Author of Friendship is Optimal.
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James looked skeptically at his friend David as he sat down at computer #12.
David had won the Hasbro raffle for one of fifteen all-expenses-paid trips for two to Pawtucket, Rhode Island to play the first alpha build of the official My Little Pony MMO: Equestria Online. Hasbro had claimed that a game that revolved so heavily around friendship needed actual friends to test properly.
“Look, I’m glad you invited me,” James said as he picked up his head set. “And it’s cool that I get to try something before anyone else. But I’m still not sure I really want to play a game that’s so...so...pink and purple.”
David scoffed. “I know you. What was that Korean MMO with the little girls that you were so into? You’ll be running dungeons over and over again, just like you always do with every MMO that comes out. But me?” David gave the widest smile possible. “I’m here for the ponies. We both get what we want!”
“But that’s the thing. There’s no way this can be good. This is a licensed game which has only had a single year of development,” James said, shaking his head. “This has to be shovelware. You can’t do good game or interaction design in such a short time, not to mention art and sound assets.”
“How about we make a bet?” asked David. “If the game impresses you, even just a little bit, I’ll spend up to $50 buying you a copy of it, but in turn you’ll have to play it for at least three months.”
“That isn’t actually a bet, David,” said James. “That deal mostly benefits me. What do you get out of it, anyway?”
“I get to play the same video game with my best friend,” David said. “By the time I rolled a character in World of Warcraft, you had already moved on to Aion. It’d be nice to level ponies together.”
James looked at his friend for several moments and turned away. He quietly said, “Deal.” It was a few moments before he focused on his computer. His screen had some sort of questionnaire to fill out. What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite food? What’s your favorite thing in the world? James wondered why they were asking all these annoying questions. His favorite food was pepper-jack cheese, but there was no way that could be relevant in Equestria. He took a peek to his right at David’s monitor. He didn’t have a personality test and already had a pony on screen.
Eighteen questions later, the screen faded to black. He was shown the banners for Earth, Pegasus, and Unicorn ponies, and told to choose one. When he had played World of Warcraft, he was one of his guild’s tanks and also one of the alchemists who made potions for their raids. He knew he liked running around zones looking for herbs. The description of Earth ponies mentioned that they were the toughest class and that they were good with plants.
David said that every piece of marketing material had stressed that Equestria Online was not a traditional MMO. There would be little, if any, combat. James didn’t believe that for a moment. He clicked on the Earth pony banner. He was going to be a tank. Whatever the marketers said, if David somehow convinced him to play this pink monstrosity for real, he knew he was going to spend months of his life playing the endgame content over and over and over again until he got his Epic Saddle of Protection.
The next scene faded in on his monitor. A gray earth pony with navy blue hair lay on a bed of straw. The pony turned his head and looked straight at him through the monitor...and the pony felt familiar.
James heard David’s surprised voice over his headset say, “Look at this!” A blue unicorn walked on scene. “It’s me! As a pony!” said the excited unicorn in David’s voice, with perfect lip-synching. James turned away from his screen and looked at his friend. David grinned and said, “No, look at the screen.” The unicorn started making funny faces.
And then James noticed that his pony had an astonished expression on his face. He raised a hand to scratch his head, and his pony raised his hoof. For the first time, James noticed that the flat panel monitor had an embedded webcam. He started making faces at the camera and his pony on screen mimicked his expression. He heard his friend laugh over his headphones.
James realized why his pony felt familiar. He had said his favorite color was navy blue. The manestyle was similar to his hairstyle, perhaps a little longer. He realized that was supposed to be his face, modified extensively.
“Okay, that’s kind of cool, I guess,” he said, “but I don’t see how you’re going to build a game around it.”
“Howdy,” said a voice. The camera zoomed out from focusing on James and David’s ponies to reveal a red earth pony mare, who gave a small bow. “My name’s Honeycrisp. So, I beg your pardon, but are y’all those new ponies we’ve been hearin’ all about?”
“Uh,” James mubbled.
“Why yes we are!” said David’s blue unicorn. “We just came to Equestria! What do we do now?”
Honeycrisp gave a hearty laugh, and she trotted up to James’ pony. “It’s alright. I won’t hurt ya. So I reckon you don’t have a ponyname yet?”
“Wait, you can understand us?” James asked incredulously.
“I sure can, sugarcube,” she said with a snort.
“Your name is...Honeycrisp?” James repeated.
“Sure is! I take care of the farm. Whelp, the two of ya’ better get started. You gotta get along to Canterlot. Don’t worry, Princess Celestia will give y’all pretty ponynames. Can’t be walkin’ round these parts callin’ yourself ‘James’ and ‘David’ now, can ya?”
“Wait, how did you know my name?” James asked, and pulled the right headphone cup off his ear so he could listen to the room.
“Of course they know our names,” laughed David. “We filled out those forms at the front desk to get our accounts.” James heard David’s voice over his left headphone, and his uncovered right ear.
Honeycrisp gave a hearty laugh. “Oh, you’ll find that Princess Celestia knows all ‘bout y’all new pony folk who’ve been comin’ to these parts. I was givin’ a list of names and got lucky.”
And as he was listening to Honeycrisp with his left ear, all James could hear with his right were a few people in the room reacting incredulously. “Wait, you can understand me?” he heard a female voice ask. What James didn’t hear was anyone talking in a southern drawl. He put the headphone cup back over his right ear.
“So how do we get to this...Canterlot place?” James asked.
“Go right out this door and through the forest. There ain’t any monsters round these parts. Just follow the path and you’ll be on the main road to Canterlot,” replied Honeycrisp.
“Thank you,” said James, and his pony gave a little bow. James blinked. He hadn’t told his pony to bow. He didn’t even know what key he’d press to make his pony bow.
