Artificial Intelligence. In MMO's, it refers to the behavior of NPC's/MOBS - basically, the stuff you'll be fighting. Current implementations of this behavior, or AI, is almost embarrassing to reference. While gaming AI in general has improved over the past decade, MMO AI has remained stagnant. Compare the mob behavior in a ten year old MMO, like Everquest, with one that's just been released, like Vanguard or LOTRO. It's the same old song, just slightly tweaked.
Developers give all sorts of reasons and excuses of why real or improved AI can't be implemented. Granted, sometimes, there are actual coding and technical restrictions that have to be taken into account. More often than not, though, companies are just unwilling to put the time, effort and money into making real, improved AI.
So where do we look to solve this problem? The community, of course.
Bethesda's Oblivion, or Elder Scrolls IV, released a year or two ago, was a pretty good game. Not multi-player, but for this purpose, it will serve as a great example. Oblivion, when released (the vanilla version, as its referred as), implemented AI that was actually not so great. While not bad, it was nothing to write home about. Encounters were pretty much the same, with goblins and daedra running up to you, smacking you around, then falling to your feet when dead. They'd use their standard combat abilities, and the ones that could heal themselves did, sometimes. Like I said, nothing spectacular here.
Enter the Oblivion modding community. I love these guys. All volunteers, just modding away at a game they love because they want to make it better. Anyway, in the slew of mods that were released, some real gems came out. Staying on subject, they tweaked the AI so well that you really didn't know what to expect when going into a battle. How tough is this guy? Will he run and go get help immediately? Is he a scout? Will he try some crazy weird tactics on me?
It must be a bit shameful to be a developer and have your game improved so drastically by a non-paid member of the community. It's like a priceless thing: Total cost to develop game: $12 Million -- Average salary paid to developer: $70K per year. Having your game made the way it should have been by someone who didn't get paid: Priceless.
Ok, not the best way to say it, but I hope my point is made. As I've preached before, people *want* to be challenged when playing a game. And staying true to my style, I'm going to list a few easy ways to make AI in MMO's to make more dynamic, challenging and fun encounters:
Hail thee, thou are not all the same!
Most MMO's use a simple method of "mob X" has behavior Y. That means every goblin, orc or demon you run up to is going to act pretty much the same. They might be different types of orc or goblin, like an archer, shaman or warrior, but those subclasses will usually act exactly the same way: The warrior will rush you, the archer will shoot you, and the shaman will blast you with a lightning bolt and heal himself or allies when needed. This basic logic is used throughout the entire game, so when you've fought something, you know how the future ones will react. Yay for ingenuity.
- Make AI randomized for every mob. It's not hard. Simply have a list of AI's to choose from. When the mob is born, he randomly gets an AI. Simple and yet so effective.
And how should it be randomized? Well, using the example above, for instance:
Brutal (won't run, fights to death)
Tactician: tries to get help first
Protector: Will shield healer/weaker allies
Coward: retreats easily
Randomly attacks anyone
Sniper, will always keep ranged
Coward: runs at 50%
Crazy: Loves to shoot random people
Mad: Likes melee, will attack anyone near
Runs to get help at first sign of trouble
Suicidal: won't heal anyone
Protector: heals everyone
Delusional: Thinks he is a warrior
Fight another day: If outnumbered, runs
Fights to the death
These are just quick examples I made in 5 minutes. It's simply to show you how even the most basic encounter can be made into a dynamic and fun event. Think of you and your traveling bunch of lunatics running into a group of orcs where the warrior runs to get help, the archer randomly shoots people and the shaman is suicidal. Sure, you'll probably still win, but at least it allows for scenarios that are changing.
Knowing is half the battle... or all of it?
- Get rid of titles and levels that will instantly tell how the mob will behave and how hard it will be.
Hail, level 5 orc Shaman. I do know that you'll be a moderate challenge to me, although I've never met you. However, I've already killed 20 other mobs with the exact same name, look and behavior of you. Oh, this battle will be fun!
Getting rid of the simple mob name of "orc shaman" is a first step. Losing the level system, or at least the blatant "I am this level" is the next step. That also brings me to my next point:
A detailed enemy: shedding the plague of uncreativeness
- Bad guys have names, too. Instead of creating rare "named mobs", give every mob an actual name. This will add realism and eliminate the "I know what you are" mentality.
Instead of using something like "orc warrior" or "orc shaman", simply use a name chosen randomly from a list. Even a simple list of 200 names (easily obtainable via orc name generators found online) will be enough to put personality into boring old MMO fights. I think it'd be much more exciting to fight 3 orcs named Garbaz, Dragar and Sarkash than 3 orcs named "orc warrior", "orc shaman", and "orc archer". You might actually have to look at them to see what they're capable of.
That's it for now. 3 easy ways to make AI in MMO's more exciting, dynamic and unknown.