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Could AI and virtual reality be the future of Yu-Gi-Oh? We tried it for ourselves to find out

Duelling an AI opponent and battling in VR during the TCG’s 25th anniversary event in Tokyo.

Image credit: Alicia Haddick

As Yu-Gi-Oh! descended on Tokyo’s biggest arena to celebrate the past 25 years, eyes were firmly focused on the future. If a quarter-century of Yu-Gi-Oh! had brought the franchise to where it is today, what could be done to ensure the series could survive and thrive for the next 25 years. Are virtual reality and artificial intelligence the answer?

That was the question posed by Konami at its recent The Legend of Duelist event, where a dual array of showcases put forward potential use cases for VR and AI technology as a way to enhance the experience of playing and entering the world of Yu-Gi-Oh! These experiments leveraged existing ideas surrounding current digital incarnations of the game in Master Duel and Duel Links for their high-tech showcases, with the results making an intriguing argument for how our interactions with the card game we love could soon change forever.

It was the team behind Duel Links that chose to move forwards with bringing the card game to life in virtual reality. All the way back to the original Yu-Gi-Oh! manga and TV anime, the idea of bringing monsters to life in some form of mixed-reality space has been idealised as an end goal for creating a truly visceral card game experience. Ever since we saw Blue-Eyes White Dragon brought to life inside Kaiba’s virtual duel arenas and set sail for Duelist Kingdom soon after, the idea of playing a card and having the world around you transform has been a dream for any who play it.

With the Duel Links Solid Vision Experiment, Konami has taken the initial step toward bringing such a reality to fruition. Admittedly, compared to piloting your own deck to victory or what we see in the fictional series, this was more of a on-rails scripted and story-driven experience designed to showcase what bringing the card game to life in VR could look like. Using a Meta Quest 3 headset, the Solid Vision Experiment puts you in the shoes of a test subject helping Kaiba with his new VR experiment, with interactions limited to drawing and placing set cards on the field for events to take place around you.

A Yu-Gi-Oh! beginner plays Master DuelWatch on YouTube

Yet, even in this limited state, the potential was clear. The moment you place Necrovalley onto the field and find yourself transported to a fierce desert landscape, or watch Dark Magician Girl, full of verve and character, bounce around the field and check on your wellbeing after taking damage, feels like a realisation of Yu-Gi-Oh!’s ability to be a transcendent duelling experience in VR. Although the technology remains in its infancy to the degree that many developers continue to struggle to understand how best to use it or transport the player into becoming a part of an all-new virtual world, the nature of Yu-Gi-Oh! as a card game makes everything feel natural and alive.

For fans of the series like myself, the experience gains additional weight. To not only watch but play a direct part in Dark Magician Girl and Blue-Eyes White Dragon fighting against one another, feeling the attacks coming towards you, manifested those early images of the series that many hold close. It would be remiss not to admit shedding a brief tear inside the headset at seeing this long-held potential and dream brought to life so effectively, without any of the tears or breaks in the illusion that can sometimes occur. For a project pieced together in a short timeframe for the event, it was impressive.

Even in this limited state, the potential was clear.

The question remains whether this VR experiment will ever see the light of day. It was a small team of developers under the watch of Duel Links producer Akitsu Terashima who worked on the project over several months for the 25th anniversary showcase. Although the livestream for the event showcased a third-person fixed-camera perspective of the demo for the public, only a select few attendees - including ourselves - could experience it in person, and no current plans exist to release the demo beyond event showcases such as this. Terashima admits that a big reason for the uncertain future plans for the experiment is the question of where or if to develop the demo from here.

“Duel Links has a uniqueness to be able to show the model and characters while you’re playing, so we thought this would be the best method of showing off what Duel Links can be,” the producer explains as we talk in a batting practice area underneath the Tokyo Dome arena after testing the demo for ourselves. “This is our first time experimenting with VR, and there were some technical issues we faced [while developing the project]. Being in the headset is typically a first-person experience and we wanted others to enjoy it also. We’re going to be checking out player reactions, but one of the things we learned is how detailed models need to be to feel immersive.”

Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links producer Akitsu Terashima. | Image credit: Alicia Haddick

There are a few possibilities, of course. You could release the demo as-is, for one. Although it ends with a tantalising ‘To Be Continued’ message at the end (“This is what we’re hoping, but it’s all based on feedback for what we’ll be able to do from here”) there is a complete self-contained short story here, complete with newly-recorded lines by Kaiba’s voice actor. It’s fun, too! To further develop the idea, if the team chose not to go in the direction of creating fully-interactive duelling, they could always recreate iconic duels from the manga and anime’s history as individual packages, or further develop the demo as an attraction for arcades or at VR theme park venues.

Maybe that could happen, when plans for its future are finalised. A major question is whether to leave the project as-is, develop further in this direction or experiment with bringing the full Duel Links client into VR, complete with the ability to duel other players playing in or out of VR while offering the full card pool available to the game. That question then comes down to cost. Creating full 3D models to the detail and care of Dark Magician Girl and those seen in the demo won’t come cheap, and VR, while exciting, remains a niche product.

Whatever comes next, the future of Yu-Gi-Oh! in VR is an exciting one.

While the team are uncertain about the project’s next steps, they did consider future developments when planning the demo and whether it would be possible to expand upon if they wished to push forward into full development of Duel Links VR or something in that vein. Regarding the decision to develop for Meta Quest 3, Terashima notes that, “Right now Meta has the Meta Quest platform, which we checked that it would be possible to connect cross-platform with current platforms [for the game], so maybe if we made it, it could be possible that someone would be playing in VR while someone else played on their phones.”

Whatever comes next, the future of Yu-Gi-Oh! in VR is an exciting one. If the final iteration of this project is even half as good as this, both fans and non-fans alike won’t be disappointed.

The Duel Links Solid Vision Experiment demo brought monsters like Blue-Eyes White Dragon to life in virtual reality. | Image credit: Konami

The team behind the TCG’s flagship digital adaptation Master Duel took a somewhat different approach to imagining the future of Yu-Gi-Oh! by experimenting with AI. The buzzword of the hour strikes derision from the mouths of creatives and artists, but unlike the content-stealing, art-destroying machine many fear, think of this AI as something more akin to the many chess AI we have seen developed for decades than one looking to steal the hobby from those who just wanna play a fun game with friends.

For the experiment, the Master Duel team led by producer Kenichi Kataoka chose to create a framework through which a duel AI could be integrated. The difference between typical CPU opponents found in Master Duel or other Yu-Gi-Oh! digital games and the AI here comes down to approach and methodology; according to Kataoka, an AI opponent would, by design, act more like a real opponent than a CPU ever could.

Unlike the content-stealing, art-destroying machine many fear, think of this AI as something more akin to the many chess AI we have seen developed for decades.

“Our objective isn’t necessarily to utilise our own AI,” Kataoka explains. “What we have here is a demo of how individuals can create their own AI for use in Master Duel. CPUs that you’ve been facing in Yu-Gi-Oh! games aren’t AIs - they’re computer programs with a lot of ‘if’ statements, so it’ll always do the same move if they’re given the same situation. These AIs can learn and make their own decisions, so each of the AIs will do something different in the same situation.”

By considering whether there is a risk of facing the wrath of Maxx “C”, Ash Blossom & Joyous Spring or any number of hand traps or facedown trap or spell cards, the Master Duel AI may choose to act more cautiously or remove potential threats before proceeding in situations a typical CPU opponent, seeing conditions are met to play a certain combo, may choose to move ahead regardless. As an end goal, by considering these risks, the AI could act more with more intelligence and prove a more challenging opponent.

Simply creating an AI opponent wasn’t the sole goal for the Master Duel team. While we were not given hands-on time with the AI in a one-on-one match, we were given the opportunity to watch it in action as part of a public presentation made away from the main stage on the show floor at regular intervals throughout the day. During this presentation we saw the framework developed and the AI in action during sample duels.

