Bot Colony is a first-person open world (sandbox) adventure game, differentiated from other games through the ability of the player to conduct intelligent English conversation with the game’s characters.
Bot Colony is the first videogame ever to incorporate unrestricted, intelligent English dialogue as an integral part of gameplay. The game was designed by Eugene Joseph, the founder of North Side Inc. of Montreal, the company developing Bot Colony and the natural language understanding technology behind the game. A technology prototype was shown at GDC in San Francisco in March 2009. A more advanced prototype was demonstrated at E3 2010 in Los Angeles, and both prototypes are documented on the YouTube Bot Colony channel. The Closed-Alpha of Bot Colony started May 30, 2013 with the Intruder level. A total of 12 episodes are planned for the game.
The game script inspired the Bot Colony novel which took more than two years to write. As the novel took shape, it inspired in turn certain parts of the game.
Bot Colony is an online game and the initial version uses a PC client, whose major functions are running the 3D world, speech-to-text, text-to-speech and communication with the server. Language processing and reasoning (Artificial Intelligence) runs on a server farm.
North Side started research on its NLP technology in 2001, and at least initially, the business plan was to apply English to rapid scripting of simulations and scenarios. This goal is actually fulfilled in today’s game, which is scripted entirely in English, as opposed to being programmed in C++, LUA or other traditional programming languages. North Side believes that the ability to script the entire game in English is necessary for extending the Bot Colony world with user-generated content, where players and characters designed by them intermingle in a MMO environment.
The first Bot Colony storyboard dates to October 2007, when North Side decided that producing a videogame is the best initial application of the company’s natural language understanding and natural language generation technologies.
Computers need to be programmed to do anything useful, but programming computers can be very complex. Building software that breaks the programming barrier and enables end-users to do tasks previously accessible only to programmers has been a lifelong pursuit for North Side’s founder. Eugene Joseph previously founded Virtual Prototypes (now Presagis) in 1985 and invented a visual design and programming tool by the name of VAPS. Virtual Prototypes also pioneered flexible flight and tactical simulation. These simulations were initially intended to generate the data needed to simulate VAPS displays and enable dynamic evaluation of human interfaces, and eventually became successful products on their own. The language technology used in Bot Colony, in conjunction with its sophisticated data-driven game engine are milestones in Eugene Joseph’s work toward a vision of concept animation, where a user will describe a real-life scenario in simple words and see it come to life on the screen, animated in real-time and behaving intelligently.
Bot Colony is set in Agrihan, an island in the Marianas in the Pacific. Agrihan has become the private island of Nakagawa Corp., a large Japanese robot company, who relocated its R&D and manufacturing facilities there. Nakagawa’s fierce competitor, the North Korean KHT Corp., attempted to spy on Nakagawa in Japan. Nakagawa relocated its facilities to Agrihan to accommodate its rapid growth, and also to have a sanctuary out of KHT’s reach. A 900 m tall volcano covered with lush jungle rises from the center of the 43 km² island, surrounded by pristine beaches and coves. The traditional Japanese village on the island’s western shore contrasts with the skyscrapers housing Nakagawa’s R&D and living quarters on the north side. People intermix freely with robots in Agrihan. As Nakagawa’s robots will play a major role in the colonization of Mars, they need to achieve a high degree of autonomy. Therefore, Agrihan is mostly staffed with robots, and hence the name Bot Colony.
The player takes on the persona of Jeff Philips, a specialist in robot cognition, who occasionally accepts challenging assignments involving white collar crime. Jeff receives a call from Nakagawa Corp., and he is offered a mission: investigate the disappearance of three new-generation sensors. He is warned that KHT may have infiltrated the island, and will stop at nothing to get its hands on the sensors. The game starts with the player landing in Agrihan, also known by the name of Bot Colony. The player travels through the island with a futuristic hovercraft, sails around it, uses rickshaw robots to move on roads, or simply walks. Robots travel between facilities on the island using a specially designed monorail.
