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Activision Bets on AI Video Game Coaching to Drive Success

Activision’s bid to use artificial intelligence, machine learning and Amazon’s smart speakers to make people better video game players only supports “Call of Duty: WWII” right now, but the pilot program will be expanding.

“Right now, this is focused on ‘Call of Duty’ and we launch a new [‘Call of Duty’] game every year. So this is an incredible opportunity and testing ground,” Activision Publishing chief marketing officer Tim Ellis told Variety.

He added that the Amazon Echo-powered free service will support “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.” And gameplay coaching coming to the Alexa Skill for “Destiny 2” isn’t off the table either.

The idea of creating an Alexa skill that plugs into Activision games — first “Destiny 2” and now “Call of Duty: WWII” — was the brainchild of Ellis and an internal group at Activision called Marketing Tech. And that was was sparked by a shift in the sorts of games Activision was working on.

“Several years ago we really switched from more theatrical entertainment launches, where we sell a disc in a box once a year to a more engaging model,” he said. “At least half of our job, if not more, is about keeping players engaged and happy after launch.”

That happiness in turn drives deeper engagement, which in turn leads to longer playing sessions and more gamers who become evangelists for a title or a brand.

That shift also lead to a decision to bring the tech group into marketing so they could work more closely with that side of the business. The sole purpose, Ellis said, was to enhance the experiences inside games and find better ways to communicate with players.

Ellis said that a couple of years ago, the group was meeting with key partners and he brought up the idea of “having a coach” on his shoulder as he played a game. Something that could, in real-time, help him be a better player and improve his performance as he played.

“They said it was potentially possible,” he said. “It took a year and a half of developing ideas and working with different partners. Eventually they determined that the best partner was Amazon and the Alexa Skill.”

Alexa Skills can be created by companies and developers outside of Amazon to leverage unique technology or data and Amazon’s own talking speakers. But before Activision launched its first Amazon Skill, it played around with other types of technology, like using Snapchat or Messenger to help promote and tease the coming of new “Call of Duty” games.

Last November, Activision tried its first hand at an Alexa Skill, rolling out one for “Destiny 2” alongside a physical Ghost drawn from the game. The Alexa-powered Ghost, considered by Amazon to be a gadget, was essentially a fancy bluetooth speaker that linked to an Alexa smart speaker. It allowed players to ask facts about the Destiny 2 universe, find out what missions to take on, manager weapons, connect with friends and more. But it didn’t offer any sort of help with gameplay tactics.

The “Call of Duty: WWII” Skill employs cluster analysis to compare your Skill and playstyle against its own massive database of gameplay from the title. It looks at 20 different factors include the mode you’re playing, the map you’re on, the division, load-out, equipment, perks of a player. It can even track your actual movement across a map to look for strategic flaws and look at how precise your aim is and how successful you are on the battlefield. And then it takes all of that and sees how you compare to those other players. Finally, it delivers insight into what you can do to be a better player.

“From a data perspective, it’s an incredible opportunity to understand and leverage data,” Ellis said. “We know every bullet fired, every weapon used, the loadouts where everybody is in the game.”

Perhaps more importantly, it will continue to get smarter and better at offering advice as you use it. “Essentially this skill identifies what you’re doing inside the game positive and negative and compares with other players who are better than you,” Ellis said. “Then it gives you direct insight into how to become a better player. This is amazing for beginners, but also incredible for intermediate or advanced player.”

All of this effort into making their players better at Call of Duty begs an obvious question: Why does Activision care if someone who already bought the game is any good at it?

“We care because we have very clear evidence that the better you play the longer you stay,” Ellis said. “It enhances the amount of time you spend in your game. It encourages players to invite other to play with them and longer play better directly leads to playing in groups, which encourages even longer play and higher level of play.”

That increases the long tail of the game, getting players to not trade it in or move on to another game. Long play session might also lead to more in-game spending, though Ellis said that the Skill will not make any suggestions for items a player has to purchase.

In-app purchases “is something we have not considered at this point,” he said. “This is such a big, exciting opportunity that we really want to focus entirely on helping players focus on their own gameplay and connecting.”

Initially the skill, which is live in beta right now, is being treated as a pilot program, Ellis said. “We’re going to be studying how players improve, whether they improve. We’re going to be talking to players and asking what they enjoy the most, what benefit it is to them, what encourages them to play longer.

As for the “Destiny 2” Skill, Ellis said the company will continue to iterate on it as well. The company views it as an incredible success, he said.

“Players kept coming back and using this Skill which is not always the case,” he said.  “We will continue to evolve the ‘Destiny 2’ Skill with learning from the ‘Call of Duty: WW II’ Skill.”

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