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The case for adding AI companions to video games

Inworld Team
June 06, 2024
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Companions, followers, sidekicks, guides, party members – whatever you call them – they’re the NPCs that have the most impact on a player's experience of your game. Whether they’re helping fight off zombies in a survival game like Piers in Resident Evil 6 or they’re an AI assistant in a first person shooter like Cortana in Halo, sidekicks are one of the core ways players interact with a game. Because of this, game companions have the potential to make or break a game. 

Players, after all, often become attached to companion characters. Take, for example, the thousands of hours Portal players spent trying to find a way through Chamber 17 that didn’t require that players sacrifice their Weighted Companion Cube. That beloved cube, which is just a talking box with hearts on it, has spawned an overwhelming amount of fan art and videos. Gamers are equally emphatic about Codsworth, the eccentric robot butler, who can call players by funny names in Fallout 4. 

It’s precisely because game companions have such a critical impact on gameplay that the next generation of companions will likely be powered by generative AI. When we surveyed gamers in our Future of NPC report, 69% said they wanted games with AI companions - the number one answer. Already, there are some impressive integrations with AI companions, such as PEA in Cygnus Enterprises, to modding use cases like the popular Herika companion mod for Skyrim. 

There are many practical benefits to making video game sidekicks into AI agents versus other types of characters. They’re great as test cases for the tech since they’re small in number within a game but, since they play such a crucial role, can dramatically alter and enhance gameplay via companion quests and more. 

In this piece, we’ll explore why AI-enabled companions are a practical and efficient way to leverage AI gameplay because they support core game loops, introduce novel forms of gameplay, and drive significant additional value to games – without having to redesign a game’s core game mechanics to add them. 

The case for games with AI companions

This Cygnus Enterprises video shows just some of the ways developers can transform gameplay by incorporating AI companions. In this section, we'll dive into the top three reasons studios looking to incorporate AI into their game should consider adding AI companions.

1. High ROI and low development costs

Let’s start with one of the key reasons studios would want to add generative AI to power companions: gamers want AI NPCs – and their competitors are planning to add them.

Our 2023 survey of 1,000 gamers, found that: 

  • 99% believe AI characters will positively impact gameplay in some way
  • 81% would be willing to pay more for a game with AI-powered NPCs
  • 79% would be more likely to buy a game with smart NPCs
  • 78% would spend more time playing games with AI NPCs

 Meanwhile, our 2024 study of 524 game devs, found that: 

  • 54% of developers believe their studio is likely to adopt AI NPCs
  • 56% believe they’ll drive more than 40% ROI

When it comes to adding AI capabilities to your game, there are an infinite number of use cases you could consider – everything from transforming all bystander NPCs to powering all bosses with AI agents. However, each potential use case carries a different development costs-to-impact ratio. 

AI use cases that require a large number of characters to be powered by AI would also involve orchestrating additional characters, assets, and custom voices. The cost and time to set that up can quickly add up. 

One effective way to evaluate use cases for new tech, however, involves comparing the ROI for different potential uses. In the chart below, we compare AI companions to some other possible use cases. 

In early partner experiences like Cygnus Enterprises, we’ve found that companions can drive some of the most compelling gameplay improvements. These use cases also have proven to have clear ROI in metrics like spend, retention, playtime, or finish rates. 

2. AI companions can reinforce desired player behavior

AI companions should be considered powerful tools, not only for enhancing gameplay, but also for shaping player behavior. By strategically integrating AI companions in video games, developers can guide players towards specific behaviors, objectives, or play styles that improve the player experience, increase metrics, or improve monetization.

While the use of companions for these purposes isn’t new, AI companions can optimize this practice by customizing their approach based on each player’s interests and play style. Here are some ways AI companions can help: 

Daily engagement

Encouraging players to log in and engage with the game daily, especially when they’re onboarding, can help increase retention. While this is often incentivized through daily rewards, login bonuses, or limited-time events that provide exclusive rewards for daily participation, AI companions can add a personal spin by customizing rewards based on the players’ interests – or simply creating an emotional connection with the player that replicates the retention boost that social gaming typically sees. 

