Monster AI

I had promised myself I wouldn’t waste more of my time writing about game design but today goes like this and I want to stop that itch.

Lum on monster AI:

This is not an experience people will pay for. Game design, in many ways, is convincing players that they won a struggle against imposing odds. It does not mean actually creating imposing odds.

Also, I have seen metrics prove conclusively, time and time and time and time again, that in a game that *does* have monsters with decent AI and that use strategies that require some thought to defeat, that players will avoid them in droves and seek out the ones with the most brain damaged AI possible.

Players dislike challenge. They SAY they like challenge. They lie.

I know he is generalizing, but I don’t quite agree.

Today, if I play a game where I feel I have to kill an easy monster over and over because it’s the faster path I’d unsubscribe faster than I can gain two levels. Sure, I WILL behave exactly like you describe, but not for long. It’s the wrong way to approach the problem. You also give for granted a bunch of arbitrary (but common) conditions. That the game is based on levels, that experience points are not linked directly to something specific you do and that the main draw of the gameplay is to grow the character’s power.

It is true that what you describe is a pattern that exists and is fairly common. I just don’t think you can take it and deduct rules and generalizations about it.

I’m writing this post because the other day I was thinking again about what’s wrong in Fallout and Oblivion combat. My answers are also pertinent to the topic here.

What’s wrong in Oblivion is that the combat “feels” generated through an editor. The monsters you encounter all share the same system. They just change a bunch of numbers relative to stats and dice rolls. It’s different graphic and animation linked to numeric variables (just different chances to dodge, parry, attack). The result is that it plays the same from the beginning to end.

The difference with games whose combat system I consider well done (like God of War) is that in these (those well done) monsters don’t share all the same rules or just have different variables regulating their actions, but they actually come into play and challenge the player in new ways.

Since the beginning I didn’t talk about “AI”, but about “patterns”. From my point of view no mmorpg needs an AI system (even less need it built and then all monsters in the game referencing to it), they just need fun variations. Different approaches.

We need NO AI. Think of WoW’s instances. Every monster there has all the tools to kill players at ANY time. But not. It will shout to you “Hey, I am going to use my special power in 60 seconds. Pay attention to the counter on screen, or you’ll die!”. What we have is “patterns”. Planned exits. The game and the encounter is only as good and fun as the pattern offered. What we have is clearly defined ways to win. To learn and execute within a margin of error. If you add too much randomness or unpredictability to the system you would just obtain something “opaque” that ends frustrating the players.

When it comes to MMOs we are still at the level of Space Invaders. If the waves of ships would come with some variation it would be already something. We need mobs that act as a group, that use their own unique tricks and skills differently from any other mob in the game. We need them to be environment-aware and not just random spawn points around a map. Oblivion feels mechanical like a MMO. The reason is that no monster is truly unique and built as a single entity. It’s just a database reference with different variables. All the game was generated through that system and the game reflects that. No modder could ever fix that because it’s not the *use* of the database to not work well, it’s the system itself that lacks versatility. You can “rearrange”, but it’s always the same game. The same gameplay.

As always the truth behind this is the same: there are no shortcuts.

Making (good) games is hard, takes time. Creating a monster, with lore, behavior and role in the game takes a whole lot of work. If you take shortcuts, because games need to be made within constraints of time and budget, then the result will reflect that.

But the problem isn’t that players enjoy dumb combat against database references and so dumb combat is what you should give them. Don’t learn the wrong lesson.

EDIT: I wanted to complete the concept. What I examined here is not specific to a MMO, but common to all games. It is more visible in a MMO because they are “stretched” single-player games. Right now no game company can afford to make 400 hours of gameplay. This is why a MMO dilutes the experience and uses other hooks to keep the players interested. The “grind” is just the revelatory feeling that comes from lack of actual gameplay. There are no shortcuts.

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