We recently had the opportunity to sit down with the creator of Twitch’s scripted series Artificial, Bernie Su, and chat with him about what’s new in season 4, subtitled Artificial: Factions.
This new season saw a massive shift in the previously defined show dynamic. Lilith has disappeared and now Sebastian and Xander have decided to compete Reality Show style to see who can build a better Artificial Intelligence. Season 3 had to adjust to deal with the pandemic and shifted to a remote style. In the new season, there’s more pre-recorded story elements built into the show in addition to this new reality show format. Factions sees the AIs Kai and Ember competing to see which is the superior technology.
In previous seasons, the AI was housed in a physical form, Lilith/Sophie. Kai and Ember are completely digital constructs, using motion capture and AI avatar technology (similar to the singing competition show Alter Ego), these characters are performed by Jae Kim and Emily Morales. As of 10/15/21 new episodes of Artificial: Factions moved from airing on Thursdays to 5pm PT on Fridays.
Watch the interview with Bernie Su below or read the full transcript.
Bernie Su Discusses Artificial Season 4, Artificial: Factions
This season seems like a complete departure from the way you guys have been working in the past. Not only with these new AI faction elements that you brought in but just the overall way the show is scripted out and it’s working. How did you guys plan for that change for this season?
Bernie Su: Yeah. With a show like Artificial and a platform like Twitch… Let me put it this way. If you had taken the story of Artificial, the story that we tell in Artificial, and put it on network television or a streamer, they would be very very focused on what the story is each year. How are you going to change the story? How are you going to make it bigger? Twitch’s version of that is slightly different. Twitch’s version of that is how do you make it more innovative?
Bernie Su: Of course, the story matters. But because Twitch is owned by Amazon, they’re not trying to be Amazon – they’re trying to be Twitch.
Twitch’s separation is they’re looking at innovation. At the end of season three last year you saw everybody was remote, all this stuff. Going from that I went how the hell do you make this more innovative? What? I don’t know. It took me a while, it took some time, but I did think about it and designed this faction system. This concept of can you factionalize the audience in a way where… I use Harry Potter as an example. Harry Potter houses.
Can you make that mean more than, “I’m a Gryffindor?” What does that mean to an audience member of Harry Potter? Yes, you identified to it, but can you use that to effectively change or alter the narrative in a way.
Bernie Su: That’s where it came out of, and that’s where the faction system started and we went from there and added to this with the virtual characters and we added to this with the channel point system that we implemented, working with Twitch together. As we’ve said every year of the show, and technology has changed every year, this series is pushing the boundaries each year and can only be done as is on the platform. You can’t do this on YouTube, you can’t do this on Facebook.
With that in mind, what benefits do you see on Twitch as far as the technologies that they provide you with that made this the right place to do this kind of a show?
Bernie Su: Twitch’s API, I’m not a programmer, is very very robust and customizable. You can pull a lot of data and you can use a lot of data, which gives us the ability to do things like last year with Life Score. You can’t do that on YouTube. I don’t think the API, maybe you can now, but the API back then did not work that way. With Facebook I believe there’s a version of this but Facebook is very very open in many ways so it’s very difficult. You can’t do it on Instagram and you can’t do it on TikTok Live.
Twitch’s system has all these things that are a little … Because Twitch is the most mature one. It has more elements. Everybody has chat, we get that, everybody has some kind of emoting type thing. We get that. It’s ironic that only a few of these platforms actually have live polls, which I think is funny.
I don’t know if YouTube has finally gotten live polls.
They just introduced a live poll type feature that you can put into the chat, but you can only have four different options. It’s basically A, B, or C.
Bernie Su: It’s very limiting. It’s not very customizable. With Twitch you have the ability, and this is one I didn’t even know of until I asked this question to some of the programmers. I’m like, hey, when a user jumps into the chat could we actually ask them to identify with a group? Pick a house? And then only show that house certain things through the extension ecosystem?
The people I’ve talked to, and obviously we’re doing it now, they were like yeah, you totally could. Very few people do this, but that is possible with our platform. That is not possible with these other ones that are perfectly great livestream platforms. They do live streaming great. They do that great. You just don’t have that customization ability.
It’s really exciting how all this technology is evolving as well. With everything going in that direction, with the innovations that you guys have been doing from season one to season two and now into season four, how long do you foresee Artificial being able to go for and what innovations would you like to be able to bring in that you haven’t been able to maybe do just yet?
Bernie Su: We’re right now just focused on this one, I would say. The one that, you’ve seen episode one so you’ve seen the faction systems. That’s coming together and that will mature. The one that I think is still this season and we’re still maturing at a different level is the economy, the channel point economy. I think that really before thinking this thing, it’s this place with the whole NFT crypto play.
