Hanna had once been one of the lead research professors for the University of Helsinki’s computer science department. She had personally directed research on artificial intelligence and machine learning. And then her funding source had...changed. There had been yelling and threats by both her and the University. They came to the agreement that she’d publish what she had researched so far and then pursue alternate opportunities.
Hofvarpnir Studios had developed a reputation for kid unfriendly material. Their main success, The Fall of Asgard, was an ultra-violent cooperative shooter where all the players fought a bloody territorial war against a very clever A.I. Loki. The box depicted a giant Norse man with an axe in mid swing; he was about to decapitate a snarling wolf. The game was famous for its dynamic death metal soundtrack which was never the same twice and reacted to the action. It was everything a parent didn’t want their children to play. It sold over eighteen million copies internationally and had made Hanna a rich woman.
Mr. Peterson had flown to Hofvarpnir’s offices in Berlin. He had introduced himself as “a vice president,” and proceeded to give a dry presentation on Hasbro’s current strategy. “Toy sales aren’t flat, but our stock isn’t going to double again like it did in the early 2000s if we only sell plastic to children. We have to adapt to the market and that means video games and IP licenses. Our previous forays into video games have been a bit disappointing, so we’re going to license the IP to people who have a track record for excellence,” he said, with contentless slides in the background.
Lars, the head of business development, sat in the conference room, dreaming of all of Hasbro’s juicy and profitable intellectual properties that they could license. Big brands like G.I. Joe and Transformers! Heck, if they also started making games based off movies based off board games like Battleship and Monopoly...
“So we want to license the My Little Pony franchise to you. It’s one of our most trending brands, and I think you guys could do a lot with it,” said Mr. Peterson. Lars turned to Hanna, the CEO, who looked intrigued. Mr. Peterson grinned. Silence fell across the conference room.
“Are you fucking serious?” Lars said, breaking the silence after he realized Hanna wasn’t going to jump in. “You see that statue in the corner?” He pointed to a a seven foot tall resin model of a blond muscular man. The man’s hair was wild, and his eyes glowed ice blue. He was wielding a giant battleaxe covered with dried blood and wore a wolfskin over his head. “That’s Vali. He’s one of the major characters in The Fall of Asgard, our ESRB M rated, PEGI 18+ rated, banned in Australia video game.” Lars crossed his arms, as if just pointing the man at the statue of Vali was a sufficient rebuke.
“I want to hear what Mr. Peterson has to say,” said Hanna. She flipped an unlit cigarette between her fingers. “Tell us, Mr. Peterson, why My Little Pony?”
Mr. Peterson grinned. “Please, call me Richard. You probably thought, ‘My Little Pony? That show for girls from the 80s?’ The demographic situation is way more complex than that. The first season just finished airing and we signed for a second season to air this fall as soon as we realized we hit this one out of the ballpark. Against all odds, the new My Little Pony reboot has picked up a massive, unmonetized, twenty-something mostly-male demographic along with the traditional little girl market. These men have money! And what do unattached males want?”
“Beer,” said Lars.
“Yes,” nodded Richard Peterson. “Single men want beer. But also video games! Hasbro wants an MMO because of the clear monetization model where we can collect rent on players each month. We have a rabid fanbase of a third of a million people who either post or consume fanart weekly. Worldwide, there are an additional million adult fans who don’t participate in the fandom. And that’s before we get into the original little girl demographic.”
“Asgard will soon break nineteen million copies. One and a half million worldwide is nothing,” groaned Lars.
“In My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” said Richard, “the world is ruled by Princess Celestia, a physical deity who literally raises the sun in the morning. She’s shown to be benevolent and full of love for all of her little ponies. Each week, the little ponies adventure together and learn something about friendship. The ponies' actions are free of malice. I think that’s part of the show’s appeal to the older audiences; humans are bastards to each other. How many game studios are out there making friendly, cooperative games? The space marine thing is getting old, and if you took this IP, which is all about ponies being nice to each other, you would have a unique experience to sell. And any calculation should also throw in monthly subscription revenue on top of retail price.”
“We’re not cloning World of Warcraft,” said Lars firmly. “The MMO market is filled with the corpses of companies that tried to out-Warcraft World of Warcraft.”
“And Hasbro doesn’t want you to clone World of Warcraft, either. Most games that try to take on Warcraft modify the source IP to cram it into the Warcraft model of MMO. We want you to take the My Little Pony universe as is, and then come up with fun, cooperative gameplay, instead of making the ponies raid for epic gear. You wouldn’t be in the same market segment.”
“Let me guess: you choose us because of our procedural content technologies,” mused Hanna.
“Yes! The big costs in MMO development are mostly content generation and you sidestepped that. Asgard featured dynamic terrain generation, dynamic music and dynamic mission generation. Hofvarpnir Studios doesn’t sell experiences, it sells software that makes new experiences each time. You guys have procedurally generated content down to a science.
“But that’s not all!” said Richard, staring directly at Hanna. He opened his briefcase, pulled out a thick stack of papers and slid them across the table to Hanna. “General Word Reference Intelligence Systems. I read all of it except for chapter 4. I’m slightly ashamed to admit I couldn’t follow the math,” he said, giving a slightly embarrassed grin. “This bears minimal resemblance to the AI stuff in Asgard. I wonder why you didn’t use it. So each episode ends with the ponies writing a letter to Princess Celestia and it’d be great if we could have players do that too! You could build a Princess Celest-A.I.!"