The player’s mission evolves from finding the sensors to chasing the Korean spy who has indeed infiltrated the island. The first part of the Bot Colony novel relates how KHT managed to infiltrate Bot Colony. This part of the story has been made publicly available and can be downloaded from the official website.
Towards the conclusion, the player is instrumental in preventing WW3.
To compensate for the freedom afforded by the sandbox style, intelligent help is provided in the form of Miki-05 (aka Big Sister) through a conversational interface.
While the game is in general inspired by the book, the player should not expect to use the book as a manual for playing the game. The book is useful to understanding how Bot Colony works at a high level, and how to communicate with robots. The gameplay often diverges from the book and varies on a wide range: While there is some bloodless combat, there is also an opportunity to talk about feelings. Complex puzzles may involve directly controlling robots, vehicles, or cranes. Other missions are typical of adventure games, like disabling unruly robots or negotiating with them. The player can play cards or trade in the Bazaar, discuss food with a robotic waiter in the restaurant, train robotic animals to do tricks on the kabuki stage, or investigate a crime against a robot in Old Nakagawa. He may need to prove he is human in order to gain a robot’s cooperation, or break into a hotel room with a robot’s help in his search for the elusive Korean spy. Or he may save other human characters on a search and rescue mission.
What makes Bot Colony potentially more immersive than other 3D games is the integration of conversation with the robots to support this gameplay. This is a major advancement over current state-of-the-art in video games, where the player has to choose a canned alternative from a dialogue tree. This opens the door to unique gameplay: the player can guide a robot through complex tasks, discover the story, query characters about their environment and events that occurred in it, trade, negotiate or carry out commercial transactions with robots, teach robots new information or new tasks, and seek help from Miki-05. All of these interactions are done through English conversation mediated by sophisticated speech-to-text and text-to-speech solutions integrated into North Side’s server-side dialogue pipeline. As the robustness of the language capabilities increase, it is planned to extend these conversational capabilities to human characters without affecting suspension of disbelief.
The game uses the Havok Vision engine. The initial prototyping was done with an in house engine called Anitron. The entire game environment is simulation based. All animation was Anitron is data-driven and the environment was controlled by physics. This means that players can directly manipulate objects: doors open continuously, elevators actually move between floors with the player in them, cranes pick up objects while their loads swing in a pendulum-like motion, briefcases actually contain objects that can be taken out, and virtual video cameras or X-ray machines transmit the images they actually see in the virtual 3D scene.
The player can see if a robot understood her by looking at its cognitive avatar. The player’s location is displayed at all times on a detailed island map. Holographic displays suspended in space summarize the transactions the player makes with robots, such as orders at the restaurant, or hotel reservation - the code for the last four interfaces is automatically generated with VAPS.
Dialogue technology and comparison with previous games and chatbots
Until Bot Colony, dialogue in videogames took the form of dialogue trees, essentially canned choices from a list (for example, Mass Effect, Hotel Dusk, The Last Express and older text adventure games), voice commands (EndWar, Sega Seaman), or an attempt to key on a word or extract a sentiment from the input (Façade, Starship Titanic). In Bot Colony, the player speaks freely, asking questions, seeking clarification, or requesting the characters to carry out actions, and the game attempts to respond intelligently. If the game does not understand the player, it will also seek clarification. An integral part of gameplay in Bot Colony is giving a glimpse into how robots think. In this respect, the North Side language understanding technology is superior to chatbots, which are limited to serving ready-made answers incorporating words or clauses previously uttered (or typed) by the user/previous users; this makes a chatbot seem responsive for a small number of dialog steps (Jabberwacky, Alan, A.L.I.C.E). Façade relies on word polarity and a shallow processing of language, rather than deep semantic processing as in Bot Colony.
