Players have been enjoying tabletop role-playing games for decades, since the days when a game of Dungeons & Dragons meant a group of people gathered around a table with handwritten character sheets. Now you can make a digital character sheet that automatically changes as your character levels up, and there are plenty of ways to play D&D online. But the next leap in RPGs might involve adventures set in well-known fictional worlds and led by artificial intelligence.
That’s what Hidden Door wants to produce, and CEO Hilary Mason brings two decades of AI and machine learning experience to the project. I talked with Mason about the recent explosion of AI, the opportunities and risks, and how her company is using the technology to reinvent a classic game genre, starting with the Wizard of Oz.
Artificial intelligence erupted into the cultural consciousness late last year, led by services like Dall-E and OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Then Microsoft and Google responded with their own AI-powered tools, creating even more buzz around the technology. However, there have been some growing pains, with AI tools being prone to getting information wrong, and in some cases getting a little bizarre, prompting Microsoft to impose restrictions. Now it feels like there’s an arms race among big tech companies to figure out how best to get the most value out of AI.
Hidden Door is taking a creative approach to the technology.
“I played a ton of D&D and other tabletop games all the way through grad school,” Mason said about the genesis of Hidden Door. “A lot of my best social moments, especially my 20s, came out of this co-creative play with friends around a table.” When she realized that the window was opening to be able to create those dynamics with AI, she knew she had to try it.
Mason said Hidden Door is trying to tap into the desire for people to engage more with stories after they’ve finished reading or watching them. If you’ve ever watched a movie and thought, “Wait, I’m not done with this world and these characters,” Hidden Door wants to offer additional ways to operate within those stories.
The company is only working directly with creators who want to license their intellectual property or using works that are in the public domain, according to Mason. Players can take those worlds and ask the game to set them in different moods or genres. You could do the same thing with a game of Dungeons & Dragons, but Hidden Door is bringing a technological twist to the RPG experience.
Meet the AI behind the curtain
Hidden Door is starting with a literary and cinematic classic, and it allows players to ask for their preferred twist on the setting. “Our first adaptation is The Wizard of Oz, which is in the public domain. … You can go into our system and be like I want The Wizard of Oz but, you know, gritty murder — or I want The Wizard of Oz, but it’s fun happy pancakes time.”
But what was it about AI that helped make this idea possible?
Hidden Door uses AI trained on “millions of stories” to power its in-game narrator, the equivalent of a dungeon master or game master. The narrator prompts the players with situations and obstacles, and asks them how they want to respond. Players can type in what they’d like to do and then choose among full-sentence options offered by the narrator. Each input pushes the game forward and causes the narrator to generate responses and new situations. Mason said the goal is to give people ways to play with language and interpret it in the appropriate context.
The rules for the world are established by the IP owner and created in collaboration with the game designer and Hidden Door’s writers. “We basically try to give them the ability to say, in this world, this must happen. This character should always be this way. And then, we use the generative bits to fill in the blanks in a way that is consistent with that.”
Under the hood, Mason describes the game as a bunch of “very tunable weights and knobs” that allow Hidden Door to tweak the system to be more consistent with what they want it to do, even if the experience of players feels very open-ended. “At any given point in the story, we cannot predict what’s going to come out. But we can inspect it and we can go back and [ask], OK, what were the weights set to here? What are the bits of narrative in the engine that we’re pulled in?” The Hidden Door team looks at the library of tropes the AI is pulling together to create the story, and they can set parameters or otherwise tune the model for a better play experience.
One question the developers look at is whether the computer did anything that was unexpected or wrong. If they get feedback like the story feeling unsurprising, that’s another knob the team can adjust. The same way that a dungeon master might adjust the pace of a D&D game if they feel the players are getting bored, Hidden Door’s AI narrator can adjust a game to feel more surprising. Hidden Door devs can tune the surprise factor to keep players engaged without letting things get too psychedelic.
Opening doors with AI
Mason says she hopes that an AI-powered narrator will help reduce the barriers to entry. “It takes a lot of work to run a good game. Like, if one of your friends is going to take on the role of the narrator, the GM, they have to do a lot of prep.”
Can confirm. I’ve run a few D&D campaigns for friends, and it truly takes a substantial investment of time and energy for a game master to run a good session — newer players might have a hard time finding someone who’s willing to put in that amount of effort. Even if you do find someone to be that creative workhorse, you’re still at the mercy of how quickly they can put those ideas together and prepare for a session. The goal of Hidden Door is to use AI’s generative capabilities to take that work off a person’s shoulders and let people jump in and play. “The way we see it is essentially allowing many more people to have this kind of play experience because it reduces the amount of work involved,” Mason said.
Mason emphasized that the goal wasn’t to replace GMs at tables, but rather to give people more options, especially when it comes to the types of intellectual property Hidden Door will use.
And while AI powers the system, Mason thinks Hidden Door’s appeal isn’t restricted to the novelty of AI. Instead, she hopes people will be drawn to a game that is similarly accessible to RPG video games like Dragon Age and The Witcher, but is even more open-ended. “We don’t think our players need to care at all about the fact that it’s an AI game. Like, to them, it is just a story game where they can actually choose anything and it will play off of that.”
Hidden Door isn’t publicly available yet, but if you’re interested in trying out and thus helping train the AI-infused game, you can join the waitlist. The Hidden Door blog also has several behind-the-scenes look at development, as well as discussions about AI in general, making it a good resource for people who are interested in the technology and its real-time evolution.