The conference room was quiet for a few moments. Lars decided to break the silence. “That’s all great, but you’re asking us to take a lot of risk,” he said. “I’m not convinced that we’d get enough uptake to make it worth our time.”
“We know this project is slightly risky. You screw this up? Fine. We’ve already made more than we were projecting on the franchise reboot. But My Little Pony looks like that one hand you go all in on. It has a sizable, growing fanbase. You wouldn’t have any competitors. You’d have a new revenue model. You play your cards right, and the size of the pot is going to be crazy. Hasbro believes in this brand and we believe in you. We’ll shoulder up to ten million dollars of the development costs upfront, and you’ll only have to start paying that back once you’ve made four million in profit.
“I really believe in the My Little Pony brand. I personally believe that you are going to make something amazing when Hofvarpnir Studios signs this contract,” said Richard firmly. “You have a lot of unique technology here, Hanna. I can’t wait to see how you use it. You have my word that the contract we present to you will have very favorable terms for you.”
The conference room was quiet again. Lars wasn’t looking at anything in particular; his scowl was undirected. Hanna stuck the unlit cigarette in her mouth and stood up. “Mr. Peterson, I need to privately converse with my business associate here. We will be back in a few minutes.”
Lars angrily followed Hanna out the door. Hanna confidently moved down the hallway, and lit up the second she was through the door to her private office. She breathed in, held it, and slowly exhaled.
“Dammit Hanna! Would it kill you to not light up for half-a-fucking-hour? A lot of Americans kind of have a thing against smoking.”
Still standing, she took another pull. “Nicotine is a performance enhancing stimulant. It boosts reaction time, IQ and general memory performance. I need all the help I can get right now.” She gave a small cough. “Too bad about the increased incidence of lung cancer, though. Besides, what do you care? It sounds like you’re strongly against making a My Little Pony video game.”
“I can’t believe you’re seriously considering this,” Lars stated.
Hanna sat down at her desk. “Do you remember the first pass for Loki in Asgard?” She took another deep pull on her cigarette and exhaled. “I remember how we used my general intelligence work, sans self-modification, to power his tactics reasoning. He was too good. Nobody could beat him. We were prepared to launch like that since it conformed to the machismo warrior death bullshit we wanted. And then Loki started asking about the various military programs of the United States and China. We didn’t even have to argue about whether we should pull the plug on him.”
“Hanna,” Lars started.
“We can’t do another violent video game. We won’t be able to ship a safe AI if we make its purpose killing people. Somewhere out there is a US military subcontractor with most of my work, trying to build smart drones. They have no fucking clue what they’re dealing with, and those idiots at the university are accessories to whatever happens if we don’t do something.” Hanna paused again to take another drag. “They’ll kill us all. We could sit here on the side lines, losing our blinds as we sit out each hand and lose everything, or we could take Hasbro’s offer. While it’s not what he meant, this is the hand for me to go all in on.”
“I don’t like this. He’s offering ten million upfront. That’s next to nothing! The original World of Warcraft cost something like sixty million.”
“And unlike Blizzard, we don’t need an army of artists and level designers. Most of our content will be computer generated. I remember having this same discussion with you back when we were developing Asgard. Besides, Hofvarpnir is privately owned--by me--and I will use my fortune as I see fit.”
“He’s hiding something from us. He is up to something.”
“Perhaps,” she said after another puff. “But I can’t ignore opportunities. How often do you think someone will come to us asking for a prosocial video game? We can take this opportunity or we can turn it down, but the US Department of Defense will continue their research...my research.”
“What if you’re wrong that some weapons company is toying with your artificial intelligence designs?” asked Lars. “What if you’re wrong about the possibility of an A.I. becoming smarter than us? Wrong about everything?”
“I’m not a unique and beautiful snowflake; some other researcher will continue my work.” Hanna took another pull from her cigarette. “You saw Loki. Just from talking to the playtesters, he figured out that he was in a virtual world and figured out who the main world powers were. He was designed from the beginning to conquer. Even if he couldn’t modify himself, he would have been a serious menace to humanity if he could command resources in the real world. And I was told point blank that my research would be used for military applications...and then told who exactly had been funding my research. Lying to me wasn’t in their best interest, so it’s likely the truth.”
“But there’s still a chance. They could have lied to you, and you could be wrong about how dangerous AI is.”
“I started taking...” Hanna stopped and contemplated the burning cigarette in her hand. “...performance enhancing drugs with long term health consequences because I think it’s more likely that I’ll be around in twenty years if I do take them. I’m putting more than my money on the line here, Lars.”
She knocked ash off her cigarette into the ash tray. “We don’t have perfect information. We can’t wait for perfect information. There is uncertainty and we must make decisions with the information we have, even if it’s incomplete. If I’m wrong, this is still going to be a profitable venture for us just because of the terms we’re being offered.”
“Opportunity cost,” said Lars.
She ignored him. “And if I'm right, we're going to literally save the world, Lars. Besides, if some VP can see that I was publishing about general AI, so could pretty much anyone,” she said as she exhaled more smoke.
“I know you had your eye on the Transformers rights. And I’m sorry that we’ve been handed part of my childhood and not yours. But this is an opportunity for you, too! You are building a business relationship with the company who owns the IP you love. By completing this contract successfully, they are more likely to give us more work with other properties.”
Lars looked at her. She was exhaling a puff of smoke and he suppressed the urge to cough. “If he sneaks any shit into the contract and you still take it, I am walking. I don’t trust him, Hanna. I can’t place my finger on why. But...sure. You’re the boss and I know I can’t talk you out of this.”