Dynamic vs Random

Keen has another post up lamenting the stagnant nature of modern MMO game design, while suggesting devs should instead be using ideas from games that came out 15+ years ago and nobody plays today. Uh… huh. This time the topic is mob AI and how things would be so much better if mobs behaved randomly dynamically!

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.

The big problem with dynamic behavior in games is that it’s often indistinguishable from random behavior from the player’s perspective. One of the examples from Keen’s post is about having orcs with “hidden stats” like Bravery vs Intelligence that govern whether they fight against multiple players or call for backup. Why bother? Unless players have a Scan spell or something, there is no difference between carefully-structured AI behavior and rolling a d20 to determine whether an orc runs away. Nevermind how the triggers being visible (via Scan or visual cues) undermine all sense of dynamism. Big orc? Probably not running away. If the orc does run away, that’s just bad RNG.

There is no way past this paradox. If you know how they are going to react based on programming logic, the behavior is not unpredictable. If the behavior is unpredictable, even if it’s governed by hidden logic, it is indistinguishable from pure randomness. Besides, the two absolute worst mob behaviors in any game are A) when mobs run away at low health to chain into other mobs, and B) when there is no sense to their actions. Both of which are exactly what is being advocated for here.

I consider the topic of AI in games generally to be one of those subtle designer/player traps. It is trivially easy to create an opponent that a human player could never win against. Creating an opponent that taxes a player to their limit (and not beyond) is much more difficult, and the extent to which a player can be taxed varies by the player. From a defeated player’s perspective, there is no difference between an enemy they aren’t skilled enough to beat and an unbeatable enemy.

You have to ask yourself what you, as a hypothetical designer, are actually trying to accomplish. That answer should be “to have my intended audience have fun.” Unpredictable and tough mobs can be fun for someone somewhere, sure, but as Wildstar is demonstrating, perhaps that doesn’t actually include all that many people. Having to memorize 10+ minute raid dances is bad enough without tacking convoluted mob behavior outside of raids on top. Sometimes you just want to kill shit via a fun combat system.

Themepark MMO players enjoy simple, repetitive tasks – news at 11.

Posted on February 23, 2015, in Commentary, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. That’s about it. As I said in Keen’s comment thread, back at the dawn of MMOs designers were quite open in saying that they could quite easily produce much more “intelligent” mobs but they weren’t doing it because players reacted badly when they tried. Players like to win as a rule and as you say MMO players, by and large, like to win easily.

    That said, I personally very much like the “mob runs at low health and comes back with friends” mechanic. It’s incredibly annoying but also very involving. It means you have to pay attention and be ready to deal with things going south fast. That’s entertaining gameplay for me provided I’ve been given the tools to do the job.

    The thing about mob behavior in EQ is that it is largely consistent and can be learned by experience and observation but cannot be seen from a ui indicator or a tooltip. Yes, you can eventually divine and define the underlying rulesets but mostly that’s not what you do. You tend instead to learn behaviors in the way you would learn behaviors of animals and birds if you observed them while exploring the countryside where you lived. It feels a lot less game-like and anything that makes the experience feel less like playing a game is good for me since I don’t really have much time for or interest in games.


    • Re: fleeing mobs, unless you are giving every class a snare/root/execute ability though, the end result is that a portion of the playerbase just has a worse gameplay experience based on the Character Select screen. I distinctly remember this being a huge issue with Ret Paladins back in TBC WoW (when I started). And many Warlocks for that matter.

      It does force players to pay attention though, and perhaps the story potential (“and then the murloc chained into a patrol and I barely managed to escape!”) makes up for the annoyance. Still, I can’t help but feel there has to be a better way of doing things like that.


  2. Ryzom had/has “intelligent” mob behaviour. It’s interesting and engagin the first three times, then you know from the start if you should steamroll it or flee……


  3. People still pay attention to K&G? : /

    Your whole point about the inability to tell between random and dynamic behavior is something that’s been talked a lot about in Civ V, if you’ve ever heard of that game. The AI for the other leaders often seems COMPLETELY random for most players — they love now, now they hate you, now they want to be your friend, now they declare war on you, etc. But…once you learn the system in fact you can almost always control/predict easily how the AI will react. And that system often involves convoluted logic so most people think the AI is just acting more or less randomly.

    “It is trivially easy to create an opponent that a human player could never win against. Creating an opponent that taxes a player to their limit (and not beyond) is much more difficult, and the extent to which a player can be taxed varies by the player.”

    Indeed. What’s perhaps even harder is creating an opponent that’s challenging (yet beatable) for others of worse skill level. Making a boss that’s difficult for me to beat, great. I know what the limits of the game are and just how much you can pull off (or close enough). But designing for players who don’t? And making it appear possible yet still difficult? That’s much harder to do.

    Technically the same problem can apply in reverse, trying to design for people who are significantly better…but at least in those cases you can fall back on the mechanical constraints of the game (mostly). Figuring out the human factor is generally harder, in my opinion.


  4. I wouldn’t mind seeing different mob behaviors. I like the Diablo approach of having modifiers for various mobs and I could see that being baked in to a MMO, either obviously or behind the scenes. It’ll seem random, yes, but having a few different abilities or attack patterns might make grinding out Orc Peons more entertaining/engaging in the long run.


    • Hmm. You know, I would probably be fine with a sort of Modifier approach, now that I think about it. It might be random that this particular orc has the Nervous tag, but it wouldn’t be random to the player, who can then choose to strategize before engaging or simply avoiding that particular mob. You could possibly even attach higher chance at loot to incentivize taking on the challenge. I would be okay with that.


  5. I do feel a little bit of nostalgia for the early-WoW careful pulling and crowd control, and I suspect I could get into MMO combat that was slower and more cerebral.

    The key, imho, is making the rewards commensurate with the more fiddly gameplay and populating content with these smart mobs a bit more sparsely and in a more thought-out way than when designing for the traditional steamroller approach.

    I also remember being quite excited when ESO was announced about the innovation of extra xp and material rewards for handling mob combat with ‘finesse’. So if you had blocked the things that needed to be blocked, dodged the things that needed to be dodged and generally responded to the encounter well, you would get a higher drop rate of stuff, more xp, etc. The idea was scrapped, but I still think it was a pretty good one and possibly applicable to dealing with intelligent mob behaviour.


    • In terms of careful pulling and CC, I feel like the game was probably more fun… for the classes/specs that had that CC. As a Ret paladin, all I did was sit there and watch other people have fun, or watch them fail and get the party killed. Even if everyone had CC like in later expansions, certain people had better CC or ones on shorter cooldowns and were thus designated as the CC person. Not so fun for everyone else who had to sit, watch, and pray.


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