Video game sidekicks that can replicate the stickiness of social gaming would greatly help games of all kinds with retention. Casual mobile games lose 90% of players after one week, but games with multiplayer options and embedded social features maintain players for months or even years. This is particularly true for younger players. According to a 2021 study by the Entertainment Software Association, 89% of 18 to 34-year-olds prefer to play with others, that falls slightly to 81% of 35 to 44-year-olds, but 68% of 45 to 54-year-old gamers also prefer social gaming.

Progression

Encouraging players to progress through the game's content by completing quests, leveling up characters, or unlocking new features can enhance retention. Studios can design gameplay loops that provide a sense of achievement and progression in order to keep players motivated to continue playing. Games with AI companions can support this by having them tease future companion quests that they think the player would enjoy, making those progression mechanics more interesting or unlocking features when it appears the player is losing interest. 

Monetization opportunities

Game studios want to increase in-game purchases like subscriptions, DLCs, and expansions. While this can be achieved by integrating monetization opportunities seamlessly into gameplay, offering limited-time sales or discounts, or providing exclusive benefits for paying players, AI companions could also support this by mentioning potential in-game purchases that might be useful or talking about new DLCs. 

That could have a significant impact on revenue – especially since studios are increasingly relying on revenue from DLCs and expansions. A 2023 report by Newzoo found that downloadable content made up 13% of PC revenue and 7% of console revenue in the U.S. in 2022. But DLC and expansions also helped in other ways. It increased monthly active users (MAUs) by over 11% in both console and PC games and a Nielsen Holdings survey in 2023 found that game franchises that continued to engage their communities between releases saw a 50% improvement in player retention.

Personalization 

Providing players with opportunities to personalize their gaming experience, such as customizing characters, building bases, or designing unique avatars, can increase retention by fostering a sense of ownership and investment in the game world. Game studios could give players the ability to customize their game companion through Inworld’s Studio REST API. By allowing gamers to create or tweak their companion characters, developers promote a more personalized connection to the game world. An AI companion's long-term memory also means they can refer to players by name and remember past interactions – boosting a player’s sense that they belong. 

3. AI companions can be added at all stages of development

One of the reasons AI companions make a good use case for integrating generative AI into games is because incorporating AI companions in video games typically does not require a large-scale redesign of the game. In fact, one NetEase team decided to integrate an AI companion into their game after it was launched. 

The game’s Lead Programmer explained that the experience was easier than he expected it would be: “We were worried about how difficult it was going to be to integrate AI NPCs,” said Brian Cox. “But with Inworld, it turned out that it was very doable in a few months, even after we launched the game.”

The easiest way to integrate an AI NPC would be by implementing it in an existing game companion like NetEase did, but it’s also possible to add in a new companion after the game has been released or after production begins. Whether it's enhancing tutorial sequences, improving player engagement, adding fun gameplay dynamics, or introducing additional depth to the narrative, AI companions can easily be added in ways that offer a significant boost to the overall gaming experience without disrupting the overall flow of the experience.

For example, a game studio could introduce AI game companions to assist players during tutorial segments to enhance onboarding and retention. In such a scenario, the AI companions could be seamlessly integrated into the existing tutorial framework without requiring a complete rework of the game's mechanics or level design. 

Sub-use cases for AI companions in video games

One of the primary benefits of AI companions is the ability for a single character to add a number of additional high-value functionalities and capabilities that improve gameplay or the player experience. Here are just some of the benefits that AI companions can add:

Onboarding

An AI companion character can be used as an alternative to a complicated in-game tutorial or can be cast as part of the tutorial to make it more enjoyable for the player. Tutorials are extremely challenging to do well, yet many studios see it as one of the primary challenges for retention. 

The AI companion would be able to explain mechanics and controls and also answer questions. This could involve a ‘trial and error’ or ‘show and tell’ dynamic, where the player may try to do something, then the companion could comment on what they did well. Or it could involve gameplay scenarios where the AI sidekick is an opponent. The possibilities for incorporating an AI companion in a tutorial are endless – see our blog on the topic here for more ideas. 

