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King’s head of AI/ML Luka Crnkovic-Friis: "The changes are immense, fundamental, and very hard to predict"

Luka Crnkovic-Friis’ work in AI has been utilised by Harvard, NASA, and now it's behind the scenes at King
King’s head of AI/ML Luka Crnkovic-Friis:
  • King’s head of AI and machine learning Luka Crnkovic-Friis started his own AI company in 2004, later sold to Activision Blizzard King in 2022
  • We found out how King is balancing bots, creativity, and the human touch

Our visit to King’s headquarters in Sweden this year delivered a wealth of fascinating discussions around the direction of travel for every game from Candy Crush Soda to Farm Heroes Saga, and of course the original Candy Crush Saga too.

With AI a pervasive theme among them, and in modern game development more broadly, we sat down with King’s head of AI and machine learning Luka Crnkovic-Friis to learn all about King’s implementation of this tech across its catalogue, including how players are responding to AI, and where machine learning might go next.

One of Sweden’s most established AI creators, Crnkovic-Friis’ work in AI is present not only in products by King but by NASA and Harvard too. And convinced that artificial intelligence would itself become "the next industrial revolution", he co-founded his own AI company Peltarion in 2004, which was acquired by Activison Blizzard King in 2022.

Now that AI bots are playtesting Candy Crush levels with Kingsters (King employees) and helping to inspire artists, we found out how exactly King is balancing bots, creativity, and the human touch. How long have you been working with AI? Where did your enthusiasm for this technology come from?

Luka Crnkovic-Friis: Well, let's see… Professionally, since 2005, so that would be 19 years. But actually, my interest was earlier than that. I was at university when I found out about these cool things called AI and neural networks, and I was fascinated by the idea of not having to programme a computer for it to do something, but that it could learn to do something.

Tell us more about your work at King...

So I lead the AI/ML organisation at King, which is a central, top-level organisation that has the goal of essentially making AI a core technology across King. We have a team that solves machine learning use cases, we have AI labs, a research team, an enabling team, and so on.

We support the game teams in, essentially, getting AI into every feature. And more recently - like for the past year or so - we’ve also been providing AI-powered tools to everyone across King.

“What Microsoft does, is it opens up opportunities towards the future.”
Luka Crnkovic-Friis, King

And what does your average day look like?

I think it's interesting because I get to interact with very different parts of King and also in the wider Microsoft sphere - and with other game studios within Microsoft. I get to talk to artists, developers, and managers of different organisations about AI and guide them towards getting that technology there.

And then it's lots of looking at specific use cases and so on, with my teams, and looking at what they’re doing.

You mentioned Microsoft there. Has much changed since Microsoft acquired King's parent company Activision Blizzard? In terms of what you can do with AI?

Yes and no. I would say that day to day, what we are doing is pretty much the same, and the biggest value of AI when it comes to King comes from applying it to our own data. What Microsoft does, is it opens up opportunities towards the future.

We also have a collaboration with OpenAI and that gives us interesting pointers towards the direction on sort of "next-generation" things that we're working on and studying, and that they're working on and studying.

There are some concerns in the games industry and beyond that AI will replace workers, including developers. Do you share those concerns?

So, looking at the long term, there's definitely going to be an impact on society in all its various forms, including jobs.

The way that we look at it at King is that we want to use the technology - and we are using the technology - to supercharge the Kingsters that that we have. So, making our people more effective and doing more meaningful stuff.

Generative AI’s popularity amongst developers rose immensely last year. Has this impacted King’s approach to AI or were you already ahead of the curb, so to speak? How much is the tech being used at King?

“Looking at the long term, there's definitely going to be an impact on society in all its various forms, including jobs.”
Luka Crnkovic-Friis, King

We were already using AI, but I think its rising popularity has helped in terms of general awareness and interest. It's come more to the front of people’s minds.

We are using AI for ideation today - generating ideas for artists - but as far as actual use in art production, it's a very evolving field. There’s a lack of clarity in the legal situation, in the copyright and ownership and so on, so we are treading carefully there and essentially looking where the developments will go.

AI is also used in testing levels, and then there’s this tweaking function where another AI modifies the level, but it’s under human supervision. All of our levels are hand-crafted, with AI assistance.

How have players responded to the use of AI in King’s games? Have you noticed any changes because of it?

Measured change, yes, to the positive. But in regard to player feedback, our ambition is that this should not be something they notice. We want to make the games as fun as possible, and the technology is helping achieve that, but it’s not the primary focus.

A kingly space for ideation - inside King HQ
A kingly space for ideation - inside King HQ

And can you give any hints at where you think AI is going to go next for King?

That's a good question, because I wouldn't trust myself to give a prediction of where AI in general is going to go next because it's moving so, so fast.

I was in London recently, and I met with OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman. He was talking about the next generation of GPT, about 100x improvement or more relative to GPT-4: that if GPT-3 could do five-second tasks and GPT-4 five-minute tasks, then this can do five-hour tasks.

But what does that mean? So, like, the changes are immense, they are fundamental, and they are very hard to predict as to what's coming.

People tend to be fascinated by things like AI writing emails and stuff like that, but I think that the big thing that we have is a scalable reasoning engine. And we can scale it as much as we want.

That has profound implications across just about everything.

During our time at King HQ, we also sat down with King president Tjodolf Sommestad, who shared his top tips for fledgeling developers in the modern gaming landscape.