Technology limitations and innovation
The dialogue pipeline running on a server-farm is the key technological innovation in the game. While North Side is not claiming to have passed the Turing test (in which a Bot Colony character plays the role of the computer), Bot Colony demonstrates significant advances towards a working dialogue pipeline. The company's short-term objective is to understand language well enough in order to enable the player to complete the levels of the game, or improve their English by playing the ESL version of the game. When the software does not understand the player, it will seek clarification. This clarification process is an integral part of the Bot Colony gameplay. The challenge is not finding examples where a robot won't understand the player - that's not difficult - but rather, to formulate one's message coherently and clearly, so that the player gets through to the character, is understood and advances in the game. This style of speaking is referred to as Literal in the book, which contains many examples of use. Literal is more than just correct English - which is a requirement in the first version of Bot Colony - but rather a conscious effort to structure one's message clearly taking into account the communication needs of the hearer (finishing sentences, not introducing undefined terms, avoiding rambling sentences, etc.). Speaking in Literal is therefore an exercise in communicating clearly. The language software is designed to understand English at large and is not tied to the Bot Colony game in particular. The company's research work on understanding natural language confirmed that the harder problem is the lack of sufficient world knowledge, as opposed to language processing per se: things that are obvious to a person are not known to a computer - but they are needed to understand what someone said.
In Bot Colony, game objects behave and interact like objects in the real-world, further enhancing this feeling of immersion. Bot Colony is not programmed in a traditional way. All game logic, animations and interactions are entirely scripted in English. English-based scripting will enable players to extend the game world with their own content. A script describes in simple English how a game entity should react, when its context and probable goals are taken into account. The language software attempts to extract the correct meaning from a player’s utterance, irrespective of the particular words or syntax used, and attempts to link it to a familiar context. This means that a player may formulate the same message in many different ways and the game will extract the same semantics in all cases.
North Side believes that its innovative use of English as a scripting language will enable players to extend the world by adding their own content. This English-based scripting technology has additional applications, for example to rapid visualization of movie scripts, workflow visualization, debrief, and exploring alternative courses of action.
English as a second language and Bot Colony
While not designed from the outset to be an educational game, but rather to provide an entertaining game experience, the game has application to teaching English as a second language.
As mentioned above in #Technology limitations and innovation above, the player must speak proper English. The ESL Beta version of the game is configured so that characters give the player feedback about his or her English. If there are problems of pronunciation in spoken English, the player will be able to see what a character thinks he said, and retry until he is understood. The player will also be able to practice his written English by typing instead of speaking. This is similar to what a flesh and blood English tutor does – correcting the student in real time, or marking his papers. Conventional online English teaching packages today cannot match this performance as they require semantic understanding of English. The ability to provide the player with customized feedback about the specific mistakes he makes means that playing the game leads to improving English language skills in an entertaining way. Playing to learn has been proven to be an effective learning method, as the student’s really motivated - to have fun.
Bot Colony emphasizes learning English in practical, real-life situations where one has to speak the language to deal with day to day challenges, instead of just doing online grammar exercises.
Studies have shown literacy and sharpened analytical thinking to be the key to raising the standard of living of a society. Bot Colony has the potential of improving both and may thus make a positive contribution in developing countries.
- ↑ North Side Unveils Bot Colony, The World's First Conversation Video Game at GDC in San Francisco.
- ↑ Bot Colony game demo HD. North Side Inc.. Retrieved on 7 June 2010
- ↑ Presagis.com. Retrieved on 7 June 2010
- ↑ Bot Colony: The novel. Retrieved on 7 June 2010
- ↑ Digital games have the potential to bring play back to the learning experience. Retrieved on 9 June 2010
- ↑ UNESCO Education For All Global Monitoring Report, Chapter 5: Why literacy matters. Retrieved on 9 June 2010
- ^  GameSetInterview: Unraveling The Mysteries Of Bot Colony, GameSetWatch, UBM TechWeb, 2009.
- ^  Interview with Bot Colony creator Eugene Joseph, WRT Writer Response Theory, 2009.