Improving Monster AI

We’ve had quite a productive discussion in the comments of this week’s articles. Another great topic came up about improving monster AI. Lately the trend has been more toward highly-scripted encounters resembling ‘intelligence’. We all know that’s a bunch of crap. Public Quests, “Dynamic Events”, etc., are all just scripted events that run, complete, then reset.

One idea from the comments yesterday was: “An orc facing a lone opponent will attack, but if there are three or more people nearby, he runs away. Unless there are other orcs nearby, in which case he calls them over.” This is very similar to the “bring a friend” (BAF) type system we saw in EQ and DAoC. Also the “call for help” some monsters did when they would run away and bring more monsters back with them.

Camping a dangerous area full of really tough mobs (note the 2 words ‘dangerous’ and ‘tough’) back in early EQ days required you to use spells to manipulate mob behavior. I remember needing spells like “Lull” to pull one mob at a time. I remember one person’s job was to snare or root a mob (usually snare since it would slow them enough, and if a mob was rooted it would still attack which increased downtime) so that the mob could not get away and bring back more friends.

Another idea for improving mob AI was more along the lines of unpredictable elements influencing monster behavior. “A long list of random hidden stats would affect how mobs interact. Using the orc example again, one lone orc that spots three players may attack if his strength and bravery stats are high while intelligence is low. A different orc may gather friends.” I love the idea of having visible cues for these traits such as bigger orcs probably having more bravery, and scrawny orcs having more magical abilities or intelligence — intelligence would likely mean getting friends before charging in alone.

One of my favorite ideas was something else brought up: Players taking control of monsters. I remember this being a feature in EverQuest for a short period of time, and a PvP feature in Lord of the Rings Online. I think the idea of letting players take control of monsters from a zone and even level them up is a fun idea worth exploring. The more a player played as a monster, the more powerful their monsters would be the next time they play. This way players are encouraged to be great monster players and not just use them for griefing. Obviously tons of work on a system like that is needed, but it has potential.

All of these ideas are really just getting at the fact that mob ai in today’s MMOs is weak. It’s really predictable, not much of a challenge, or hasn’t changed much in years. There are lots of ways to increase the dynamic nature of PvE without just increasing health, how much damage something does, or making it happen in phases or waves. Players like myself would like to see more variety, and development time spent, in this areas.

Don’t Tell Me What To Do!

Don’t tell me to kill 10 orcs. Build me a world where I will want to.

That’s the overall theme for this morning’s blog entry. I started thinking about this yesterday while reading the great replies I received in my discussion of ‘How much story is too much?‘ One reply in particular resonated with me.

Early EQ had perfect story pieces and lore scattered about without hitting you over the head with it in text boxes and shiny quest markers. You knew that the elves in the Faydark were at war with the orcs in their own backyard and those orcs were bold enough to venture into elven territory just by what was going on in the zone. – Gringar

That got me thinking about why I went out and killed monsters in EverQuest, and the type of ‘hunting’ I like(d) to do in MMORPGs. Orcs in Faydark are a great example. As Gringar pointed out, it felt like the orcs were at war with the elves as there was the general feel of conflict. Since monsters, particular orcs in the Crushbone area, could be quite difficult for newer players, they were always ‘training’ or running them back to the guards for protection. This created a general overall sense of there being orcs in the zone to kill, but it wasn’t my personal reason.

I killed orcs because they were a great source of experience. Killing orcs was incredibly efficient. They spawned in camps regularly, dropped decent loot, and had a great modifier if you managed to kill them inside of Crushbone. Finding a group to kill orcs was usually reliable, and as a result I always felt like I could see the progress I made while playing when I killed orcs.

No one had to tell me to go kill orcs. I didn’t receive a quest (though later I did find a question to turn in their belts for increased experience) and no one had to tell me the story about why the orcs hate the elves (to this day I still do not know). All I knew was there were orcs, they were a good challenge and yielded lots of experience.

It’s really that simple. I killed orcs because I wanted to. I had the choice of killing any number of things. I could have gone to several other zones and killed other kinds of monsters but these were located close to a  city and provided the experience I was looking for while leveling up from levels 5-12.

Opportunity and means are huge in MMORPGs. We so often rely on quest dialog to say, “go kill me some orcs and bring back 10 of their axes.” When completed we move on. What if we wanted to keep killing orcs? What if the process of hunting orcs was something more enjoyable — a process increased over multiple days or even weeks if we so choose. What if people could form groups to continually hunt orcs? That kind of free thinking puts us right back in 1999 — and it worked.

So I return to my original statement. Build me a world where I will want to go kill orcs and spiders and skeletons. Don’t build me a world where I have to be told every second of every day what to do and where or how to do it. Let me explore and find a graveyard with skeletons, start killing them, and realize the experience is amazing and their bone chips can be traded to other players. Let me have the freedom to come back tomorrow and pick up where I left off. Give me the opportunity to do so by setting me free instead of pigeonholing me into following an arrow to the quest objective.

How Much Story Is Too Much?

How much story is too much? The topic is once again brought to my mind, this time in a blog post about “The Right Amount of Story” from Steve Danuser aka Moorgard aka #Loregard. Moorgard, who has shown over the years to share my view of what it means to be a virtual world, shares a pearl of wisdom that I wish more people would understand: “As much as creating the tale itself, the role of a narrative lead is to pare the story down to its minimalist core. Part of being a memorable storyteller is being a judicious editor.”

