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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new Facebook cloud game mixes Telltale writing and reality TV. Users will decide the story.

(The Washington Post; Facebook)
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Just weeks into Facebook’s debut into the cloud gaming market, it has its first “exclusive” title that’s a perfect fit for Facebook users: a reality show that lives completely in the cloud.

Coming Wednesday, “Rival Peak" is a Facebook Watch program in which artificial intelligence-driven “contestants” will live, work and exist for every minute of the day within the fictional region of Rival Peak, a mountainous forest region that emulates the Pacific Northwest. With a diverse cast of internationally-based characters, Facebook users will decide what each contestant of the show will do in the game, how they behave, and who will basically be “voted out” by the end of every week of its 12-week run.

The game/show is being developed by Pipeworks Studios and Genvid Technologies, including former staff of the beloved-but-shuttered Telltale Games, who created some of the strongest narrative adventure games of the century, including “The Walking Dead.” So think of it like a mix of a Telltale adventure game with branching stories for each of its 12 characters, with reality shows like “Survivor" and “Big Brother.” “Rival Peak” also hides a mystery that’s going to be revealed at the end of its run, but otherwise the audience determines the fate of the cast.

“We are the creators of the show and we have no idea how it will end,” Jacob Navok, cofounder and CEO of Genvid Technologies, tells The Washington Post. “And every single week, we have to change the dialogue, change the weekly wrap-up show. It’s really being built week to week as the audience is collectively deciding what’s going to happen. The storyline that the community decides on is the canonical storyline."

Remember at the end of Telltale’s chapters, where the game would tell you what percentage of players made the same decisions you did? That’s basically the entire conceit of “Rival Peak,” where the entire playerbase would instead decide a characters’ fate. It’s like the “Twitch Plays” phenomenon from years ago, where Twitch chat would determine a Pokemon trainer’s actions.

The show controls just like a mobile or adventure game would, with taps and clicks to determine dialogue choices or character actions. The rest of the time is spent simply observing your character do the things the community asked it to do, or performing its own stories and actions depending on what else is happening. Since it works on the Facebook mobile app, the game could conceivably be an interesting second-screen experience, having the show running as you watch or do other things at home.

Facebook had been expecting social-first gaming to debut on its new cloud gaming platform. The social network’s vice president of play, Jason Rubin, a former co-founder of Naughty Dog, hinted in October about the possibility of games that could really only work with a social platform as robust and large as Facebook. “Rival Peak” appears to be the first such effort. The graphics are simple, but in line with what Facebook hopes to target with low-latency cloud gaming, where Internet bandwidth won’t be an issue like it would for games demanding precise movement and timed actions.

The game is “the result of the world’s biggest social media platform leveraging our proprietary AI and simulation systems ... and recruiting some of Hollywood’s best narrative writers to create a massive “live theater” experiment in just six months,” said Hal Milton, Pipeworks Studios design director. “We’re super proud of creating something entirely different, and excited to see how it’s received by Facebook folks worldwide.”

Navok said the game is absolutely going for Facebook’s global market, like India’s estimated 300 million users, but also wants to play into other social ecosystems, like fandoms rallying around a particular character. Each character will also have a playlist of original music to “chill" to, similar to the “chill hop to study to” livestreams of music that’s become popular over the years. Navok also hopes to see fan “wrapup” coverage of the game’s events, particularly since they only happen live. If you’re not online to watch it, you’ll miss it.

Navok also touts “Rival Peak” as the first true cloud game, as all the AI instances and streaming comes from the same data center.

“Unlike other cloud experiences, it’s functioning everywhere in the world,” Navok said of the global tests. “No rollout. No concerns about latency. No huge bandwidth. It just runs on Facebook.”

This may also be the first preview of what future entertainment efforts could entail. Already, virtual pop stars and idols are being created by computers to stoke fandom and push more content. Navok says he can easily imagine a show with a cast of characters rendered realistically using more advance graphics engines.

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“This one was built from the ground up for Facebook, which is to say, we thought of the Facebook audience,” Navok said. “We thought about what kind of interactions they like. But future iterations of this could go way deeper in interactivity. It’s just in this case, it was the design of an interactive television show."

Navok was also interviewed by The Post last summer about the promise of the Metaverse, the next iteration of the Internet that would feature robust virtual worlds with actual economies and life processes. To him, “Rival Peak” is another block towards building that Metaverse.

“There are 2 billion users on Facebook, but there is only one ‘Rival Peak’ world,” Navok said. “And if those millions start telling AI what to do in a single world, if that’s not the closest thing to the Metaverse we can experience, I don’t know what is.”

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