Massively Overthinking: Random encounters in MMORPGs


This week’s Massively Overthinking question comes to us from Kickstarter donor TheChiHawk, and it’s coming from an unusually not-so-massive corner of gamesdom for us:

Are there any MMORPGs that employ a Left 4 Dead 2 type of “director feature”? It occurred to me that I still play L4D2 somewhat regularly because it continues to be fun due to the random element each time you play the same campaign. By contrast, the static layout of every single MMO I’ve played stands in stark contrast; you always know exactly what needs to be done. BORING! L4D2 would seem to be a perfect model for keeping things fun and uncertain with each new dungeon delve in an MMO. Why hasn’t anyone incorporated this into MMO games?

The director feature TheChiHawk is talking about is basically an AI governor for the whole game — with a twist. I’ll let the Left 4 Dead Wikia explain:

The Director, sometimes referred to as the AI Director, or simply as AID, is the artificial intelligence of Left 4 Dead that features a dynamic system for game dramatics, pacing, and difficulty. Instead of set spawn points for enemies, the Director places enemies in varying positions and numbers based upon each player’s current situation, status, skill, and location, creating a new experience for each play-through. The Director also creates mood and tension with emotional cues such as visual effects, dynamic music and character communication. Moreover, the Director is responsible for spawning additional health, ammo, weapons, and Special Infected, like the Witch or the Tank.

So let’s talk about MMO AI! I posed Chi’s question to the MOP team. Which MMOs have similar features? How do they work? Do they solve any major problems with MMO AI?

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The thing about the Director system is that while it feels random, it isn’t random. There’s just a larger spread of possible responses. It works, but it works in part due to a great deal of extra work done on map design to make sure that all of the semi-randomized parts work in concert without creating degenerate situations. Which is very much to the game’s credit, but it’s also something that increases map design time and adds in an element that can be relentlessly gamed.

Remember how WildStar’s quality judgments directly resulted in people throwing runs that were definitely not going to get a gold medal? Imagine that, but with a thousand more things that could be judged as a fail state. “Meh, it spawned the big guy here, just wipe and restart.”

That’s not to say that I think it’s a bad idea but that it’s a idea which needs a little more examination rather than just being dropped into an existing situation. Sure, it adds a slightly random element to gameplay, but just randomizing existing content with existing reward structures won’t work. If someone built a game using a similar conceit as a core concept, it’d be very interesting to see how it ultimately played out; it might well be a fascinating game.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): This is a really neat feature that I haven’t seen in many (or any, really) MMOs. Both regular and randomized dungeons seem to be set in stone once you step into them, and most players I know are very used to knowing exactly what to expect. Personally, I’d welcome more dynamic instances that changed to adapt to a group on the fly and kept triggering new challenges. Less meticulous pre-planning and studying boss fights, and more fight-by-the-seat-of-your-pants fun, that’s what I’d say.

This sort of toolset is what Sword Coast Legends is looking to do, albeit with a human at the controls instead of an AI. I’m watching this closely and hoping that if it works out, it might be something we see more of in MMOs in the future.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): Didn’t City of Heroes do something similar to this in its instances? I’m probably dodging the question a little bit here, but I think a better system beyond AID would be live player-generated content. I really like the idea of Shadow Realms. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen, but Sword Coast Legends gives me some hope. Recently, I’ve become a strong PvEer, but I’ve missed the unpredictable AI of PvP. I think a dynamic dungeon master system would be a heck of a lot of fun.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Personally the less likely I can predict an outcome, the better it is for me! The best stories to me are ones that can take me by surprise, and for me gaming is no less a story of my character’s life than a movie or book — I just happen to be living this one out. So AI that doesn’t follow a static, prescripted path is definitely a plus. I am obviously looking forward to the intelligence planned for EverQuest Next’s AI where mob behavior is determined by it trying to meet its needs. But I believe I am seeing this in ARK: Survival Evolved now. The dinos are not static spawns; they appear to migrate. I watched as some herbivores were chased off by a carnivore, and those herbivores settled into life in another area.

ARK, however, goes further than this Director Feather that spawns things as you get close. The fact that ARK’s world is truly persistent (you stay in the world even when logged out, as do your pets who exist in real space instead of hidden in your pocket) means that these world dynamics are changing all the time, so who knows what it will be like when you log in. I’m just hoping I do not wake up one day to having the house stomped on by some giant critter who doesn’t like my architecture designs!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’m putting myself last this week because I wanted to answer Larry! City of Heroes’ missions really did have that randomized element; you didn’t always know what mob types would be in that cave or that door, and the mobs inside would be randomized in their group makeup and position (to a degree) based on your character’s group size, difficulty, and level. That was true for dev-made missions and for player-made architect missions too.

Randomized maps and so forth work really well in games designed to be repetitive; Diablo clones like Hellgate: London come to mind. In MMOs, though? I didn’t mind it in the stylized format of CoH’s mission architect, but in most MMORPGs and virtual worlds? I’m not sure that randomizing repetitive content is really going to save them.

Your turn!

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