Edge of Innovation

Meet ANGELINA, the computer AI that designs strange video games


Artificial intelligence has a long history with gaming. From controlling enemies in Mario platformers and in first-person shooters like Call of Duty to making virtual people seem “almost human” in The Sims, it’s rare to find a game without some kind of AI.

A Google AI has recently been learning how to play and master old Atari video games unaided. But the next big thing is not AI playing games; it’s AI making games.

Teaching computers to generate virtual worlds

A handful of researchers around the world are teaching computers to not only generate virtual worlds from mathematical formulae, but also to develop the themes and the rules that regulate how players can interact with them.

The most fleshed-out of these AI game developers is called ANGELINA. It – not she – was written by Michael Cook as part of a PhD at Imperial College London.

ANGELINA can design 2D or 3D games with original gameplay mechanics and level layouts coupled with graphics and sound that it automatically selects to fit a theme. Examples of games designed by ANGELINA include To That Sect (see video below) – which was made to fit the abstract theme “you only get one” – and Parliament Last Month – a commentary on a Guardian news story about the Leveson inquiry.


Cook believes that AI game developers will invent genres and gameplay elements that no human could conceive of, and he told me during an interview that “one day people will steal ideas from software” because AI will create games that start trends in much the same way as Minecraft and Flappy Bird did.

Simon Colton, a professor at Goldsmiths College and Falmouth University, is helping this move closer to reality.

Future AIs will have the ability to modify their own programming

He’s working on an AI game developer that’s trained in a number of generic techniques and equipped with the ability to modify itself. Completely. At some point the entirety of its underlying code – in a sense, its digital DNA – will be computer-authored.

Nobody’s sure precisely what such an AI game developer might produce, but Colton sees a bright future in AI-authored games that are meant to be played only once.

He likens it to SnapChat, which has rendered the value of a photograph so tiny that it is almost of no consequence, as photos on the platform are deleted after 10 seconds. Video games currently take hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of man hours to produce. It makes the idea of a game that only one person can play within, say, a few hours of its creation utterly unthinkable.

But if the game could be automatically generated in a matter of seconds with no human input, then it’s a completely different ball game.

Minecraft and No Man's Sky
We’re already seeing procedural games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky define rules for the way a game world works before letting mathematics create worlds that can be different for every player.

As for what tiny, short-lived “SnapGames” an AI might develop, Colton thinks puzzles are the right way to go. But in the future, there’s no telling what an AI equipped with the ability to create new genres and mechanics might come up with.


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