Inverse Interview

Google Never Left Video Games

Google Cloud director of games Jack Buser reveals how the company plans to win gaming with cloud servers and AI.

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The Inverse Interview

Imagine Baldur’s Gate 3, except the millions of dialogue lines and outcomes are generated by AI aided by humans. Google’s cloud department is exploring the idea of living games, that video games could respond to player input in the moment, and spin off in a million directions that even the game developers may not entirely foresee.

Jack Buser, the director for games at Google Cloud, is hard at work bringing that vision to life.

“Let’s say you’re building an avatar or you’re going to a shop in a medieval town, you’re like, I like that sword but I wanted it to be purple and have a big diamond at the hilt,” Buser tells Inverse. “It could just generate that even though no human had ever created that asset. The game itself could go, ‘Yep, I’ll do that for you if that’s what you want.’”

“The opportunity just far outweighs any sort of criticism we're seeing.”

This may sound harmless, or even cool, but AI could also disrupt an already volatile job market, replacing human video game developers or reducing them to “prompt engineers.” It’s a dystopian vision of gaming that not every developer can get behind. But Buser, formerly of Google Stadia and PlayStation, believes AI has the potential to be the most exciting thing to happen to the industry in years.

“If all we're ever doing is creating higher and higher fidelity graphics, people are gonna get bored,” he says. “They need new types of gameplay modalities, they need things that surprise and delight them that they haven't seen before. We haven't had anything like this for quite some time.”

Buser confirmed that his team has worked with the teams at Google on Bard and AI research, describing it as “all the time.”


Buser, who confirms says his team works with Google’s Bard and AI divisions “all the time,” likens AI to the advent of CD-ROMs or three-dimensional graphics. “Very soon, the game itself will be able to immediately respond to the needs of the players without even a human in the loop. The game will know what the player wants and be able to create that on the fly and just generate it. We’re already seeing some early signs of that.”

We’re still not there yet. Several tech companies are working on AI-powered non-playable characters for video games (bots that human players can chat with ad infinitum without cycling through the same handful of dialogue options). The tech demos I’ve tried of generative AI still involve a lot of human input upfront, and the end products don’t really work without humans. The example I saw in March from Nvidia required teams of humans to create profiles for these NPCs, akin to the role that human prompt engineers play with ChatGPT. AI, in its current form, still relies heavily on humans.

Almost a third of more than 3,000 game developers said they already use AI at work, according to a survey from the Game Developers Conference. Narrative designers were less likely than business and marketing employees to use the technology.

AI companies are also facing several ongoing lawsuits from media companies, artists, and more alleging copyright infringement.

“Of course, there is controversy,” Buser says. “The opportunity just far outweighs any sort of criticism we're seeing.”

Then again, this isn’t the first time Google has tried its hand at cutting-edge technology, with mixed results.

The (Rapid) Rise and Fall of Google Stadia

“It's a shame it's not still with us today.”

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Buser was the 10th employee hired to work on Google Stadia, the company’s failed attempt at a video game streaming platform complete with first-party hardware and exclusive titles. (He previously worked at PlayStation for eight years focusing on subscriptions.)

We got the first games up and running on a platform that was held together with masking tape and Elmer’s glue in those early days,” Buser says. “It's a shame it's not still with us today.”

Buser leads gaming for Google’s cloud division, which includes the ill-fated Google Stadia project.

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Buser says the lesson Google learned from working on Stadia is that it’s better not to compete against established console makers. Sony, Nintendo, and Xbox’s percentage of market share held relatively steady in 2022 and 2021, dominating almost 100 percent of the console market, with little room for additional rivals.

“With Stadia, we had a platform that was competitive to other game platforms. Like ‘What are you guys doing over there?’” Buser says, imitating the reaction that other companies had toward Stadia.

But while Google Cloud’s current ambitions in gaming might feel scaled back, the company has the potential to transform the entire industry, rather than just its own little corner.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

While it’s tough to change pre-existing consumer habits, Google’s aiming for what people are already comfortable doing — playing popular live games on massive servers, supported by the cloud.

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Growth in the video games business has slowed since the post-2020 years when it saw a sizable boost from people staying at home. Last year, five established games — Fortnite, Roblox, League of Legends, Minecraft, and GTA:V — commanded 27 percent of all playtime last year.

While it’s tough to change pre-existing consumer habits, Google’s aiming for what people are already comfortable doing — playing popular live games on massive servers, supported by the cloud.

He points out that the video game industry is heavily engineering focused and sometimes inefficient. Developers often build their own tools from scratch. “The game development community has long been famous for reinventing the wheel.”

“Our company is at its best when it’s helping developers and platforms do their thing.”

This approach has the potential to fail, as was the case years ago when EA’s game engine, Frostbite, was reportedly plagued with issues that contributed to the big-budget shooter Anthem ultimately getting canned.

This is exactly where Google hopes to fit in. The company’s cloud services can empower other developers to create online games (possibly with powerful AI features) without needing to invest in their own infrastructure. And as an added bonus, if the servers happen to go down, gamers will blame Google, and not the video game studio.

After failing to break into making consoles on its own terms, Google and Jack Buser have both come to realize how they can best serve the industry.

“Our company is at its best when it’s helping developers and platforms do their thing,” Buser says. “So rather than try to compete with them, enable them. Give them the keys to the castle and have them do their thing. That’s where our company really shines in the games industry.”

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