I first encountered Anything World at the Game Developers Conference back in March, and I’d never seen anything quite like it. With the company’s software hooked into the Unity game engine, I could tell it what I wanted to see and it would do its best to make it happen. I told it to make me a donkey, and a donkey appeared on the screen and started trotting around.
My donkey trotted a little more like a horse than a donkey, but that little detail didn’t stop the software from leaving an impression. The animations had been created on the fly: Anything World’s software algorithmically decided where the creature’s bones should go and how it should behave. I later saw a similar demo from Meta (opens in new tab) that wasn’t as good: Mark Zuckerberg spoke and made some unmoving clouds appear, whereas Anything World’s software makes dolphins swim around like dolphins, which is a lot cooler.
Earlier this week, Anything World launched its machine learning-powered animation software to the public, with a free tier for educational and personal use (opens in new tab). The company also announced that Unreal Engine support is coming in December—it currently offers the Unity integration I saw—and that it has just raised $7.5 million in new funding.
On Tuesday, I spoke to Anything World CEO Gordon Midwood about what gamers can expect from the software in the future. One obvious use for on-the-fly, algorithmic animation is just to put it into the hands of players, allowing them to grab 3D models from a giant library—the company uses sources like Google Sketchfab for free models—plop them into a world, and see them animated in a natural way. (Or, at least, as naturally as the system can manage. The first time they gave it a pineapple, the software turned it upside down and made it skitter around on its leaves like a spider. It has improved since then.)
Anything World’s software is also being pitched as a professional game development tool. Ubisoft already uses it for prototyping, and Midwood says it’s also helpful for quickly rigging 3D models (defining their bones and joints) and generating animations that can later be tweaked by hand.
The version of Anything World that’s just been released can rig and animate vehicles and quadrupeds, but Midwood says the company will soon start adding new categories: humans and other bipeds, swimmers, insects, and so on. Another existing tool that automates rigging for human characters is Mixamo (opens in new tab), and Midwood wants Anything World to compete in that area by the middle of next year. Also next year, he says the company will introduce an upload tool which allows users to run their own 3D models through the automated rigging and animation algorithm, not just those in Anything World’s database.
Making awkward donkeys poof into existence feels very benign (I’m reminded a little of that old Nintendo DS game, Scribblenauts (opens in new tab)), and that cuteness perhaps belies Anything World’s place among some of the most controversial trends in games and tech right now. Some of the company’s recent investment money has come from blockchain and “metaverse” interests: companies which think this kind of easy-to-use 3D world creation tool is going to be big for the virtual worlds of the future. The tool is also being developed at the same time as AI image generation tools like Dall-E, which have been called unethical by some critics (see Kotaku back in August, for example). AI voice acting is another fraught field of machine learning research going on right now.
Regarding its use of machine learning, Midwood doesn’t expect Anything World to be grouped in with image generators, mainly for the reason that animation automation in games isn’t nearly as novel as AI illustration. It’s already normal for game animation to be created with code, blending poses together algorithmically and using physics to create behaviors. In a 2017 GDC talk (opens in new tab), for example, indie developer David Rosen talked about how he used algorithmic animation in Overgrowth.
“Companies like Ubisoft, Activision use AI to generate some of the animation for their main characters, for their human characters, and then they finesse that by hand,” said Midwood. “So that combination of AI and human power, I think, is a good one. I don’t think people are going to be replaced. I think it lowers the barrier [to creating 3D worlds].”
Another reason Midwood thinks Anything World will be well-received as game development middleware is that rigging models is not the average 3D animator’s favorite part of the job—it’s the boring part. And when it comes to controversies around “the metaverse,” Midwood says the company “sees potential for web3 in gaming” but doesn’t have plans to start minting NFTs itself.
“We’re not in the business of speculation, or generating NFTs, or trading, or pay-to-play, or any of that stuff,” said Midwood, “but we don’t really discriminate, so if you want to make that kind of stuff with [our software] you can.”
Aside from supporting other developers as middleware, Anything World wants to use its software for its own consumer products, including a Twitch extension. If you ask me, Microsoft should commission the company to make a new version of 3D Movie Maker—except it has to be just as weird as the original, somehow.