How NetEase transformed RPG gameplay with an AI companion
In Cygnus Enterprises, AI NPCs make RPG game loops more addictive
In 2020, when Team Miaozi (NetEase) started developing Cygnus Enterprises, a PC Action RPG game with sandbox base management elements, they wanted to create a unique game with addictive gameplay. Modeled on games as diverse as Subnautica, No Man’s Sky, Helldivers, and even Stardew Valley, the team’s goal was to design ‘sticky’ core game loops that would drive player engagement and play time, according to Brian Cox, the game’s Lead Programmer and a AAA veteran with credits on Far Cry 2, Halo Wars, and Sea of Thieves.
The 50 person team launched the Early Access version of Cygnus Enterprises in 2022 with a plan to add additional stories, characters, and enemies in 2023. But they also wanted to add elements no other game had ever included before for truly novel gameplay. With all the excitement around ChatGPT, the team agreed the best way to do that would be to add AI NPCs. “We wanted to be the first to launch a commercial game with AI NPCs on Steam,” said Oscar Lopez, the game’s Senior Product Project Manager.
Only they didn’t just want to add characters you could talk to. They were committed to fully integrating the characters into the game’s core loops and mechanics.
Cygnus Enterprises is set in the far future after humanity has settled nearby solar systems. The game’s name is also the name of the mega-corporation that provides far flung settlers faster-than-light travel ships so that people – and resources – can travel between settlements. The game starts as the player assumes the role of a ‘contractor’ on an expedition to a derelict outpost on a frontier planet. The goal? Turn that outpost into a thriving colony.
According to Brian, Cygnus Enterprises was designed to have two interconnected game loops. “We designed a top-down shooter game where you explore exotic locations, defeat enemies, and collect resources but then it also has base management elements where you welcome visitors, hire and manage, and build buildings,” he explained.
The game is designed so each combat mission gives players what they need to build and maintain the base to get that derelict outpost closer to becoming a thriving settlement.
Traditionally, in games like these, players either go on missions alone or with a companion NPC. The team behind Cygnus Enterprises decided to cast PEA in this role. Standing for Personal Electronic Assistant, the game’s companion is a multi-purpose drone that can interact with players but can also interface with the company’s electronic equipment, collect resources, organize storage space, program facilities, compile reports, and more. In dangerous situations, PEA can even provide tactical information to help the contractor succeed.
While RPGs are a beloved genre with highly addictive game loops, a common complaint among gamers is the need to continually gather resources in order to advance. It’s such a quintessential part of RPGs, gamers have even created slang for it. Often called ‘grinding,’ ‘treadmilling,’ ‘farming,’ or ‘pushing the bar,’ it refers to the act of repeating an action or set of actions for an extended period of time. While some players find the repetitive actions relaxing, others see it as just a necessary part of gaming and are extrinsically motivated by the rewards they get from doing it.
But what if there was a way to make the ‘grinding’ part of game loops more fun and even more intrinsically rewarding? Cygnus Enterprises suspected AI NPCs might help with that – and, in doing so, improve key game metrics like player engagement, replayability, play time, and player retention.
Standing out in a crowded market
With AAA blockbusters like Starfield debuting in 2023, most games face the challenge of having to cut through that marketing noise to find a loyal player base. These days, games need a strategy to stand out. “Why did we integrate AI in our game? Well, why not?,” said Brian.” It's a cutting edge technology and we wanted to experiment.”
By powering PEA with AI, Not only would an AI companion give players an amusing character to talk to while gathering resources – they could also instruct their AI companion to gather resources for the player when they asked her to via voice command. Being able to talk to a companion character while in the heat of battle, creates a more social and engaging gaming experience. Meanwhile, being able to get help from your companion in completing game tasks allows the player to concentrate on more exciting game play. Team Miaozi was excited to transform how gamers played – and enjoyed – RPGs.
Short time frame
Team Miaozi faced another equally significant challenge: by the time they decided to integrate AI NPCs into their experience the Early Access version of their game had already launched months before. They were worried about how easy it would be to integrate AI NPCs into their existing game without causing other things to break.
They also worried about how much time they could devote to adding AI NPCs given that they already had an ambitious roadmap to add additional scenes, stories and characters in 2023. Trying to do all that using a large language model (LLM) API like OpenAI directly would have been impossible. They also didn’t have any machine learning engineers on their 50 person team who could have set up text to speech and speech to text to enable voice-to-voice interactions or the backend architecture they would need to serve interactions in real-time.
“We were worried about how difficult it was going to be to integrate AI NPCs,” said Brian. “But with Inworld it turned out that it was very doable in a few months, even after we launched the game.”
The team at Cygnus Enterprises wanted to add AI NPCs but they had already costed their game out and settled on a price point without taking into account those additional costs. Should they raise their price? Include a monthly subscription?
While both were good potential choices, they decided on a hybrid option: give players a certain number of free interactions and then have players register for their own Inworld accounts. Since the game has two dual dialogue systems players can switch between – one pre-recorded and another AI generated – players can choose which they want to play and pay for.
“Players get a certain amount of interactions that are subsidized and so are free to them with the purchase of the game,” Brian explained. “They can just log on and use it for free without creating an account with Inworld. But if they want more options, they can sign up for an Inworld account where they’ll get a certain amount of free interactions every day and then pay for any interactions over that cutoff.”
In future games, Brian would like to test out new monetization strategies including things like revenue sharing, in-game purchases, sponsorship by an ad provider or others.
