Massively Overthinking: Bots in MMOs – but not the bad bots

    
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A while back on the MMORPG subreddit, there was a provocative thread about bots – no, not those bots. Essentially, the Redditor asked whether people would still be game to play an MMO if they didn’t know whether the other people in the game were real or AI. The question didn’t get the response I think it deserved (a lot of trolling, as is typical), but I wanted to dig into it.

The idea here is that you probably don’t interact with most of the people you see in MMOs anyway; they’re just part of the background noise of making the game and its locations feel populated, so you might not even miss much if many of them were replaced with automata. In fact, I’d go a step further and suggest that if you’re looking for immersion, bots may actually do a better job of making the simulation feel real, as they’re more likely to do normal things like walking instead running everywhere, dancing on mailboxes, and flopping around on their sparkling mounts. I can also think of some specific gameplay mechanics that would be improved by the addition of NPCs.

Let’s talk about bots in this week’s Massively Overthinking. Would you actually want an MMO whose world had so many bots (and advanced-enough AI) that you couldn’t tell them apart from players? Would it creep you out too much, Westworld-style? Or would you be pleased that fewer actual humans were around to ruin the game, as long as there were enough humans to flesh out your guilds and groups and PvP battles? Would it matter at all?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): This is a funny topic, since I just found out many of my friends seem to think I’m an extrovert. They only found out recently I’m not because I pushed myself too hard by staying “on” for too long.

But that’s the thing: it’s far easier for me to be social and keep up my “mask” when I’m online. I know we have a chunk of “alone together” people, but that just makes me lonely. I may not exactly like most people I meet, but I’m constantly searching for people I do, and if I found out a cool person I met was just a bot I’d be pretty bummed… unless they were super sentient and could tell me about robot dreams. Then we could still be buds. I suppose they work to help fill out teams in lobby-based PvP games, but MMOs are still virtual worlds for me, and at best, I’d prefer the “bots” to be offline players, like in Age of Wushu, especially if players can at least program them a bit with their character’s personality.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’m exactly the kind of person who mods in tons of extra NPCs in my Elder Scrolls games to make them feel more alive and lived-in and realistic and bustling, but I’m not actually fooled, and I’m not sure I’d even want to be.

Remember how in Westworld some of the characters just couldn’t enjoy relationships (or anything else) with other characters until they were sure it was “real”? They’d come to a themepark to be immersed, and they knew the NPCs were robots, but what they wanted was human contact, so the characters would come up with little tests to make sure they were interacting with real humans. Some of the more sociopathic characters didn’t care at all. Others got sucked in a little too hard into wanting the robots to be real.

I think I fall into the first group. I don’t really want to be fooled. I came to MMOs for the real people. But I still want the bots there too, especially if they’re milling around to provide that sense of realism actual humans don’t or subbing in for humans (like Guild Wars’ heroes) when there are simply not enough humans around.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): It makes perfect sense. It’s a virtual world. I don’t see a reason not to fill it with virtual people. Considering the outcry from the larger MMO population about removing dungeon finder for Wrath of the Lich King Classic, I get the vibe that today’s average MMO players are more into getting a dungeon/raid done more than trying to actually socialize. Might as well get bots to do those too.

Makes me wonder what the point of playing an MMO with bots is, though. If bots get added, then that just puts it in the same vein as The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind or something. Why play an MMO when there are moddable single-player games available?

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I mean… probably? If the bots behaved in such a way that they were indistinguishable from players, I guess I’d be fine with it. But I also kind of feel like I’d still notice somehow. Filling the world with activity definitely makes it seem more alive and bots have a role in aiding that, but I also argue that those stupid player behaviors like standing at (or on) mailbox or crafting everywhere or dancing at random is part of the endearment of feeling latent MMO community energy, and that seems hard to encapsulate through AI without me feeling being weirded out.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I am happy to group with NPCs where that feature is available. Most of the AI in current games is pretty dismal, but I have seen some improvement over the years. If NPC-bots were better at chatting, I wouldn’t need real people at all.

OK, that is an exaggeration, but I do see that there is room for better AI to create deeper NPC interactions and better immersion. Just having some NPCs walk around in non-repetitive, not-obviously-scripted ways would make things feel more “real,” for example. Having more open dialogue between players and NPCs would be great for immersion. Letting the NPCs talk to each other in less predictable ways would also flesh out the “people” in the game world. All of that comes at a cost, though, and in the end, a lot of people are playing Murder Hobo Simulator, so that could be a waste of development time and money.

I am a huge nerd for social AI and robotics, so I am probably not the best person to ask. I have to restrain myself from saying, “HELL YEAH! More artificial/virtual people and critters everywhere!” I own two aibos, for goodness sake.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): If many of the other characters in game were just AI, I don’t think I’d have much of a problem with it at all. As described, if they really were advanced enough that they were nearly indistinguishable and intermixed with real players, I think it’d be cool even.

One of the main goals I want from my game time is immersion. So it doesn’t make a huge difference for me whether all the people I see are actual people or not. 99% of the players I see in game currently may as well be bots as it is. I don’t chat or interact with most players. I just see them running their quests and occasionally we work together on a common goal before going our separate ways.

In fact, while I was recently playing Robocraft, I noticed a lot of the players were probably bots, and really it didn’t faze me much. If the option were mixed in bots or no game at all, I’ll take a mix of bots.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I mainly play solo or in PUGs anyway, so assuming the bots were programmed well enough to not be a liability, I’d be fine with this. It would be a great option for preserving older, low-population games, as well.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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