Brennan Whitfield | Feb 15, 2023

Quantum computing, which could bring seismic shifts to industries like pharmaceutical research and finance, may do just the same for gaming.

Consider Cat-Box-Scissors, the first quantum computer game, developed in 2017 by IBM researcher James Wootton. A recreation of rock-paper-scissors, the game works by using five quantum bits, or qubits. Though simplistic in its design, Cat-Box-Scissors proves that quantum hardware can be used for video games. 

Wootton has since developed Qiskit Blocks, a Minecraft-like quantum computer game, as well as a custom Super Mario Maker 2 level, made using quantum computing software development kit Qiskit.

Seeing quantum computing’s capabilities for gaming, this can mean quantum leaps for the future of the industry.

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How Does Quantum Computing Work in Gaming? 

Quantum computers process data and perform tasks far faster than classical computers. This is due to the use of qubits, units of information that resemble binary bits but can exist as a one, zero or both simultaneously — meaning multiple actions can be executed in a shorter time. For gaming, quantum hardware can produce sharper graphics, faster load times and enhanced randomization, all to create a more immersive interactive experience. 

Wootton sees the quantum-to-gaming relationship as reciprocal. 

“‘What can quantum computers do for games?’ is an important question for the game industry, but also, what can games do for quantum computers?” he said.

To that end, many quantum games are meta; they’re about quantum. For example, Qubit the Barbarian — a personal favorite of Wootton’s — is essentially a labyrinth puzzle game that also brilliantly illustrates how qubits function (in multiple possible states at once). Similarly, Chris Cantwell and Caltech IQIM’s Quantum Chess explores superposition, entanglement and quantum measurement. 

According to Wootton, quantum’s herculean processing power and concepts will shape games in a few key ways.


Randomization and Accessibility 

Quantum computers’ ability to factor large numbers should help improve so-called procedural generation — the method by which games populate random elements such as characters and level layouts. If you’re a game developer working today, “you’re hampered by the fact that you don’t have good, fast analysis algorithms at the moment, which quantum computers could help with,” Wootton said. “I think that’s going to be the first use of quantum in games.” 

It’s already happening, in fact. Wootton himself developed a proof of principle in which he built out randomly-generated game terrain using a quantum computer.

That point is worth underlining: Quantum computing opens the door to random number generation that’s genuinely random and not output in patterns, which could mean truly unpredictable game maps and character encounters. This would be in opposition to some present-day games that exhibit seemingly random elements, like game events or non-playable character (NPC) dialogue, but which actually follow a set of patterns. 

This presents a problem that quantum could also potentially tackle: Games that are literally impossible to solve aren’t so much fun to play. Quantum’s optimization muscle would determine whether or not some stretch of randomly-generated challenges — be they physical obstacles, swarms of antagonists or puzzles — can actually be overcome. And if so, what’s the most optimal, and enjoyable, way players can go about it? Simply put, quantum helps us know the best way to get from start to finish. Like others in the quantum space, Wootton has invoked quantum computing’s potential to quickly handle the so-called traveling salesman problem when discussing computer optimization.

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Character AI

Optimization also relates to another of quantum’s potential points of impact: its promise to produce much better artificial intelligence. AI is what governs the behavior of a game’s NPC characters, which means quantum AI should render characters that are far more realistic, precise and detailed than what gamers encounter today.

“The AI in a game is trying to play the game as well, like, say, your opponent in Mario Kart,” Wootton said. “So they’re going to try to work out what the optimal strategy is in order to do it, and optimization problems like that are examples of things that could be sped up.”

Don’t expect some sort of supernatural sentience among the characters, but they should conceivably behave more intelligently and with more complexity. 

“It's not bestowing some magical quantum thought upon the AI,” Wootton said. “In this case, it’s more about giving the AI better resources to work out what to do.”

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Graphics and Visuals

Among the most exciting areas of focus in quantum gaming is graphics. 

In order to render graphics, computers must perform database searches. Classical computing search is akin to searching a phonebook by last name, while quantum search is like searching the same directory by phone number, according to Wootton. Quantum computing promises to exponentially speed up and optimize those searches. 

The use of quantum algorithms for computer graphics applications was proposed starting in the early 2000’s. Marco Lanzagorta and Jeffrey K. Uhlmann developed the first quantum algorithm specifically for computer graphics in 2003, and had their work further developed by Simona Caraiman’s team in the later 2000’s. Caraiman’s algorithms in particular tackled polygon visibility and global illumination, terms to describe the combination of reflections and refractions to create realistic lighting effects in a video game.

In 2018, software company Boxcat claimed to have created the world’s first quantum computer-rendered image, by using a cloud-based access platform that connects users to a D-Wave Systems quantum computer. “We made a rendering engine run on top of the platform they provided, and we were able to generate, as an output, a fully pre-processed image with the use of their quantum hardware,” Boxcat co-founder Ystallonne Alves wrote

For Wootton, he has also experimented with checking pixel images into a quantum state, or vice versa, to create animations or in-game terrain. 

The middle state between the transitions becomes a testing ground to try out manipulations. Elements like terrain can even be rendered in a 3D graphics engine to explore further, Wootton said.

Qubit the Barbarian. | Video: Excaa


Quantum Computing and the Gaming Industry

Like quantum computing itself, quantum gaming is still developing. But researchers and developers are continuously working on bridging theory and reality. They have a few major questions to answer first.


How Do We Solve Quantum Noise?

Of course, quantum gaming can only advance at the rate of quantum computing itself, and scientists are still trying to clear some significant hurdles there — especially when it comes to noise. 

It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation. More qubits allow for more and greater computations, but more qubits also mean more noise. Delicate, fragile, error-prone — these are the descriptors one routinely encounters when talking qubits. The mere act of running processes or even measuring those vital computational building blocks contributes to noise, leading to quantum computing companies cropping up to help quiet the racket. 

There’s also the infamous issue of temperature control. Qubits on most quantum computers need to be kept at nearly absolute zero degrees (or -460 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to maintain stability.

Some enterprising game developers have flipped the noise bug into a feature, designing games that incorporate the instability into the gameplay. Wootton cites his own Quantum Awesomeness, a puzzle match game in which, thanks to quantum’s “fuzziness,” pairs get increasingly difficult to connect as levels progress. 

“Puzzles from higher rounds require higher depth circuits, and so build-up of noise contributes to an increase in difficulty,” Wootton explained on GitHub. “The number of rounds that the game remains playable for therefore depends on the noise levels of the device.” His quantum version of Battleship engages a similar element, where noise becomes another variable to consider for your under-attack fleet — it’s “just the weather buffeting the ship and bombs.”

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How Do We Make Quantum Gaming Mainstream?

Games like Quantum Awesomeness are examples of quantum within the so-called game loop, but quantum in the near-term will likely be used more for design phase work (things like the aforementioned optimization). Right now, those steps are coming more from the indie developer world than the AAA studios. 

“The indie developer community has interest, so that’s the link we’re really thinking about fostering at the beginning,” Wootton said, noting that the big gaming companies might prove particularly interested in quantum’s promise for more sophisticated AI.

That fostering mission — part word-spreading, part development, part education — has taken Wootton and IBM Research communications manager Chris Sciacca to quantum-related events. One in Switzerland happened to host around 200 developers and students in Qiskit-focused game jams and hackathons.

“We have the technology available,” Sciacca said. “People will start playing around with this to become familiar with it, both enterprises as well as developers. We want to build up that community and get people familiar with the technology so they can take advantage of it — and develop some cool stuff.” 

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