Master Duel's AI displayed its possible decisions on-screen, showing the logic path taken by the advanced computer opponent in reaction to the human player. | Image credit: Konami

The AI showcased was trained on roughly 100,000 duels against CPU opponents, with a new interface for Master Duel produced to demonstrate how the AI reaches each decision. When the AI was in control or had a chance to counter, a new UI would appear on the screen displaying the many different moves the AI could play, as well as considerations for what cards the opponent might have at their disposal, using this information to decide what move to make next. A win percentage was also visible on the AI screen, factoring in this knowledge to consider its likelihood of winning in the current circumstances.

It wasn’t perfect, but that should be expected at this stage. Certain moves that would make sense to a human player or pre-programmed CPU were not made by the AI despite the logic in such decisions - such as choosing not to set Torrential Tribute to the field before an opponent’s turn or being overly-cautious when considering whether to attack or not. Still, the potential is there, and visualising the decision-making process helps to demonstrate just how much effort has gone into the AI.

In the future what we want to have is a tournament where everyone brings their own AI and compete for which is the best.

The team’s ultimate goal is not merely to release an AI for Master Duel to replace CPU opponents. The ambition is to create a framework that allows many tailored and trained AI opponents to enter the game and face off against humans or even each other.

“In the future what we want to have is a tournament where everyone brings their own AI and compete for which is the best,” Kataoka states as a future objective for the experiment. “When we do that we might need to have our own regulations of whether they bring their own deck or a specific deck, but what we’re looking at in the end is having a lot of people bring their own AI and compete with each other.

“What we’re hoping is that in colleges and universities they have Yu-Gi-Oh! clubs, and maybe some of them have AI engineering skills. Maybe one day they could collaborate and we could have Yu-Gi-Oh! AI clubs.”

Master Duel producer Kenichi Kataoka. | Image credit: Alicia Haddick

The hurdles that prevent this project being released in its current state are logistical. The team are currently unsure how to bring AI to the game based on their current experiments. Do they open-source their developments and allow AI creators to try things for themselves, or keep things closed to internal or select-partner development? Do they invite AI creators to create their own AI for the game to face humans, or do they produce their own? What would the regulations be on AI opponents - and if there was a future with tournaments of various developers pitting their Yu-Gi-Oh! AI against one another, what would the rules be?

These questions and more need to be answered before AI is considered a viable future for Master Duel. It’s also possible AI will never find a home in Master Duel, and the experiment could be ended here with perhaps some of the UI considerations and win percentage calculations making their way into spectator games or other modes within Master Duel. Unlike the VR team, whose vision for their project felt focused and, while plans had not been decided, could see a Yu-Gi-Oh! VR future in some form, the AI team felt less certain about what the future might hold for their experiments.

That’s not to downplay the achievements of the tech, and merely underlines the difficulties inherent to creating a Yu-Gi-Oh! AI. The first chess algorithm was developed in paper form in the 1950s, and the first computer-based chess AI was developed in the 1970s. Even then, it took until 1997 for chess AI Deep Blue to defeat a grandmaster in chess, several decades on from the first experimentation with the technology. There are over 10,000 Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, resulting in a near-endless possible range of moves a player could perform in a duel or in how they construct their deck, transforming the task of creating an AI that could challenge the pros in a duel into a mammoth undertaking. Even in this early state, though, seeing what is possible was impressive to behold.

For both AI and VR, these early experiments proved to be some of the most intriguing offerings showcased during the recent Yu-Gi-Oh! 25th anniversary celebrations, each offering a possible path towards the future that could revolutionise the relationship we have with the game we love. By the time we reach Yu-Gi-Oh!’s 50th anniversary, could we be duelling opponents in virtual space, or facing off against an AI powerful enough to challenge a world champion? Only time will tell, but these developments are certainly something to watch as we enter the future of Yu-Gi-Oh!

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