Technology and the capabilities of it within video games have been constantly evolving for decades now. The relentless pursuit of top games to be close to reality has blurred the lines between fantasy and the real world. Whether it be graphics, sound, or the feel of the game, each generation in console brings a new level to the presentation of video games.
Something that doesn't get talked about as much these days is the artificial intelligence in games, which has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. An announcement by Sony AI and Polyphony this week has shown that there is now a new racing AI that is faster than even the quickest esports racers.
We believe this will revolutionise racing games in the coming years, but how exactly will it do this? And what do we know so far? Here's our take!
Meet Sony's Sophy
Sony AI is a relatively new company that was set up just under two years ago. Sony AI's goal is "to pursue groundbreaking research in AI and robotics in the realm of entertainment". So, it made sense that they partnered with the developers of Gran Turismo, Polyphony, to see what they could achieve in a video game.
The fruits of their labour have already produced something to be proud of in Sophy. Sophy is an AI that can race cars faster than the fastest GT esports players on the planet.
Now, you may think that this isn't such a big deal, after all, Sophy is computer-controlled, it can be programmed to go as fast or as slow as the designer wishes. However, there's much more to being fast than setting a certain lap time, you need to be fast in the right places and drive like a human player.
To test Sophy out, Sony AI and Polyphony put it up against some of the fastest GT players in the world. The result? It beat all of them.
AI vs esports gamers
We've already wrote about how GT7 could be the best GT game ever and we think that it will be, but the genesis of Sophy has much grander implications than that. Depending upon the game, most or at least some players will be able to beat the even the AI on their fastest settings.
Even critically-acclaimed games such as F1 2021, which has brilliant AI, can be beaten all ends up by esports champions like Jarno Opmeer. To our knowledge, there is currently no AI that is pretty much unbeatable in a racing game. This is even more impressive when you consider the level of detail that a top racing AI requires to be this quick.
First-person shooters, for example, are a lot simpler in what they need to be better than the esports players. Essentially, those AI need to be able to aim for the head and shoot, that's it. Do that quicker than a human player's reaction time and it's unbeatable.
Having data from Formula 1 world champions Sir Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel also helps the speed of Sophy. Both legends have done features for GT games in the past, so Sony have made full use of this information.
For a racing AI though, there's so much to consider. For a start, every circuit is different, every kerb, every pit-lane, ever corner, it's all completely unique. Every car is different, every type of tyre, different brakes, suspension, etc... That's all before you throw in external factors like weather and fuel load as well.
How Sophy can revolutionise racing gaming
The potential of Sophy is massive, there's no getting away from it. But perhaps most crucially of all, these AIs need to race, not just drive. They need to overtake, battle, use the slipstream, all things that don't always make logical sense to a computer.
Sony have recongised this, as they've used a training algorithm called “Quantile-Regression Soft Actor-Critic (QR-SAC)” to encode the rules of racing in a way that it could understand what Sophy was supposed to do. Car control, racing tactics, and racing etiquette were the three areas identified for Sophy to focus on.
That's what is arguably most impressive about Sophy, because the esports players are full of praise for how fun, challenging and convincing racing against it is. Igor Fraga summed it up well in his time racing against Sophy:
"We don't have the same reaction time, we don't have the same precision, it gets very hard to do the same thing and they can react very, very quickly."
From a sales perspective as well, Sophy is years ahead of what the competition has in terms of AI development. Unless series like Forza have also been developing their own system, GT will be decades ahead of its rivals in this regard.
Will Sophy be in GT7?
Despite the timing of the announcement, we can say with confidence that Sophy won't be making an appearance in GT7 at launch. Sophy is still a work in progress and isn't ready to be rolled out to the wider public. It's one thing to deploy it against a few elite drivers, but another to do so on millions of save files.
Plus, GT7 is not only being released on PS5, but PS4 too, so whether the old-gen system could handle Sophy isn't clear. However, Sony have confirmed that Sophy will be available by a future update of GT7. Although, that could be easily years down the line.
The ultimate aim of Sophy isn't to beat human players though, it's already achieved that. Sophy, as Kazunori Yamauchi put it, will be "a friend, a comrade, or a buddy. We want players to learn together and grow together with Sophy."
By creating an AI that is indistinguishable from a human player, GT can teach its players to race better and more effectively than ever before. Sophy at its fastest is quicker than any human player, but can in theory make the quickest drivers even faster. In short, it will raise the bar of what we thought possible in a racing game.
If you want to learn more about how Sony made Sophy, Sony AI uploaded this to their YouTube channel: