Massively Overthinking: Could bots save dying MMORPGs?

I'm going to write that MMO about the snarky robot I always wanted to!

Last week, a reader named Chris, who is writing a paper on the MMO industry and revivifying sunsetted games, dropped an intriguing question into my inbox. It’s about bots – but not the sort of bots EVE Online is constantly fighting. The good kind.

“Do you think people would be interested in coming back to ‘closed’ MMO games if they were populated with AI bots instead of real players (to make them feel alive/populated)?” he asked me.

Let’s ponder that for today’s Overthinking. Certainly we’ve seen bots put to work in games like Camelot Unchained, which uses them to test massive numbers of players on the battlefield. Would you want to see them in live play? Would they help the feel of the world in ways that default NPCs simply would not? Is the AI even doable? Could AI bots take our place to make MMORPGs even better – or even to keep them viable and save them from destruction?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m a big fan of AI and robots, but I’m also someone who would strongly consider cyborgizing myself and side against humanity to form a third faction in the inevitable humans vs. machines war.

I think while it’s an interesting idea to have AI bots along with humans, there’s a lot of questions I would have. How advanced would they be in terms of AI? Would they be always around with their own goals, or essentially Westworld bots there with a very strict function and inability to progress? Would we know who’s AI and who’s real very easily? And what worries me is how marketing/monetization might be abused – would they also be a kind of pet/escort we’d have to pay for if we wanted an AI partner to play with? Would people be able to fill their guilds with bought AI to have a larger presence and potential farming power?

I love the idea, and no matter what, I’d love to explore that world. But without specifics, it’s really hard to judge right now how much it could help or hinder a game. All I know is that the novelty alone would be a huge boost for the game utilizing it!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): When Chris first posed me this question, I had three immediate thoughts.

First, my mind went to Morrowind, one of my favorite games of all time – though not an MMO. I run a ton of mods, with probably half a dozen that add more NPCs and conversations to better populate and enrich the world. It does work to make the game feel more like a living game world – but it doesn’t help much to make the game feel less lonely.

Second, I thought of Westworld. Clearly, exceptional AI bots are pretty convincing. Getting to that level of believability is easier in a video game, though harder for the player to become immersed once he realizes they’re just interactive scenery. Maybe you’d be a young William falling in love – or maybe you’d be a Logan, totally unimpressed with the mere bots and just looking for ways to mess with them. So much depends on the player in a sandbox, by design.

My final thought was for classic Guild Wars’ heroes, which I think is probably the closest approximation to the type of bots that would actually be the most use here – they aren’t just NPCs standing around but NPCs who literally make the difference between completing content and not. Given how angry some players became over first the addition of henchies, then the addition of heroes, then the expansion of heroes to seven per party – meaning no humans besides the player were required – I think that alone proves bots can be critical. You couldn’t play GW1 today without them; they literally keep the game functional right now.

So yes, I think bots could save dying or dead or empty or revivified MMOs to a degree, particularly themeparks. On the other hand, I suspect we’re a long way from creating NPCs that could make a sandbox about homesteading and long-cons feel real enough.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The funny thing about this question is that… well, it’s already been done. I can speak to its implementation in Final Fantasy XI. Where it’s clean, efficient, and a perfect solution to the game’s existing party-based setup from top to bottom. Seriously, rather than rewriting the whole game’s structure to be more solo-based, it just provides you with a crew of AI-controlled companions that also happen to be many of the more important story characters, which at once answers the longstanding question of why NPCs don’t help you with Ye Olde Importante Storie Questte (with a bit of side-eye, anyhow) and keeps the core of the game working just fine.

Of course, ideally the solution is to keep the game’s content universally relevant, but I feel like FFXI’s Trust companions do a perfect job of fixing the issue when dealing with a game where the real problem is simply the drop in overall player population. No game remains equally popular forever, and it’s a good way to keep older stuff accessible and often fun all by itself. Nor does it stomp on having other players around; FFXI is still lots of fun to explore with other people, it’s just no longer mandatory.

So I think it’s a pretty clean and clever way to keep the game enjoyable. It’s something that has to be approached gently and with care, but isn’t that always the case?

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I really had high hopes that Storybricks — the AI that was being coopted for use in EverQuest Next — would have given life to otherwise static NPCs. I would desperately love to see a game world populated by computer characters that do more than stand around and show up for cutscenes. CRPGs have come a long way in scripting NPCs, but by giving them choices, preferences, and routines, they could be made to be a lot more than what we’ve seen so far.

That said, computers can’t replace real people for that sense of real community. It might superficially help, but we’re pretty good at telling the difference. NPCs would probably hop around a lot less, for one.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): AI that goes about living the game and giving me more immersion instead of folks who scream obscenities in chat, grief, and harass folks? Um, yah — totally sign me up. In fact, this is something I was so looking forward to with the Storybricks AI that was touted for EverQuest Next. I would love my world to be populated by many characters that have living, breathing lives aside from canned interactions with me. I could go on and on about this, but I won’t give Bree a headache with a massive word count.