Learn more about how to use AI agents for onboarding here. 

Assistance

AI companions can also provide assistance by supporting the player at any point in the game. This may mean anything from following a player’s command to perform a task within the game to noticing the player failing to perform a task. 
For example, if the player keeps jumping into a hole on a companion quest, the AI companion could suggest the player tries to find a jetpack. AI companions could also dynamically adapt the gameplay to assist the player. Or the companion could share information to help the player progress through a companion quest if the player is struggling.

Difficulty adaptation

Most modern games use some form of difficulty adaptation to support player diversity and retention. This ensures that the game is challenging for the player based on their skill level. Currently, this often involves making enemies stronger or weaker or changing a puzzle to make it easier. However, by using AI companions, game devs could adapt the game’s difficulty by doing things like giving more hints in puzzle scenarios, changing battle strategies when the player has low health, giving more tips if the player keeps making mistakes or goes off track, or leading the way if the player seems lost.

Core companions

Core companions are the Tifas, Barretts, Cortanas, Navis, and Lae’zels of the world. These game companions are there with you through the entire gameplay journey and are central to the story. For that reason, they drive a lot of engagement and retention. AI companions can better support these goals by doing things like developing meaningful relationships with the player and providing commentary on gameplay or the game narrative to add depth to the narrative. They could also be a key part of the gameplay mechanics by assisting in battles or needing the player to earn their trust as a progression mechanic. 

The core focus on this sub-use case is to drive engagement and retention by deepening the player’s attachment to the world by adding to the narrative and creating an emotional connection. These AI companions would be aware of the player’s context, make meaningful comments, take into account past interactions with the player, and take contextually aware actions that add to gameplay. 

Romantic companion

Romantic companions are a subset of core companions but are becoming more popular, especially in RPGs. For example, both Baldur’s Gate and Final Fantasy 7 allow and encourage meaningful romantic relationships between companions and characters. AI romantic companions could be part of the core gameplay but also participate in mini-games where the goal is to develop relationships with these companions through social engagement, dialogue, and gameplay choices. This could mean players have to start with an AI companion who hates them, slowly gain trust, and, over time, evolve the relationship into a romantic one – a game mechanic supported by Inworld’s Relationship feature. 

Player-emulating character

This use case is most common in multiplayer games where the ‘fun’ of the game is driven partially by the ability to play with other players. In these cases, it would mean that when a player goes offline (e.g. you are playing an MMO with your guild and someone signs off but you want to keep playing), the AI-version of the player can come online so your team can continue to play. In this case, the player’s gameplay strategies could even be mimicked. 

In-game sales from companions

Many games, especially free-to-play RPGs and mobile games, could use AI companions to drive in-game sales. For example, an AI companion may remark that the player needs new armor or weapons in order to prompt the user to buy that equipment for them. Games might also allow gamers to buy multiple AI companions to be part of their guild or team – adding a new monetization opportunity and gameplay dynamic. 

Coach, narrator or commentator

Sports and first person shooter games don’t typically have companions – but there are still exciting opportunities to leverage companions to support those games. Having an AI coach, narrator, or commentor commenting on their gameplay or giving them advice is one option for implementing AI. The actual implementation would be very similar to a companion but the companion wouldn’t be present except as a voice or text conversation. 

For example, game devs might add a famous person to do AI generated commentary in a sports game. An AI coach might also be implemented in a way that’s mission critical like by having a Cortana-like assistant giving live updates in FPS that inform the player of enemy movements or suggesting combat strategies. An AI narrator could even be used to heckle players or create an amusing narration of the player’s gameplay – adding humor to the game. 

The future of companions

These are just a few ideas for how you might use AI companions to improve player engagement and game metrics. Expect game devs to come up with even more ways to integrate AI-powered NPCs and agents powered by AI Engines like Inworld’s into companion characters to create novel kinds of gameplay. 

Interested in playing around with the tech? 

  • Sign up for Inworld’s Studio for free to try it out today. 
  • Read case studies from gaming companies who integrated AI NPCs

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