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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.

Server Merges Are Coming

Blizzard is calling them “Connected Realms,” but it occurs to me that in the future, any MMO dev can simply call their server merges “connected realms” to bypass the negative stigma surrounding the term. “We’re not merging, we’re connecting! Which is like merging, except with a hashtag!”

On a different note, this quote from the Connected Realms FAQ is a nice follow-up to yesterday’s post (emphasis mine):

Connected Realms also allow us to link populations in a way that’s not disruptive to players, and that doesn’t negatively impact players’ sense of identity and character. Other alternatives such as merging realms would require us to force character name changes if there were conflicts, and could lead to confusion for returning players who’d log in to find their realm missing from the realm list. Some players also feel strong ties to their realm’s name or history, and we don’t want to erase that.

Let me ask you something, and get ready to have your mind blown. What is a realm’s name or history if not the collection of people in it? What is the difference between Auchindoun-US, the shit-hole I played on for 4+ years, and something like Stormrage-US, one of the highest-populated servers in WoW?

The people. That’s it. Auchindoun’s Lower City looks exactly the same as Stormrage’s Lower City. Arthas looks the same, the mobs look the same, the resource spawns are the same, the quests are the same, every single thing is the same.

While the speed of opening the AQ Gates or whether there was a server first heroic Lich King kill before the expansion comes out differs depending on the server, that is simply due to – again – the people. The AQ gates are open everywhere. Deathwing is dead everywhere. Garrosh will be a raid boss everywhere soon. Remove the people, and every single MMO server is the same.

This is why I cock an eyebrow at “dynamic” and “emergent” anything. EQN is going to have StoryBrick AI in there somewhere. Cool… but is that going to mean Server A has a completely different ecology than Server B? If not, we must have radically different definitions of what those words mean. Player ecologies differ between servers of course, sometimes radically, and make the server distinctions worthwhile. But servers differing on the development side? As far as I know, that hasn’t happened yet.

Anyway: server merges in WoW. Given how my friends bailed out of Auchindoun and to a PvE server during the half-price sale a while back, there is literally nothing to go back to. Should I ever desire to. For Press™ reasons. That $25 a pop price though… jesus. The suits over there sure like making the decision easy.

The Siren Call of Dynamism

Looks like we have the next Jesus game:

EverQuest Next Could Fix Everything Wrong With MMORPGs

I’ve played every major massively multiplayer role-playing game released since 1998, yet it feels like I’ve spent the past 15 years playing the same game over and over again. That’s a problem. EverQuest Next is the solution.

I probably should have stopped reading that Kotaku article right there, but I’m a masochist at heart.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the things I’m reading about EverQuest Next sound interesting. Voxel-based things, somehow without looking like Cube World. And… err… yeah. Classless/multi-class systems like The Secret World/FF11. Stylized graphics like WoW, Firefall, Wildstar. Red zones on the ground that you shouldn’t stand in, like most every game these days. Jumping and “parkour” (which means what, exactly, in this context?) like in Guild Wars 2. Reducing abilities down to eight, like Guild Wars 2 again. Dynamic events and “calls to arms” like Guild Wars 2 and Firefall and Warhammer. Hell, considering they brought over Jeremy Soule to do their soundtrack, they probably should have just called the game EverGuildQuestWars2Next.

Then there are the hype red flags. A StoryBricks-based AI that wanders around and sets up camp organically? Neat. But then I started reading this interview:

So, to better understand the Rallying Calls, I wasn’t clear on some things with David Georgeson’s example: say you’ve built a big city, and built these stone walls around it, and now an army has come for a siege. Is that something that happens over a couple hours, or a week?

McPherson: That army siege lasts until the players on the server have completed that stage.


With the “emergent AI,” though, how can you maintain something indefinitely? If the army comes to attack, and is defeated outright in an hour or the players just ignore it, what then? Do you keep spawning enemies?

Butler: Until the things that spawn them are destroyed.


So, if orcs are released into the world and wander around looking for areas they like, they’re not coming from some point and spreading outward, they’re spawning from camps they set up?

McPherson: Right, perfect example. So in phase four of this Rallying Call, four large orc warband camps spawn in the hills. Those camps are literally swarming with orcs.

Butler: And they’re unassailable.

