Monday, January 2, 2023

Virtual people?

Via CNBC, and for me via slashdot originally, you can now hire a virtual person for around 2-14K a year in China depending on whether you want a 2D or 3D person.  My first thought was "Why in the hell would you want to do that?" However, after a bit of digging I found this handy guide to how you too can create your own virtual person.  The article mentions some reasons why you would want to create one that I am a bit skeptical of.   For example, in my experience "automating simple tasks with AI" is a great way to generate a ton of data you will need to double check manually, or at least spot check and take into account an assumed error rate when you use it for anything.  The fact that AI image generators often generate multiple images and let you pick the one that turned out well is not a quirk of that application of AI.  

There was one thing on the list that caught my attention.  The idea that there is a ton of interest in metaverses, and virtual spaces need virtual people so they don't seem empty when you enter them.  It's still not exactly a home run. The metaverse is such a poorly defined term that I think it's all but meaningless.  However, I do think there is real potential for something like Roblox or Fortnite but open for the public to build out whatever they like, so it can grow organically.  Second Life did this in the 2000s, but the tools to build stuff for it were clunky and arcane.  You also had to set up an account and install a client to get to any of it, and Second Life itself was hard to navigate. ROBLOX and Fortnite* have done a good job addressing some of these pain points, but they remain locked into single company ecosystems so there is a limit to how big they can get.

I believe it's only a matter of time before someone creates something a lot like ROBLOX but with open access tools under a freeware style license.  Much like the early days of the web, as long as you are willing to host whatever you create on your own hardware you will be able to link it to a central listing/ network/ link repository and anyone that cares to can visit.  Once that happens, a bunch of linked virtual environments that you can wander around in might become a thing.  It will never be as big as the web proper, because for most purposes a flat webpage with scrolling text is actually much better.  For example, Amazon would not work nearly as well for me if I had to screw around with navigating a virtual store to find items I want to buy, and being able to rotate a 3d model of a DVD case, PS5, first edition of some book or whatever doesn't really give me additional information I need to figure out whether to buy it. 

Regardless, once virtual spaces start popping up more organically, to capitalize on the potential advantages of the medium one of the things many of them will need is virtual people.  We MMO enthusiasts have a lot experience with how exciting it can be to jump into a virtual space and feel like we are setting foot into a new community that we might want to be a part of.   However, if you stick your head into one and it's dead as a doornail, often you won't hang around to give it a chance.  The designers of online communities have recently started to catch on to this, and have begun to take steps to address it.  

For example, when Reddit first got going the founders had hundreds of fake accounts.  They would post links under different user names to make the site look more populated than it was.  After a while, the site had enough real users that it took off on its own.  However if they hadn't tricked users into thinking other people were around, it probably never would have gone anywhere.  It isn't as if user moderated message boards weren't thing before Reddit.  Less benignly, dating apps that are trying to get off the ground often have a lot of fake dating profiles embedded in them.  After early app makers that did this got the crap sued out of them, newer ones now apparently often embed the right to do so into their EULAs.

In MMOs, we can see various levels of this same basic idea.  In bars, dance halls and other areas that are meant to function largely as social gathering places, there are generally obvious NPCs hanging around drinking, talking, dancing or whatever.  The obvious reason for that is that a dead empty dance hall completely kills any fantasy you might be able to maintain that it's a real place.  You will promptly turn right around, and the chances of any real people deciding to hang out there becomes approximately zero.

However, I am also starting to see designers blur the line between PCs and NPCs in a few games.  I am sure any MMO vet has experienced an occasional brief moment of confusion where you weren't sure whether someone you encountered in a game was a PC or NPC.  Fortnite also allows you to hire a NPC to team up with in a match with other players.  In FFXIV, the game is making joining a party of real players more and more optional for group content.  Past the starting areas, you can now clear every dungeon in the game with NPCs, and when I do that it's generally me rather than them that bones a run by failing on one of the complicated raid boss dances.  They will even do their best to keep you rezzed when you screw up if you don't cause such a catastrophe that everyone dies.

The most amusing example of this I have encountered recently was in Phantasy Start Online 2.  Every time I would enter a dungeon zone, teams would fill out nearly instantly.  At first I assumed that this meant the game had amazing matchmaking.  However, after a while I realized that these "teams" were usually entirely made up of randomly generated NPCs.  The thing that's funny about it is that they gave me about the same level of interaction that I often get from some of the less social groups of real players in random dungeon runs in WoW or FFXIV, which is why it took me so long to catch on.  However, it did allow me to get hip deep into some of the group content and get my sea legs without having to wait around for groups to form.  I probably would have bounced right off of the dungeons without them.

How to get players to bond with NPCs is also a topic designers have been thinking about for a while.  I don't know if  NPCs will ever be convincing enough to fool most users in my lifetime.  Even it it becomes possible to do so, I think for ethical reasons it should always be clear whether there is a real person behind whoever you are interacting with.  However as a tool to set up some sort of virtual social space that users don't reject the moment they set foot in, I think more realistic NPCs have a real place.  Call them virtual people if you like. 

An aside:

My blogging schedule is likely to be quite haphazard again this year.  My work schedule will be frankly insane for the next few months, though I do have  a lot of goals I am genuinely excited about. This may be my last appearance save for random comments on other people's blogs for a while.  May your 2023 be awesome! 

*Whatever the hell Facebook/ Meta is doing with the vast sums of money they are setting on fire is barely even worth mentioning in this arena, imo. 


  1. Heh! Way to go to post a great article and then say you won't be doing any more for a while. Actually, two great articles because the one on LotRO was excellent, too.

    Loads of food for thought there, some of which I may end up feeding on in a post of my own some time. For now, I'll just mention the example of Noah's Heart, where communications from your "Phantoms", the NPC characters you collect and withwhom you form teams, arrive in the "Friend" tab of the chat UI, entirely undifferentiated from messages from actual in-game friends. Even more disorientingly, when you reply to them, as you need to do to progress various side-stories, the UI uses the same "So-and-so is typing..." message and allows an appropriate pause between every response the NPC makes. It confused the hell out of me at the beginning but I really like it now. I'd very much be up for a more sophisticated version of that kind of interaction in future games.

    1. Thanks! And wow, that is really interesting about Noah's Heart. I may need to check that out.

  2. This was fascinating. I hope you have a great 2023 as well!