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.

Quests Should Enable Players To Tell Their Own Stories

Yesterday’s post about being given the freedom to do what we want in our MMORPGs sparked a good conversation. One of our readers asked:

“If “any story is too much”, as I now believe, then what of quests?” – Amiya

Quests are often the vehicle for story. In today’s modern MMOs we rarely, if ever, see dialogue or story outside of them. If you google “what is a quest” you’ll see a very simple definition from Google: “a long or arduous search for something.” Quests used to be long adventures where the player would have to truly seek out and, unless they used a guide, figure out riddles, locations, or go on an adventure and see the world to accomplish them.

The Journeyman’s Boots quest is a great example. Players were sent across the world and back in search of a shadowed rapier and a ring of the ancients. The shadowed rapier came from shadowed men and the only clue you had was, “Many lands do they walk. Invisible are they, but for the items they wield. Seek them out and return to me a shadowed rapier. Return it with haste before ‘poof’ goes the rapier!! No time to camp have you.'” For the ring your clue was, “Seek the plains, seek the island in tears and search the dunes for there is one who is last. His clan was blown from the sands.'”

EverQuest Seafury Cyclops Jboots Ring Quest

Not the Ancient Cyclops but I remember his ugly face from the Bard Epic and the fact that if you were a caster he would drain all your mana.

Shadowmen were fairly common across zones, but the Ancient Cyclops could only be found as a rare spawn in one of a few locations. The main location I camped him was on the Island of Tears where his spawn ranged from 24 hours to weeks at a time since he was a rare spawn shared across multiple zones. ‘Arduous’ is an understatement. When finally all of the pieces of the quest were obtained, and the money gathered, turning in the quest yielded a pair of boots that, when clicked, would grant a speed boost almost as good as Spirit of the Wolf — awesome!

This long, long QUEST — in every sense of the word — created a story. The fact that I remember this quest fifteen years later, and I could tell you easily 2-3 hours of stories about how I helped others complete it, is a testament to the powerful stories and adventures a true quest can tell without having to lead you anywhere.

Quests can be simpler. Much simpler. In my adventure hunting orcs as a young player I could collect belts from orcs and turn them in for a reward. This was a repeatable quest that allowed you to collect as many belts as you please. These belts yielded amazing faction (reputation) and decent rewards for low level players. The faction was huge for everyone, and since players wanted to kill the orcs anyway it was a great asset to the economy and interaction between higher and lower level players. While little story is being told from a lore perspective, the world is having life breathed into it through player interaction.

The moral of the story here is that quests can and should exist. They should be long, arduous, epic adventures where players end up creating memories they later share around the virtual campfire. Quests should be rewarding and momentous occasions, and truly rewarding without having to be something players must follow in order to ‘play the game’ or ‘consume’ content. Simpler quests, when woven into the game’s economy or assisting in giving a purpose for going out and slaying monsters, can be just as affective.

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.

Apartment Hunting Taught Me About MMO Communities

I spent the weekend (and much of last week) once again looking at apartments. In my little corner of SoCal there seems to be a trend. You either have really, really nice (and expensive) or really, really ghetto. We finally found something right in the middle that’s newer and has all of the amenities. Of course, the whole place is at capacity and we’re on the waiting list with a deposit check and application in their office so that we can claim the place the moment a space opens.

While looking at apartments I found myself trying to survive the boredom. What do I do when I’m bored? I compare everything to MMORPGs. I started to make connections between communities for apartments, and communities for MMOs. The communities we looked at all had the same features: Gyms, pools, hot tubs, parking, relatively same floorplans, etc. What varied place to place was the community.

Some of the communities you could tell right away were terrible. The leasing office and staff were unresponsive or unhelpful — even downright rude some places. At others the office staff was so perfect you just wanted to give them a hug. The place we’re wanting to get into always stocks the office with things like water and cupcakes. The community manager is always chipper, informative, and gives off a complete sense of, “I’m here to make your life better.” People in the community seem active yet quiet and mature, friendly, and clean. We’ve gone back several times to look around because we just love the atmosphere.

MMO communities are very similar. An MMO with a good community feels actively ‘managed’. Everything feels like it runs smoothly. When someone voices a concern it’s heard and you feel like you have a representative who will listen. MMOs with great community teams have thriving forums where participants in the community all contribute to keeping things active and inviting. When an MMO has a true community you feel like you belong and like it’s an actual ‘community’ and not like you’re simply occupying a space within a compound.

I’ve noticed a trend toward a lack of community management and involvement. Either people just don’t care, or theres a misconception floating around out there that streaming on Twitch, posting on Reddit, and tweeting are enough. There’s too much broadcasting and too little real interaction going on.

MMOs need qualified community managers and teams. These are NOT PR people meant to spin news. These are NOT forum moderators. These are NOT underpaid lackeys meant to simply generate discussion topics. These are members of the core team who should foster and be responsible for the growth of the community. The community manager should regularly sit in on and meet with the development team and be accountable for ensuring the game’s design is coinciding with the community’s desires.

This is lacking in the industry today. Not enough importance is being placed on it, and that’s yet another contributing factor among many others leading toward the shallow and impersonal experience we now call the MMO genre.

So, much like choosing and living in an apartment, the community can make or break an MMO. The community can be unappealing because it’s full of obnoxious people, or it can simply not exist because it wasn’t well nurtured. In the flip side, the community can be amazing, thriving, and an integral part to why people stick around for years.