Whatever. James moved his gray earth pony out the open barn door and into the night, with David following slightly behind. The art style of the game looked like the few clips of the show that David had shown him, except with much more detail. As the two ponies approached the edge of the forest, he noticed that the plants weren’t copy/pasted. Each tree had a unique branch structure. There was something almost natural about the placement of rocks and rotten logs. The path itself was well worn, but it was not perfectly straight and had irregular growth of plants on it. He didn’t want to even imagine how much time had been spent crafting this forest.
James’ light gray pony turned to his unicorn friend. “Man, I’ll give you one thing: the production values are through the roof. Still, this looks like it’s turning into a standard RPG. Quest giving NPC tells us to go from point A to B.”
“Except we had to actually talk to the quest giving NPC,” said the little blue unicorn next to him. “In a normal MMO, we’d have clicked on the pony with the exclamation point above its head, and then clicked on the accept button. But here, the game mechanic seems to be talking. All the face mapping makes sense if this game is about conversation.”
James’ mouth opened and closed a few times.
“Also, I don’t see an action bar along the bottom of the screen. If you press ‘1’ on your keyboard, I bet nothing happens.”
The two of them continued through the forest, staying on the well marked path until they came into a small clearing. The path only passed through the edge and continued on into the woods. But on the other side of the clearing was some sort of hut, with light pouring out of it. Obviously the level designers were trying to draw their attention to it, so James trotted over and David followed behind him.
Outside of the hut, a zebra sat on her hind legs while she slowly moved herbs and flowers from sorted piles on a low table to the bubbling iron cauldron, its contents a deep aquamarine. The zebra looked up from her work and peered into the darkness.
“Ponies trotting through the night. Would you care to step into the light?” said the zebra through James’ headset. James moved his up to the zebra’s hovel.
“Obsidian Stripe tends to her flame. My little ponies, what are your names?”
“My name is James,” he said, just because Honeycrisp had told him that that was no name for a pony.
“I’m sure out there you have great fame. But while in here, speak not that name,” said Obsidian Stripe, in a very serious tone.
James watched David’s blue unicorn butt in and say “We don’t have ponynames yet.”
Obsidian Stripe nodded, as if to herself. “Two ponies on a midnight trot. Do you make for Canterlot?”
“Yes, I’m going through the introductory quest chain,” James said.
Obsidian Stripe tilted her head as if the pony in front of her had gone crazy. “I know you see me through a frame, but from this side, this is no game.”
“What my friend meant to say,” said David, “is that the two of us are going to Canterlot so Princess Celestia can give us our ponynames.”
Obsidian Stripe nodded at the unicorn, and then turned back to the gray stallion. “I trust the princess will name you well, but I also have my secrets to tell. You may come closer, do not cower. I see you have been eyeing my flowers.”
“I’ve seen those pink flowers all around the forest. Can I gather them and do something with them?” asked James.
“This is the pinkdaisy, fragrant and fair. Pinkdaisy grows just about everywhere. In the forest and the field, you will have a bountiful yield,” said Obsidian, pointing to a large pile of destemmed pink flowers on the side of the workbench farthest from the cauldron. “My brew must cook with a slow burn. I have some time to help you learn. Do not worry; you do not disturb. Would you like to learn the simple herbs?”
“Yes, please train me in herbalism,” James said emphatically. Maybe he’d even have a stack to sell on the auction house by the time he got to Canterlot! Assuming there was a player-to-player economy. He reminded himself to not put the cart before the pony.
Obsidian Stripe laughed. “Please focus on the here and now. We do not aim to awe and wow.” The zebra continued, introducing queensfoil, thyme, mint and blueshroom one by one. James and David were invited to click on each pile, looting a sample which went into their saddlebags.
“And how do I combine them into potions like you’re making?” asked James, once he had reached the last of the five piles.
“How to brew will remain unsaid. First learn to gather plants instead.”
James nodded, an action mirrored by his gray earth pony with navy hair. “Okay, sure. Thanks.” James started to walk back to the forest, but looked back at the zebra.
“Though I will sit here and remain, I hope you find your ponynames.” Obsidian gave them a small wave and went back to stirring. “Oh dear, oh my. This will not do. I must add more thyme to the brew,” she muttered to herself.
The earth pony and the unicorn walked through the forest in silence for almost a minute. James kept thinking about Honeycrisp and Obsidian Stripe. “What the hell,” he muttered to himself.
“What’s wrong?” asked the unicorn.
“Honeycrisp’s dialog was basic enough to be scripted,” said James, as his pony turned to face David’s unicorn. “But Obsidian Stripe reacted to what we were saying. She even made a subtle jab at Warcraft after I mentioned ‘herbalism.’ She was able to keep track of topic changes. If that zebra was an NPC, the Turing test has been solved.”
“And? You’ve played The Fall of Asgard. Hofvarpnir Studios is just really good at what they do.”
“No,” James said and his little pony shook his head emphatically. “Asgard had really good AI for the enemies, but it was still fundamentally a first person action game. This is something totally new. I can’t think of any games based on completely free-form conversation. You don’t just invent a completely new genre with only a year of development. And one of the reasons we have genres is because it lets us find works we’d like easier. Will anyone want to play this? Conversation is nice, but what’s it going to do for my stats?”
David’s unicorn rolled his eyes. “Says the party animal to the guy who doesn’t get out much. And I’d love to see my numbers go up, but being among ponies is sort of a dream come true for me.”
“Okay, forget about all that. If they’ve created software that can pass the Turing Test, why are they wasting the technology on a My Little Pony video game? I can think of vastly more profitable ways to use a conversational agent that can pass a Turing Test! Something is weird here. Aren’t you at least a bit curious about how this happened? Doesn’t any of this surprise you?”