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Jesse Schell on the future of characters in games

The iconic designers ponders important developments for our in-game friends

For any developer conference-goer the name Jesse Schell is likely to be one you'll link with fascinating session talks - not the least because he commits to address a different subject every time.

Today, in his keynote at the Unite Conference - the event for developers working on the Unity middleware platform - he addressed the subject of characters, and looked at ten reasons why we could (or should) see significant developments in that area.

Principally the future-gazing - which Schell candidly admitted was speculation, but based on technologies possible or nearly possible today - revolved around characters or avatars growing out of the games themselves and becoming more like persistent virtual friends that could become a crucial part of every day life.

He split his reasoning across ten framework ideas, the most interesting of which were:

Facial tracking - advances in technology have made more believable and engaging characters possible; specifically this can make them more intimate, with concepts as simple as consistent ey contact.

Persistent databases - while characters can 'remember' progress made within a game, Schell reasons that memories persisting past individual games could open up a whole new area of affinity with on-screen companions. The ability for characters to even call up videos of previous games that have been played could start to develop much more personal and meaningful links.

Speech recognition - heralded by Schell as "crucially important for us - it might be the most important technology for us as game designers". A reference to the development of film - from silent movies to 'talkies' as the point at which they became a cultural pillar, he asked whether a similar step when games are able to listen and react properly to what users tell them could be a huge step forwards.

Emotional sensing - with the advancement of facial tracking comes possibilities around adding user emotion to games. Imagine, for example, needing to show anger, or sympathy, in order to progress a conversation with an NPC.

Augmented reality characters - with the aid of glasses, the ability to take characters outside, to interact with them in real-world environments could become possible.

There were a few other areas too, but the most fascinating conclusion was that with all of these working together, the on-screen character or avatar becomes much more - a virtual companion that could become far more than a game-related entity.

Imagine, says Schell, if you virtual companion could check the weather for you, or help teach you at school, or detect friends on Facebook playing the same game as you, or manage your health data (and tell you when it's time to play Wii Fit), or hook up your GPS data with location-based games...

In other words, a virtual companion that can manage and assist in any number of real-world ways, but also takes part in games with you - and maybe even spans different game franchises effectively.

Would this be a good thing, he ponders? Possibly not, but it would interesting to test the concept... and it's very likely that if some of this stuff does start to happen, it will be game designers that are on the cutting edge - "Because that's what we do - we make interactive virtual characters."

Whether or not you agree this is something that could become reality in the next ten years, ("Let's meet up at Unite 2020 and see if any of this came true") it's a glimpse into how one of the industry's leading designers is thinking...

Meanwhile, check out the GamesIndustry.biz interview with Jesse Schell that formed part of our Unite Conference pre-event coverage.

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Phil Elliott