausting, and disappeared in a flash. ANGELINA broke down a few times too, but people were very understanding. Everyone I met was friendly and enthusiastic, and had great questions – I learned a lot and got some great ideas. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my research career, honestly.

The showcasing itself was a unique experience for more than one reason. Rock, Paper, Shotgun had a huge room — and by the second day, more screens were allocated to ANGELINA. These additional screens helped show off the games that ANGELINA had been creating — so that people could get a chance to see the fruit of the AI’s labor.

How could people interact with ANGELINA at the event?

I’d designed ANGELINA to be quite interactive, but the plan for the software was to stream on Twitch, where people would interact mostly through text chat. When we got invited to Rezzed I knew I wanted to do something a bit different, so I redesigned the interface so that it was a bit more live and had more things to do.

The main goal of the interactivity was to give ANGELINA more knowledge about the world, which it then uses to design games. So ANGELINA would ask questions to confirm things it had already learned (like “would it make sense for a cat to chase a mouse?”) or let people teach it entirely new ideas. People could also suggest game ideas, too. ANGELINA actually crashed several times over the weekend because people taught it unexpected things! It was great to have all this new information though – over 600 people interacted with it and taught it new things during Rezzed, which is incredible.

EGX Rezzed was used as a huge learning experience for ANGELINA — it was wonderful seeing, first hand, people typing in answers and figuring out new ideas to give the AI. But, people were aware this was an AI — not a human — making these games for them.

People playing ANGELINA’s games at EGX Rezzed

What were people’s reactions to an AI creating games for them to play?

People’s reactions were pretty positive! Some of the games were quite simple, but people still enjoyed playing them and seemed to be excited by the fact that the game had been made less than 24 hours before. But what really got people interested were the weirder games ANGELINA made – games with glitches or unusual rules in. Certain games really showed people what an AI game designer might be able to do one day, even though ANGELINA is really basic at the moment. I love seeing people get excited about the future like that, it’s really energising.

Creating games in just 24 hours is quite the task for human and AI alike. As mentioned above, the games created are based on what information ANGELINA had been given, forcing some of the games to be quite unique in concept — different from how humans generally think. These ideas are super interesting to explore.

ANGELINA made a ton of games and learned a lot over the weekend — how do you feel this helps her development?

Rezzed was important for a few reasons. First, on a technical level, the knowledge it gained from people is really valuable because it’s the main way ANGELINA learns about the world this time (in the past we used the internet more, but I’ve stopped doing that as much now). It was also a really good test of the software, it ran for three days without many problems, and made real games. I left the room for a while and didn’t worry about it, which really makes me feel confident for the future!

But besides the technical achievements, I think there’s really important social things going on here too. Showing at something like Rezzed is vital because it connects ANGELINA to people who play, make and write about games, it connects the research to the wider community. A lot of our work is about figuring out how to get people to accept AI into their communities and into their lives, and being able to watch people experience ANGELINA and its games was so informative. I learned a lot about what people think about AI and what their dreams for the future are, which is so important.

Getting people to interact with an AI and accept it is a whole different battle. I didn’t even think about the negatives people associate with AI until I started talking about ANGELINA creating games. People have said anything between ‘that’s cool’ to ‘that is really scary’ — yet this AI is simply making games. Being able to interact with it and see that it is not a dangerous being is super important when it comes to continuing this type of research.

Were you able to play any of her games and if so, do you have a favorite?

Every night I played the games it had made that day, usually while very tired in my hotel room! I think my favourite was a game called Acow For, where you are trying to move cows onto dogs and avoid dragons (ANGELINA got a bit weird towards the end of the event…). The reason I love this game so much is that you lose if two cows get eaten by dragons, and most of the level seem impossible until you realise that you only lose if EXACTLY two cows get eaten. If you get three eaten simultaneously, the game doesn’t end, and ANGELINA uses this to design levels all about simultaneous cow-eating. It was a really clever design twist that surprised me, and everyone at Rezzed really seemed to love that too.

You mentioned that ANGELINA has hit a milestone before you; showcasing at an event. What is that like?

A friend of mine reminded me that I had actually shown Rogue Process, my own game, at GDC last year, so I was sort of wrong on that point! But this is definitely the first public games event that either of us have shown work at. I’m okay with it, honestly – there are lots of things I can do that ANGELINA won’t be able to do for decades, like answer these interview questions! ANGELINA and I are still treated very differently in the community (which makes sense). Part of the reason ANGELINA was invited to Rezzed was it’s still unusual, not because it makes games that everyone is frantically preordering and excited to play. We’re both in the indie game community but we’re entering from different directions, and so our paths are going to look very different.

Seeing ANGELINA and its games at the event was surely exciting for me, and — seemingly — to everyone else that was there. Although ANGELINA is at events for a different reason then Mike, he does hope to showcase in other events in the future. If anyone wants ANGELINA to design games at their event, get in touch with Mike Cook.

ANGELINA creating games and people playing them.

Anything else you want to add?

I just wanted to thank everyone for being so welcoming and supportive. The games community is incredibly welcoming to the idea of AI sharing creative space with people, and it feels amazing. Everyone’s positivity and support is going to help us do amazing things, and I’m so excited for the future of AI and game design!

You can get in touch with Mike by following @mtrc on Twitter or checking out his main researching website here. If you’d like more info on ANGELINA, you can follow @angelinasgames on Twitter or follower it’s Twitch to teach it more.

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