Massively Overthinking: Random encounters in MMORPGs

    
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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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Furiant
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Furiant

syberghost Furiant I’m proposing that it could be as memorable. I suspect you are envisioning what we’d get if, say, Blizzard or SOE just slapped in a system using current content creation pipeline. I’m talking about something more sophisticated. I’m also suggesting a change in perspective somewhat. 

No, you wouldn’t get That One Unique Item That Hogger Drops. But you could easily have a table of uniques like Diablo uses, that have a chance to be dropped by any number of mobs. And achievements could be rolled into this too; you wouldn’t get The One Achievement For Killing Hogger, but you could get a generated, yet encounter-specific achievement for that event. What’s the difference? At least your Joe Badguy achievement is truly unique, in the sense that no one else has that exact one. Other folks have their own achievements and unique gear, etc. from their own generated events, so it’s not like you’re the only one who has ever *done an event that awarded a unique or a title*, but you’re the only one with your specific rewards.

To me this would be at least as gratifying as being Player #684 this week to be awarded the “unique” Hogger’s Ring of Hogging.

syberghost
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syberghost

Furiant so, you put in enough code and assets for dozens of encounters, to get one five-minute piece of content, that can no longer have any unique gear drops or achievements. And as a bonus, it has generic AI, generic appearance, and a generic name.

Yeah, that’ll be WAY more memorable than Hogger.

Furiant
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Furiant

I’ve always wanted to see procedurally-generated villains in an MMO. One of the most glaring immersion-killers for me is people lining up to kill Joe Badguy, then all going back to the quest giver to get their reward, then heading back to kill him again 2 days later. I’d like to see a group kill Joe Badguy, and then that’s it. Nobody else will kill him, because he’s already dead. Maybe if Joe was a Bad enough guy, there might even be some kind of memorial or an inscription or a title like Slayer of Joe Badguy.

Obviously instancing would be a good strategy for this. And Joe might be any kind of villain at all – a necromancer, a giant troll, a sorcerer… He might have a cave lair or a ruined temple, or maybe he took over someone’s farm outside town. He might have undead minions or summon boulder golems or maybe he’s driven the locals mad. Once inside, given the base environment template (cave, temple, farm) the layout would be mixed up a bit (hopefully more than just ‘oh, they put the stairs on the right this time’). And so on. Given his archetype (necro, troll, sorc) his tactics and powers would be mixed up (hopefully more than just ‘oh he shoots green fire this time instead of purple fire’). 

So your party hears about this quest (maybe via a rumor, or because they’ve helped out that village before), talks to someone, gets a sense of whether they can help, what kind of team and gear to bring. They go give it a shot. If they fail, then Joe is still a problem. When someone takes him down, he’s done. 

There’s no reason this couldn’t be the default method of creating dungeon content. Yeah, we want story-driven epic arcs like The Wrath of the Lich King, and those might need to be handled differently, at least until we could figure out how to create convincing content at that scale. But I think it would restore a lot of immersion to personalize (by randomizing) your day-to-day badguy fare, and open up new perspectives of factions, reputation, recognition, etc. At least it would be better (to me) than the absurdity of being the 694th person today to tell Jane Goodgal that I’ve brought justice to Joe Badguy, and be rewarded with the 684th copy of her dead husband’s boots. 

Yes, poorly done procedural content can suck or be dry and predictable, but it doesn’t have to be poorly done. We have some really bright minds working in the industry; it would just require putting some focus on making it good.

“Farming” a boss… good god, how low is our bar set?

HidingCat
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HidingCat

ZenDadaist That’s exactly what’s going to happen. Every MMO I’ve been eventually becomes a race for efficiency. It works in L4D games because there’s no reason to be efficient – the journey is part of the fun. Most people in MMOs want loot, and once you put in enough locks even the most fun encounters will be gamed to get past said locks.

BryanCo
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BryanCo

“The Director, sometimes referred to as the AI Director, or simply as AID”
So the question is whether or not more games need AIDs?

PS:  Yeah, I feel kinda bad about that joke.  But once it entered my head I had to release it.

CistaCista
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CistaCista

TheChiHawk CistaCista  Your right lol

Landmark devs: Respawning is working as designed

“it’s clearly not working in a way that’s obvious or convenient to people”. Just goes to show that MMO audiences will complain over the predictability of games, but are horrified when they encounter unpredictability.

TheChiHawk
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TheChiHawk

Peregrine_Falcon Difficulty level played a role in this to a large degree. The harder the level, the more active the Director becomes.

TheChiHawk
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TheChiHawk

deekay_zero I think randomizing the maps are somewhat lazy. It also removes any planning ahead. It’s better to randomize mob types/sizes/locations and the most important element would be dynamic events like dropping a horde of necro wizards on your party to spice things up if your team is absolutely plowing through the mobs. Something to require the players to be awake instead of doing three other things while their action bar rotations cooldown. =D

TheChiHawk
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TheChiHawk

CistaCista I think this was Landmark. Am I remembering that correctly?

syberghost
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syberghost

Serrenity Dystopiq well, consider this; Storybricks was basically three guys. Daybreak has more AI experts than that.