Aside from the ease of integration compared to an LLM API, there were other key reasons Inworld was the right choice for Team Miaozi.
One thing that the team liked about Inworld’s Character Engine was the fact that it was built so the game was personalized to each player.
Inworld’s characters also give players more control over the game narrative and the character they play. Rather than choosing from pre-determined dialogue options based on a personality the game designers created for you, Inworld just lets the player say whatever they want. That lets the player decide who the ‘main character’ they’re playing is.
“In this kind of game, the player is the real protagonist,” said Brian. “In so many games, the personality of the player is forced upon you. But in our game, if you want to be a nice guy, you can be, if you want to be mean to everyone, feel free to do so. You can be an antihero or you can be a lawful good character, the choice is up to you.”
Unique interactions every playthrough
One thing that the Cygnus Enterprises team were particularly excited about was how AI NPCs would increase the replayability of their game. As players can ask any question they want, they’re able to have new conversations every playthrough.
“For example, when you just start the game, PEA warns you that the drop pod is about to explode,” says Brian. “She could just tell you to run away or, since she’s very sassy and sarcastic, she might tell you that you should walk away if you don't want a free tanning session. This makes it fun to replay the game, as the experience will always be different.”
Players can also have as much or as little interaction with NPCs as they want every playthrough. “Players get to decide how much they want to learn about the game world,” added Nathan Yu, the Director of Product at Inworld who worked closely with Team Miaozi on the integration. “If you love learning about lore, you can ask as many questions as you want. Want to know an NPCs’ backstory? Ask away. Did you ask everyone all the questions that you wanted to last playthrough? You don’t need to chat with NPCs if you don’t want to next time. You’re able to pursue your own unique journey through the game world.”
Game designers can then use those emergent experiences to craft new game mechanics or create player-centric narratives. For example, Inworld’s Relationship feature rates every interaction with an NPC as either something that improves trust between them and the player or reduces it. Player/NPC relationships can then evolve to the point where they’re best friends – or mortal enemies. Which can be tied to goals and action triggers or novel new game mechanics. For example, you could create a character that will only tell you a secret once you earn their trust or a character who will work to undermine you if you make them angry.
“If you're going to be mean to characters, they're going to dislike you,” said Brian. “If you're nice to them, they'll like you more and you could get some benefits from that.”
Because of these new possibilities, the player plays a much more dynamic role in the game. They’re co-creators of the narrative rather than just passive participants – and are likely to feel much more invested in the game for that reason. Gameplay can be uniquely tailored to the player’s actions so that each player will have a different experience in the game – even in games with a linear story line like Cygnus Enterprises.
“It’s fun to replay the game because the experience will always be different,” said Brian.
Voice Commands and Gameplay Actions
What particularly excited the Cygnus Enterprises team was the ability to use voice commands to trigger gameplay actions such as combat abilities, base camp actions, and UI features. In an Action RPG, time is often of the essence and being able to get help from a companion NPC without pressing any more buttons makes it easier for the player to get back-up, for example.
“In combat missions, if I have combat support with me I can say ‘shield me’ or ‘heal me’ or ‘I'm taking heavy damage’ and they will shield me or use any other kind of support abilities we’ve given them,” said Brain. “In the base camp, we can ask them to get our resources, too. If I say to get biomass they know what that is. AI NPCs can have all sorts of events that can be triggered via voice. They can also give you quests and missions that way.”
One thing that made Inworld attractive to the Cygnus Enterprises team was the ability to give characters memory.
“To make this feel immersive the character actually has to remember the interactions that you've had with them as the player,” said Brian. Inworld’s memory feature enables players to move the game narrative in dynamic and merging game states that aren't necessarily predefined, although developers can create guardrails around what’s possible.
“Memory is a key component of any immersive game experience,” said Brian. “It allows characters to remember past interactions with the player, which can then be used to create a more personalized and engaging experience. Additionally, memory can be used to create a more dynamic and unpredictable game world. For example, if a character remembers that the player burned down a village, they may be more likely to be hostile towards them the next time they meet.”
By implementing a memory system like Inworld’s, game developers can create games that feel more like living, breathing worlds where a player’s actions can actually have cascading consequences, change the game narrative, or create new game play opportunities.
Cygnus Enterprises launched their AI NPCs in late August and two months in, player responses have been enthusiastic. “I tried the narrative AI now and it is: FANTASTIC!! Oh my god, thank you for this experience,” wrote one Steam commentator.
Another felt PEA was a sneak peek into the future of video games: “These AI chat NPCs are the way of the future.”
Having Inworld characters has also helped Cygnus Enterprises with sales. One Steam commenter explained, “This feature alone pushed me over the edge to buy the game.” Their Inworld integration was even enough to help another hesitant gamer buy the game before its full launch: “I love it,” they wrote. “I am usually quite hesitant to support games in the Early Access stage but this attempt at interactive dialogues was something I really wanted to support.”
According to Brian, this excitement greatly improved player engagement: “We saw not just an uptick in attention but also engagement,” he explained. “Our Steam Community and Discord saw a burst of activity in response to the feature’s launch, with the general sentiment being excitement to be taking part in one of the games industry’s first steps into this new realm.”
Players are having a lot of fun with the new AI-powered PEA. “Where before most of the praise for our game lay in its systems and mechanics,” explained Thomas Price, the team’s Marketing Coordinator, “the launch of AI NPCs saw players take more time in the base to stop and chat, and see what responses they’d get from the AI characters. In one case, a streamer even managed to get PEA to make up and sing them a song about their mission!”