In the mid ‘80s, Eugene Joseph founded a company called Virtual Prototypes, where he helped develop graphical design tools for the aerospace industry. In 1999, Joseph was inducted into the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Laureate Hall of Fame for his innovations in aerospace prototyping. But after spending nearly a decade and a half ­developing flight simulators and war-gaming products for corporations like Lockheed Martin and Northrop, Joseph pursued his passion for designing robotic systems of a different sort.

In 2001, Joseph founded North Side Inc., and the company immediately began designing systems that they hoped would some day be able to flawlessly read and speak human language. Around the same time, Joseph caught the writing bug and coughed up the first draft of an industrial espionage thriller set on a pacific island full of advanced, human-like robots. Joseph knew that his book wasn’t just a novel, it was the first stage of what would become Bot Colony – an episodic video game series that would use the advanced natural language comprehension software that his team at North Side was developing to ultimately allow players to converse freely with video game characters like they were real people.

[Note: This feature originally appeared in issue 247 of Game Informer magazine]

A Game Of Words
By 2021, the world’s overpopulation and rising poverty line have contributed to a global shortage of natural resources and produce. As global markets fall into disarray, Japan’s Nakagawa Corp. emerges with a series of technological breakthroughs and starts supplying governments and corporations with advanced, multi-purpose worker robots.

Nakagawa sets up an advanced complex of urban and industrial buildings on the uninhabited Mariana Island of Agrihan. Dubbed Bot Colony, this facility is designed to further the corporation’s research on advanced A.I. and robotics. The plant is completely isolated from the outside world. Unexpectedly, three of Nakagawa’s most advanced robotics sensors go missing. Is the disappearance of these three sensors just another case of white-collar crime, or is it an ominous sign of a greater threat?

Taking on the role of a specialist in robot cognition, players are tasked with discovering the truth behind Bot Colony’s missing sensors. In traditional adventure game style, players traverse across the island of Bot Colony as they converse with NPC worker robots and solve simple puzzles. But that’s just the rough outline of the experience; North Side has spent over a decade on the technology at the heart of Bot Colony in hopes that players spend less time playing its game and more time talking to it.

To Understand the World
When conversing with these bots, players aren’t picking prescripted sentences from a list of stock questions. A central aspect of Bot Colony’s gameplay is that players can think of their own questions and freely dialogue with the island’s robotic inhabitants however they wish. North Side’s major innovation is its series of algorithms that read and understand natural human language. This means that players have to acquire the information they need for their investigation without a script.

Could this game teach people to talk?

“North Side’s natural language comprehension software has a number of real-world applications. First and foremost, North Side believes that Bot Colony can be used as a learning tool. “This is also a fun way to practice language if English isn’t your native tongue,” says North Side founder and CEO Eugene Joseph. “We have over 7,000 people from 176 countries in our database who have all signed up for the beta just to practice their English. We’re hopeful that this won’t be just a game, but a fun way for them to improve their lives.”

“Voice recognition is only part of the problem,” Joseph says. “There are plenty of voice recognition tools that listen to a voice and output text. But actually understanding that text is huge, because it means you understand language. That’s why we’ve been working on this for 12 years, and why we’ve spent $15 million on this. To understand language you need to understand the world.”

In the past, programmers have encountered a daunting challenged when designing computers that converse in human-like ways. Machines have trouble parsing human language. When a player says the word “light” are they talking about the weight of an object in their inventory, or are they talking about the luminosity of the environment around them? If a word has multiple uses, people are able to understand its meaning based on the context of its sentence, but linear thinking machines struggle to accomplish the same feat.

Using some advanced server-side computations, North Side believes it has finally cracked the code for machine parsing. Using North Side’s massive language database, Bot Colony’s NPCs can break a sentence into its constituent parts, separate the nouns from the pronouns, and decipher its subject, verb, and predicate. Even if a player says a sentence in Yoda speak, such as, “Any robotic sensors around here, have you seen?” Bot Colony’s robots can understand the basic idea behind the question.

Speaking Out
Bot Colony isn’t a traditional video game, but North Side isn’t a traditional video game studio. That leaves us with a number of unanswered questions. Does a technology company with a focus on linguistics know how to design an entertaining video game? Will an episodic experience largely designed around naturally conversing with NPCs quickly grow mundane? Or will the novelty of freely conversing with robots like a junior P.I. prove compelling enough to keep gamers coming back?

North Side is banking on the idea that consumers will find its natural language system so captivating that they’ll return to Bot Colony every other month to see how the narrative unravels. The company recently announced a monthly subscription plan starting at $2.95, and it hopes to release the first two episodes of Bot Colony this fall (the open beta may release shortly after this magazine), and recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to continue development of episode three. North Side’s technology certainly sounds compelling, but we’ll have to wait to get our hands on the game to discover if North Side has convinced us to trade in our conversation wheels for microphones.

UPDATE: Since this article ran in the magazine, North Side released their Kickstarter project, and it was unsuccessful. North Side has said that they will not be able to continue the development of the game unless they find additional funding. However, the Steam Greenlight community greenlit Bot Colony back in November, and North Side is currently working to make the available on Steam Early Access within a week or two. North Side has been additionally inspired by the Alpha-funding model of games indie like Minecraft, the company have started to release their Alpha builds to fans of the series. If you're interested in checking out the game and seeing how this experiment evolves (or dies) check out North Side downloads page.