McPherson: Until you meet the requirements to move on to that next area and eliminate those. Then you and your army push past them and assault them in their homeland.

Butler: You try to fireball the palisade walls in the orc camps, but the fireball doesn’t take down the walls because you need catapults, because that’s what unlocks the next phase and gives you the ability to assault the camps directly.


What happens if players don’t do any of this?

Butler: It’s simple, it doesn’t advance. So just like a chapter of a book, right? You’ve got your personal storyline, you’re playing through the game. Your personal contribution and the story that goes with it goes on at whatever pace you choose to pursue. The server has a storyline as well, expressed with these Rallying Calls. If players choose not to pursue them, the clock just doesn’t advance.

Oh. So… these things are completely indistinguishable from anything we’ve seen a thousand times before, all the way back to simple phased quests in WoW? Will there be a little “Catapults put into position: 0/2” blurb in the middle-right side of the screen too? How dynamic and revolutionary.

Getting back to the Kotaku article, the author presents his final conclusion like this:

Addressing the Real Problem

Boredom is the enemy of the MMORPG, plain and simple. Now matter how gorgeous the world, or how animated the player base or how compelling the game itself, eventually all of that content the developers spent years creating is going to grow stale.

That’s the real problem here. MMORPGs have traditionally been developed much like single-player games. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. They can be padded with downloadable content, but they’re still single-player games with other people crammed in there to keep us from realizing that we’re playing the same thing over and over again.

Maintaining a strong community helps, but its not enough. To really solve the core problem, you’ve got to create what so many games before have promised — a living, breathing, ever-changing world.

EverQuest Next sounds like the solution to me.

Now, he says he has been playing MMOs for the last 15 years, but I get the distinct impression that he hasn’t. All long-term compelling MMO content is player-based. An ever-changing world is irrelevant in comparison to a completely static world populated with other people you like hanging around with. People are still playing the original EverQuest for god’s sake! This is besides the fact that there isn’t a “living, breathing, ever-changing world” in EQN or anywhere.

Even if EQN or some future game actually managed to pull it off, would you even want to play it? As I pointed out back in 2011, player impact on the game world is considerably less interesting than many people make it out to be. Imagine if xxArthasDKlolxx killed an NPC and now you can never interact with said NPC again. Is that what you want? Feature sets that include “destructible environments” always have to be followed up by explanations about how it isn’t permanent, lest new players be introduced to a cratered wasteland made by bored griefers.

EVE has been in the news lately with its dynamic player impact, but all of that has been confined to player social structures, and not the game-world itself; star systems have changed ownership, but it’s not as though there are less NPCs or ice rocks in the universe.

That’s how you do dynamic content: with people. Whether orcs spawn in the valley or on the hill is extremely trivial, considering you still have to remove them in pretty much the same manner as you did 15 resets ago. GW2 has committed itself to two-week content obsoletion cycles, which I guess is one way to avoid the tedium of redoing the same thing over and over. Then again, even if the set pieces change, you are still interacting with the world the same way, more or less, as you did at level 1. “Kill this, click that, jump here, fill up your meter, claim rewards.”

I’m not saying that dynamic/changing content can’t be fun, I’m saying that dynamic content is not some silver bullet for boredom. Things might change randomly or dynamically, but your understanding of their mechanics only increases over time. Nils has talked about this years ago, as I have, but I think Klepsacovic summed it up more poetically here:

That last part is the key: anything I could think of.  Early on I did not imagine what else I could want to do in this world.  I’d done only a tiny fraction of what I could.  This had two effects.  One was that I had not run into a limit yet.  The other was that I could not imagine a limit.  I did not imagine that the sky ended, that the quests ended, that the raids could all be done.  These were all true, but since I did not know them and did not even imagine them, they were irrelevant.  I was running the infinite distance of a circular path.

Since then I’ve learned and my behavior has changed.  I do not run in circular paths.  I run out, find the edge, map it out, and then fill it in.  This means that very early on my mind has already filled the size of the world, so that all that can happen after are details, with nothing big to be revealed.  In my mind it looks like two strategies for filling in a circle.  Both start at the center.  One draws a line out to the edge and now the radius is known.  It then spirals inward, knowing exactly where it is headed.  The other starts the spiral at the center.  It will cover the same area, but it will do so not knowing where the edge is, what the limits are, until it reaches them.