Because the only way to get channel points for Artificial, if you start streaming Josh and I go to your channel, the channel points for Josh is not the channel points for Artificial. They’re two different currencies. If you say that is the economy and the only way to get more economy is through watching the show, so no one can buy a million bits and say I have a million bits in the economy, which they could last year. That system is something we’re playing with very closely.
It’s something where look, if you watch the stream tomorrow you’ll see it deployed even more. If you saw the stream last week, which you did, there was one point where you had a redemption. Okay, when this many things are redeemed the AIs get this power. We were like, what should we charge for it and how long do you think it will take them to redeem it. We were like hopefully it will take them within 10 minutes or so. They did it in like 30 seconds. We clearly undervalued, undercharged that.
We have to learn with that and kind of speculate how much economy is out there. What I think is fascinating, and you never hear this in a storytelling with the stuff we cover, it’s like we’re looking at wealth gap. A super dedicated fan, halfway through the season is going to have way more channel points, theoretically, than someone who’s just exposed to this thing in the beginning.
And that person is going to be way more powerful in the show than someone at the start of the show. I can’t think of any kind of series that has that problem where they have to think of that.
What kind of challenges does that bring to actually developing the story and making sure all that, and what you’re trying to do with the technology and the channel points and everything is balanced with how you want the story to flow?
Bernie Su: I think we have to play with some economic theory. We’re trying to make sure there’s a lot of things for people to buy. That’s how the economy works, right? The economy wants you to spend money. We want you to spend money, or spend not money, these channel points, in the economy and see what’s there. So this is why I say we’re still developing this one out. I know that Twitch really likes this one because, obviously, it’s their currency. It’s channel points.
They’ve literally built this system. I really do think, now you would have to ask them this, but I think this innovation was critical to their green lighting of the season where we came up with this mechanism. They’re like, oh, they’re going to do this? Well yeah, we want to do this, can you help us do this? We think this is super cool. I do think, to answer your earlier question about where does this go, I think the maturing of the audience economy in this show is a real thing. We’re seeing that not just on our show. I’m sure if you’re covering some of these NFT games or things.
It still feels, like you said, it’s really in its infancy and we don’t know where it’s going to end up.
Bernie Su: Absolutely. So I think that’s something there. What I like to say, and I’m really proud of, those NFT websites can sort of be gamed by someone who just has a lot of money. Real money. I’m just going to buy all the mints and I’m going to have all the power in the economy. For us you can’t do that. You literally have to watch the show to have the power in the economy.
Does that only apply to people who are watching the show live? Or if someone is watching the show on the post stream are they able to build up so that if they are able to watch it live they’re able to participate as well?
Bernie Su: I’m pretty sure it is, whenever it’s streaming, that they can build. So even if we’re not playing character show stuff and we’re just streaming, that’s going to happen. We have talked about doing replays and reruns, which we’ve done in the past, it’s not something new. We’ve done reruns in the past. We want to make sure that when, I’m going to say when because I’m pretty sure we’re going to do that.
When we do that it’s with a deliberate message that hey, here’s your chance to mine, farm, some channel points just by watching the replay. And you catch up too and kind of see it that way. That’s just something that I think from a programming perspective, from a platform perspective, I’m sure Twitch is super happy about that. Great, give them a reason to watch replays. We love that. That sounds great.
All of that is in there. Again, it’s about the inflation of the value. I don’t remember the exact method but I think you get like 50 per five minutes or 10 minutes, or 100 for 10 minutes. It’s like, okay, if you have 100 dollars and you spend five you’re not worried about the five. If you have 100 dollars and you spend 75 you’re worried about the 75 a lot because that’s all you’ve got. So it’s all about that kind of mindset. I really can’t believe that we’re talking so much about economy in a story.
Those are those things where I’ll read about something like that happening and all of a sudden I’m in this Wikipedia hole just learning as much as I can about that, which I think is one of the fascinating things about this show, too, is that there’s so much depth to all of that that kind of happens. I was talking with Stephen Chang yesterday.
Bernie Su: Nice.
He was telling me that at the end of season 3, he had no idea how it was going to end. He was completely caught off guard when Lilith just kind of disappeared. And now here we are in season 4. Lilith is still missing.
Bernie Su: Yes.
We don’t know where she’s at. We’ve seen Dr. Ruby appear, but we still haven’t seen El, we haven’t seen Justin, we don’t know where Justin is as far as I can remember.
Bernie Su: We don’t.
What kind of surprises would the audience be in store for this season that they might be looking for from last season?
Bernie Su: Everybody’s in play, I’ll put it that way. One of the things, to give you a non spoiling answer, and basically a real answer too, is that because we write the show week to week we really don’t know. We know canonically in the narrative where everybody who we mentioned is. We know where they are. At least in a figurative where in the world are they or who is controlling or who are the with. So we have all of that in play. It’s really a question of where the audience takes us in the story.