My take on the subject is quite similar, albeit slightly more extreme. If you have to tell me the story at all, you’ve already said too much. Stories should be felt, seen, and experienced — not read. I can think back to games like EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, and Ultima Online — games I played for years — and I can’t even begin to tell you what the story is about.

In EverQuest I was just an insignificant speck of a player gaining strength and adventuring through a world ultimately trying to beat back gods who were running amok simply because it was fun to do so. In Dark Age of Camelot I was one out of thousands of players defending my realm against the other realms; I lived to conquer. In Ultima Online I was living in a world with loose rules while trying to gain a leg up in the economy. Even in Star Wars Galaxies, a game with very rich backstory and lore, had such a loose story that I can only remember the story I made for myself as a billionaire chef and entertainer.

Players must be given the tools to create their own story while remaining an insignificant part of a bigger world. That’s key. In every MMO that I remember playing for a long time it was always me being truly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I think just about every MMO I played for 3 months or less had me as the main hero following some prefabricated destiny.

Games needing a story to drive the player forward or give the player purpose are destined to be 3 monthers or less because the player will never have been empowered to continue on their own. MMORPGS built around a story all share one thing in common: The End.

What If The Journey Never Ends?

What if you could play a MMORPG where ‘the journey’ never ends? Whether it’s leveling or some other form of character progression what if you never ran out of new things to do and ways to progress? What if you never hit that wall or crossed that line where you felt like you reached “end-game?”

I’m trying to envision an MMORPG where players can keep leveling and moving on to new areas, or go and experience new adventures, without ever stopping the forward motion they felt from the first day they started playing. Content never dries up, monsters keep getting harder as you progress, etc.

One of my favorite things from EverQuest was how long it took me to level up and “finish” my character. I spent about a year leveling up my main character in EverQuest. Sure, a lot of that was lost to being an altaholic, but I did take a chracter from level 1 to 50 between March 1999 and March 2000. That journey took me an entire year. The very thought of taking a year to level up in an MMORPG in 2015 almost seems taboo.

I remember always having a new area to look forward to. By the time my character reached anywhere close to the max level for an expansion the next one was already presenting me with another six months or more of journey. What if that same kind of never-ending journey came back, or was reworked somehow so that players never, ever, capped out? I think I would like that.

Vertical vs. Horizontal progression is a factor here. The new buzzword/desire is horizontal progression. I think some element of vertical has to exist for this to really be feasible. Vertical progression gives a sense of ‘I was there and now I’m here’ gameplay. Progress that way is more evident, and as we saw in yesterday’s comments a lot of people can get attached to their character and do not want to lose that sense of progression.

I’m interested in your thoughts and ideas for how this idea of the never-ending journey can be done, and whether or not you’d play a game where the end-game did not exist.

Ever-evolving and Changing Worlds…

MMORPGs are the ever-evolving and changing worlds. At least that’s what they used to be. That was a major selling point back in the 1999-2006 era. We would purchase an MMO, subscribe, and play a game knowing that it was going to keep growing and changing over the years.

Now MMOs have a number of issues keeping them from ever being an ever-evolving world. They might be a 3 monther without any sort of vision or a F2P title with design goals aimed at increasing cash shop sales rather than increasing things to do in-game.

I find myself remembering back to the day where I was happy to pay money — subscription or otherwise — because I was paying for the game to keep growing and developing. Now the same concept feels more like I’m paying for them to fix the game. The difference between fixing the game and growing the game is one word here in a blog post but massive in its repercussions for gameplay and the experience in a game.

MMOs are launching in a state of disarray. When was the last time you played a MMO at launch that felt truly ‘done’ or ‘ready’? For most people the answer will be a resounding, “Never!” Features are missing, bugs are prevalent, content is underwhelming, character development is non-existent… I mean seriously, some games launch as the next big raiding game and don’t even have a single raid in the game at launch.

Am I okay paying to fix a game? That’s the questions we must ask ourselves in 2015. That’s a question that sadly reaches even beyond the MMO genre and into anything asking players for money before it is complete.

Returning to the idea of ever-evolving and changing worlds, it has become clear that MMOs are being designed on a ‘start to finish’ plan. The entire picture is being sketched out on some dry-erase board somewhere and put into a design document. “Our players will start at level one, quest to level 50, do some dungeons, raid, then we’ll launch more raid dungeons and pvp gear options to keep them playing.” I just summarized the last 10 MMOs in one run-on sentence, and some people are being paid huge salaries to come up with that crap.

Launch a world that grows organically. That can only be done when a virtual world is created and control is handed off to the players. Development should only be loosely planned by the developers and flexible enough to adapt to the dynamic nature of real life. If your design doc is so rigid that it can’t accommodate change then you’ve likely built yourself a me-too MMO that will last for 3 months before the pattern is figured out and people quit. You’ll have bored us before we even could play long enough to get bored.

If your world isn’t ever-evolving and changing then, in my opinion, you’re not really a true MMO. You have a shell of a product with no soul or sustainable direction. If you’re charging a subscription for this shell then you’re the reason people think the sub model is bad. If you’re F2P then you’re one of two things: (1) Still trying to prove the model actually works, or (2) Building a business model instead of building a game. I think it’s smarter to just go back to how the industry got started.