Cynicism is easy, but it’s also an appropriate response to any claim that non-player dynamism is going to solve anything. You can still get bored playing a procedurally-generated game; if that fact is not the simplest indictment of the intellectual bankruptcy of Mike Fahey’s Kotaku argument, I don’t know what is. People are the only thing that will continue making a game interesting once you have mapped out the circle. The player-built structures and other such things might bridge the gap, but it won’t be enough if you aren’t making friends and setting down roots. Given how EQN is F2P though… well, I’m not holding out hope for a particularly stable, long-term community.

All that said, EQN is now on my radar. If it’s fun, I’ll play it. Hell, I’m kinda interested in the incredibly devious EQN Landmark “game” where you’ll likely pay SOE for the privilege of building content for them (Landmark is F2P, but that just means the costs are hidden). Imagine building your own house – as in, your IRL house – and placing that in game… or selling it to other people. I have never used Portal 2’s puzzle-making feature, but I am always a fan of developers giving players tools to build in-game stuff. Crowd-sourcing is great, but even better is the ability to sorta build your own game design portfolio.

Would I get bored with EQN eventually? No doubt. But I don’t see that inevitability as a negative – it is simply the natural consequence of learning and experiencing things. An MMO doesn’t have to last forever to be worth playing. People and relationships don’t last forever either, but I don’t see anyone saying those are a waste of time.

Bold and Spectacular… Server Merges?

This news is technically more than a week old, but there was a blue post made by Zarhym that really struck me as… well, read for yourself:

Having said all that, yesterday we discussed low-population and faction-imbalanced realms with our developers. They have some pretty bold and spectacular plans for addressing this in anticipation of implementing some of the features we plan to in Mists. I just don’t have a lot of information to share with you at this stage of programming and development.

My first reaction is in the title: bold and spectacular… server mergers? Assuming that is not what they are doing, well, what are they doing? What could they be doing?

I believe it was in a recent episode of The Instance that the hosts were talking about the concept of moving towards a server-less solution, or perhaps more accurately a “dynamic server” solution. We can imagine that instead of always logging onto Auchindoun or Earthen Ring or wherever, you simply log into a server. Once that server starts to fill towards capacity, people will start logging into a new server. This essentially eliminates low-pop and/or faction imbalanced servers entirely, aside from very last server booted up.

There are several obvious downsides to such a method. First, everything will be like LFD for servers; the likelihood of you making friends “in the wild” is severely diminished since you probably won’t ever see them again. A possible counter-measure would be to weight the system so that you are nearly guaranteed to be placed in the same “server” as people on your Friends List. Think that DK was a pretty cool guy when you were doing dailies? Add him to Friends, maybe see him again. What happens, though, if your Friends List network splits off to different servers based on their Friends Lists? Even if you make it possible to change servers through the UI or whatever, other issues crop up. For example, how will the AH be handled? One mega-AH, ruled by botters?

Aside from the dynamic server idea, I had the thought about simply moving towards LFR-ifying everything – not with queues, but with phasing. Imagine the following: you’re on a low-pop ghost town (i.e. Auchindoun), and you walk into Westfall for some alt questing. Instead of the place simply being dead, it is fairly vibrant… with people from other low-pop servers. Instead of an empty Auchindoun Westfall and an empty Dragonmaw Westfall, there is a kind of meta-Westfall that both servers share. Their AHs would remain separate, their Stormwinds would remain separate, their Tol Barads would remain separate, but any kind of dead zone would be shared. If a bunch of people congregated in Westfall for some reason, the servers could simply phase out the other side.

Or maybe “bold and spectacular plans” is simply LFD scenarios, or LFR Tol Barads.

All I know is that low-pop and/or imbalanced realms is a huge, systemic problem in two-faction games. In my four years, I never played on anything other than low-pop realms; any time I heard excitement over Sunwell-esque unlocking of vendors or world raid bosses or WG/TB-based PvP objectives, I always rolled my eyes. Those things do not work on Auchindoun, nor on many other servers. Fundamentally, you and I may as well be playing entirely different games.

If Mists is really focused on getting people out of cities and back into the world, Blizzard is going to have a big problem in low-pop realms when everyone is outside and they still can’t see each other.