Also, to be fair, we’ve always designed every season to be somewhat consumable just by watching that season. So it’s a balance. We don’t necessarily want you to watch, if you want to catch up on the show, we’re not requiring you to watch four seasons of this thing, or three seasons. That’s a lot of content to watch. To your viewers and listeners and so forth, readers, it’s like the simplest thing you can do, I think, honestly, is watch the season finale from last year. Just watch the one season finale.
It stands alone, I think, pretty well. It tells you who the players are and it leaves you at a point that leads us into this season. It doesn’t focus big on these really past big characters like Sophie and Matlin and so forth who aren’t really in play right now because their stories have basically kind of played out in many ways.
That’s how we design the show. Of course she’s mentioned, we’ve talked about Lilith in this season already, we’ve hinted at things happening to people, bad things happening to people potentially. All of this is in play. We’ve also been in contact with all the actors who play those characters and kind of been like, hey, we don’t know yet, we just have to get this thing going. You’ve seen the show. The technical complications that the show has are enormous.
Bernie Su: Enormous. So virtual characters, live, live stages, multiple scenes, multiple actors, COVID testing, all these things, just crazy. We’re taking this one week at a time. Let’s say that.
Since I spoke with Stephen, his character I think is one of the ones, outside of Lilith herself, who has gone through the most dramatic change.
Bernie Su: Yeah.
You can tell it’s happening over the course of the previous season. Towards the beginning he kind of remained the same, but as the end of the season drew nearer and everything was kind of piling up he got more and more aggressive. Now, in season four, he’s almost turning into, I don’t know what the best analogy would be, but more that not evil CEO but the multi billionaire who owns the company who might be a little bit nefarious that you had hints of before but now is kind of like front and center. He’s going up against Zander. How did that relationship build to where it is?
Bernie Su: There’s a lot of things there. The first thing is, obviously, you have the entry of Dante Basco into the show, which is obviously a very major event. The audience did create a lot of those elements. They made him a rival, they did these things to kind of create that dynamic. We wanted to honor that. So far we’ve only brought back four characters from last season and two of them were audience created. Dante’s character, Zander, and Alejandra’s character, Kira, were both audience created characters.
As a storyteller I’m really proud of that. It’s like okay you have two kind of fan favorite characters in Ruby and Sebastian, and you have two audience created characters who the audience loves, of course, probably because they created them, in Kira and Zander. That’s kind of the basis of this. And then when we got to this faction design it’s like, okay, who’s leading the faction.
The obvious choice are the two guys who are actually arch rivals and have this long history and who are really good actors and are natural leaders and their characters have lots of resources. It makes a lot of sense to have them be the kind of benefactors of the factions, the leaders in the back, the reclusive CEOs pulling the strings in the back and so forth. So it’s been really fun.
Obviously Sebastian, Stephen Chang’s character, has gone through quite an arc over the season. Whether you say it’s going darker or more sinister or so forth. But I think it’s also a byproduct of what he’s kind of sat back and let happen because he’s kind of played to the audience and what the audience and the characters that have interacted with have done to him. Ruby did betray him.
Bernie Su: Elle betrayed him. So two of the people that he trusted vehemently at the beginning of the season last year betrayed him at the end for this thing that they both thought they were right and Sebastian thought they were wrong and he was right. Does it make him an evil man? I think it’s interpretive. Sure, if you said Sebastian’s the old man, and sometimes in the writer rooms we say that, but that is interpretive I would say. He did get betrayed by two people that he trusted.
Bernie Su: For essentially robots, not even a real person. Technically. So you could make that interpretation. That’s something that we always try to put in the show, which is this balance of an idea of grayness. Is there a right and is there a wrong? We rarely try to coat that as good and bad. We coat it as two sides of a point of view.
If you were to say the AI is a thing and not a sentient being and not conscious and doesn’t deserve rights, theoretically, then Sebastian is right on everything pretty much. And if you say oh no, that is a living being, it deserves rights, it deserves human values and to be treated correctly and not to suffer and blah blah blah, then you go, okay, then Sebastian is wrong. It’s interpretation. It’s one of those things where, going back to season one, we’ve highlighted this in humanity and human hypocrisy, these are the themes we kind of run through the show. And we’ll continue to with these new AIs, too.
Thank you so much for your time, Bernie.
Bernie Su: You’re welcome.
I am really excited to see the rest of the season.
Bernie Su: The show is insane, Josh. It’s absolutely insane.
Check out the rest of Bernie Su’s vision coming to life in Artificial: Factions, airing new episodes every Friday.