Ubisoft's personal gaming assistant, previously only available in Canada, is now out worldwide. Its name is Sam, a nod to Sam Fisher of Splinter Cell fame, although Michael Ironside doesn't do the voice (sorry, Stephen). Embedded in the Ubisoft Club app, Sam sounds like any other AI that might reside on your phone, although instead of giving you directions to the nearest coffee shop it tells you about Ubisoft video games.
Still in beta, Sam is by no means a revolution in companion apps for gaming, but it does offer an interesting example of what a virtual assistant for gaming might offer.
"When is Watch Dogs 3 out?" That's the first thing I asked Sam. A video on YouTube that circulated back in April purported to show Sam saying that the game was in development and coming along nicely. Ubisoft hasn't officially acknowledged another sequel to the open world hacking series yet, and people took Sam's response as an intentional Easter egg of sorts.
The latest version of the app is just as tight-lipped as its publisher.
"Wait a minute... are you trying to trick me into saying something I shouldn't say?" Sam responded. "I may be in Beta but not that easy to fool."
Sam very much is still in beta, with a limited number of queries it can successfully interpret and not a ton of interesting information to offer up. Since it's currently only integrated with Rainbow Six Siege, it can refer you to YouTube videos with tips for increasing your kill/death ratio or show you what maps you have the worst performance on, but not who your best character is in For Honour or what rare guns you're missing in The Division (Ubisoft plans to include other games in the future as development progresses).
When I asked Sam how many items I had unlocked in For Honour, it apologised for not being able to answer the question and instead encouraged me to ask it how its life was. Pretty good, it turns out. Sam said that while it was talking to me it was also answering a question from a woman in Nebraska about whether her six-year-old niece should play Far Cry 5. "What did you tell her?" I asked.
"Food, music, clothes, animals...I'm focused on gaming you know? That's my real passion," said Sam. It turns out this Nebraska woman isn't real. Ask Sam how life is and it will reference her more often than not. But her question seemed like the kind of thing that would actually be useful for a parent thumbing through games at the store.
I tried again, this time asking more explicitly whether a six-year-old could play Far Cry 5. Sam replied that Ubisoft produces some games with mature content and to check the front of the box for the ESRB rating. At times like these, Sam feels more akin to a movie phone service than a modern AI.
Sam has a lot of colourful responses, many of which it offers up in response to unrelated questions. When I asked how long it takes to beat Assassin's Creed Origins, Sam told me to avoid the game's Phylake enemies. "If you ever see one that's a higher level than you are, don't act proud and strong and smart and try to overthrow them. They are deadly!"
To its credit, Sam often comes through on a second or third try:
"Yeah, but how long does the game take to beat?"
"It truly depends on how much of a completionist you are. In all cases, most Ubisoft games can delivery several dozen hours of gameplay."
It only takes a few minutes of messing around with Sam to reveal its current fatal flaw: it sounds like it was programmed by the marketing department. I love the idea of a personal assistant AI that helps me make use of all the data I generate playing games.
It would be great if instead of spending hours consulting Reddit, YouTube, or game wikis I could simply ask an app how I can find a particular weapon in the latest Assassin's Creed game, or even better, what the fastest way to farm gold would be. While Sam is a ways off from that sort of capability, it's an important step.
But right now, gaming companies' notorious penchant for secrecy and message control might mean the technology remains primarily in the service of hype generation. After starting up Rainbow Six Siege last night Sam sent my phone a push notification to remind me to complete the "Memorial Day" challenge to unlock a Patriot Eagle charm.
While the promise of the app lies in it effectively becoming like a virtual gaming coach like Valve's Dota Plus subscription service, it currently seems to have more in common with Ubisoft's social media feeds, working to steer you toward various promotional activities and increasing your Ubisoft Club points.
Companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon all have their own corporate agendas, but as platforms for other people's content and stuff, achieving this goal often requires some modicum of objectivity.
In theory, these tech companies' success depends on getting their users as much useful information as quickly as possible. The Echo doesn't care what games you buy as long as you get them through Amazon. As a virtual representative for all things Ubisoft, Sam doesn't have that luxury.
While Sam can potentially give you insights into all the data the company collects from you when you play online, it's much more guarded when it comes to anything more open-ended. When I asked Sam what Far Cry 5 was about, it told me that winning the game required raising a Resistance Meter and that I could accomplish that objective a number of ways.
Then it linked me to an IGN "First Look" video promoting the game's new features. What does Sam think about loot boxes? "I do have some concerns about how this has been implanted lately in some games, especially if it becomes an obstacle to progress." Sam then linked me to a Forbes article explaining how Assassin's Creed Origins gets microtransactions right which made Sam "feel better about how Ubisoft handles it."
The AI clearly knows which side its bread is buttered on.