My problem with them being a way to liven up a dying/dead world is who would pay for the AI to be there? If there aren’t players funneling funds to developers, there’s no way to foot that bill. If you mean to give me personal servers with only players I invite like the survival games do but in a vast MMO world populated with AI, mmm yah that sounds pretty amazing.

Your turn!


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This question could be rephrased as: “do you want more and smarter NPCs?” If this allows me to play MMORPGs in single-player mode, yes please.

I know MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, and I am very aware of what that means, but the two things in MMORPGs that annoy me the most are other players and being forced to experience The Story. So, what’s my ideal game? A single-player version of EvE Online (MEvE Online?), preferably with a ton of bots/NPCs simulating other players.

Why simulate other players if you can have the real thing? The reasons are simple. Too many “real” players are just jerks, and all of them break any kind of immersion you could have.

TotalCowage .

This is an exceptionally weird question to me; what need would Bots be fulfilling?

You either miss the company of others, in which case Bots are a worse result because in my mind you’ve reached the point of loneliness you’ll accept a simulation of other people… instead of following your real friends to new pastures.

Or the MMO doesn’t work, say because it needs an active economy and there aren’t enough players, in which case I’d maybe like to see NPC “Farmers” just to maintain the sense of economic engagement… but I don’t need them to be wider Bots actually doing anything, indeed they might actually get in the way of the players by being able to out compete them through automation.

I just don’t get the idea though that I’d go back to a specific game for those illusions. If I enjoy the game, I’d play it regardless of how full it looks.


What a strange and frankly silly idea.

This is like asking if a parasite can save a dying host. If it did… the host would simply forever be a survival vessel for the parasite and nothing more. The parasite would simply draw all nutrients from the host leaving the host with almost nothing and taking everything for itself.


Personally I think AI is very underused in MMOs and can be the next big thing. We’ll see who takes the risk.

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I really liked the idea Elyria had where you can write scripts for your character to do things when you’re logged off. (This is particularly appealing to me as a programmer and reminded me a little of Dragon Age Origins and II’s combat system where I had buckets of fun designing elaborate combat strategies for my squad and then letting them go at it.) So the world would seem more populated, even if you’re logged in at a time when everyone else is logged off. Plus it’s player driven. It would also be cool if player characters could create NPCs that would hang out and do things even when the PC isn’t online.

That said, I don’t think that bots who act like PC is the best idea. Are they going to learn from actual players how to communicate? I’m sure something would happen like that twitter bot that Microsoft created that started saying a bunch of offensive stuff and had to be shut down.


This is a tough one. While it has been done as Eliot say, I still wonder how one might feel in a world populated largely by non-human entities? Loneliness?
I still am a believer in real people working cooperatively. Yeah bots can take up that slack on an almost dead server, but they aren’t human thus no real contact.
I might start out trying an old mmo like this for the experience and see how I liked it, but something tells me it is more or less just soloing everything.

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I mean, if you’re going to create AI good enough to emulate players, you might as well just use it for your NPCs.

Having said that, I recently played on a player-run UO server with advanced (well, for UO) AI modeled after players. It sucked. I mean, it was good AI, but it only served to show how shitty UO magic-based PvP was with spamming and potion chugging and such.

The problem with filling an empty game with bots is that players will know they’re bots, which really just makes them NPCs.


Whether or not bots could save a dying game would depend on why it’s failing in the first time, but at the very least bots can slow down the descent and buy devs more time to fix the issues (or to milk a bit more revenue from the game before it closes).

BTW, I would love having bots under my command for just about every MMO I play. Bots would turn grouping from mandatory to optional, something that could greatly improve the experience for me even on still active MMOs.


I just woke up and my brain is half asleep, so forgive me if I make no sense in my morning ramblings.

Advanced Bots wouldn’t save a dying game or make it feel populated by real people no. That said, advanced AI bots acting and doing things like people could have their uses in games that are trying to emulate MMORPGs, in offline modes if a game was going to go under and wanted to transition into letting people play single player versions of it somehow, or in smaller personal servers that couldn’t have many people on them otherwise.

They’d possibly work for an MMORPG Museum too. I still would like to see actual MMORPG museums that would hold old MMORPGs for future people to be able to go back and experience rather than just have them fade into obscurity.

For old video games there are all sorts of emulators and things that handle that sort of things but for MMORPGs it’s more complicated and they need the backend server software that’s handling things rather than just the client, which normally people can’t get ahold of.

Anyway in the situation where an MMORPG museum actually could exist (be it a place you could download old MMORPGs off and actually experience them), such a thing could help emulate the feeling of what it was like to actually play them with other people rather than just seeing the game by yourself without the museum having to actually have running servers to hold people playing them.

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In MMOs still alive, no, not interested. I see advanced AIs and bots as a way to improve gameplay on top of an existing population, but not as a way to compensate it. I’d be there to play with people, so it would be a letdown to have to settle for bots.

However, in already dead MMOs with no hopes of revival (or older/pre-expac game versions), sure! I’d love to be able to run an MMO on my computer with bots to replace players, just to be able to play the game again. It would certainly have an eerie atmosphere, but it would be great.