Today, Chet Faliszek, formerly of Valve and Bossa Games, and Dr. Kimberly Voll, a longtime designer at Riot Games, announced that they have formed a new independent game studio called Stray Bombay. The two have given themselves a mission to create projects that simply don't work within most existing studios. They want to make games where artificial intelligence can improve not just enemies but facilitate jolly co-operation and even narrative itself.
Many people haven't heard about Chet Faliszek or Dr. Kimberly Voll by name, but their work is familiar with millions of people around the world. Faliszek was responsible for the creation of Left 4 Dead's stories as well as its sequel and both Portal 1 and 2 along with Erik Wolpaw. Dr. Voll, on the other hand, brings her expertise in AI and designing systems for humans to affably interact with AI. She has spent the last three years at Riot Games as a senior technical designer helping to smooth out the gameplay experience for League of Legends, one of the most played games in the world. She was also instrumental in the creation of Fantastic Contraption, a critically acclaimed VR puzzle title released in 2016 for the HTC Vive.
Both Faliszek and Dr. Voll have come together to take a risk and make gameplay experiences and narratives that aren't possible without AI, what they call "collaborative gaming experiences." Their new Seattle-based studio will carry on with the vision of what Faliszek conceived and began working on at Bossa Games before he and the studio parted amicably to pursue other their respective creative visions. Stray Bombay will also prioritize personal time off so that even when development ramps up, people will be able to step away and properly take care of themselves. It's being founded with the help of Riot Games and venture capitalists.
"As Kim and I talked over the years about the kind of games we want to make, we realized we want to create games that give players a place to breathe and live in the moment," Faliszek explained in the announcement on the studio's new website, referencing a letter he received from a soldier in Afghanistan who thanked him for saving his marriage with the game. "Games that tell stories knowing you are going to come back again and again, that change each time you play them without feeling completely random, and that help you feel like a real team that supports each other... not a bunch of folks in each other’s way. And where AI drives not just the enemies but helps drive the entire experience."
According to a statement made to PC Games Insider, the project Stray Bombay will be tackling already has a working prototype running on Unity and Unreal Engine. Despite that, don't expect to see this AI-driven experience anytime soon. After they fill the several open positions at the studio, something they will likely be able to do during GDC itself, they plan to go dark and buckle down to bring this dream to life. "We know the direction we're going," Chet said as he laid out the plan going forward. "As people join the team, that'll help find the game more clearly. We're very iterative, everyone is a designer, everyone participates in the process. [...] Obviously, we have a plan, there's a framework that we can hang it all off, but everyone will be able to express themselves and have an impact."
AI has the potential to improve human life in a lot of ways, but just how it could improve the narrative experience in games hasn't been explored in as much depth as one might think. What Dr. Voll and Faliszek are undertaking might change how games tell stories going forward. Imagine a roguelike adventure overseen by something akin to Left 4 Dead's AI Director, only not just enemies, but the story itself unfolds in response to player choices and actions. That could be a game changer in the industry and break down the longstanding barrier between liner and open narrative design in a way unlike anything before. We will have to wait and see.
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