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r1ft Gaming Blog

A mirror of my gaming blog at r1ft.com. The jaded game designer turned corporate lackey. Feedback is always welcome.

Author: Daedren

Queer I for the AI

Posted by Daedren Sunday June 10 2007 at 3:58PM
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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:


Orc Warrior

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


Orc Archer

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


Orc Shaman

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.

Making Static Spawns More Dynamic

Posted by Daedren Saturday June 9 2007 at 8:14AM
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Static spawn points can be summarized as "Locations in a virtual world where an object or entity is born." The dynamic behind this is vital for a persistent world to provide constant things to gather, kill, or otherwise harass and interact with. While it might not be the most realistic thing, it's a necessary evil that will need be implemented, at least in some way, shape or form.


Past MMORPG's use pretty much the same system: Static or somewhat randomized (in a general area) of X Y Z coordinates for entity #whatever being born. This way, when a player runs into the woods, spiders and bears and boars (oh my) are abounding, wandering to and fro on set paths.


How can we improve on this? Let me show you the ways.


Changing Static to Dynamic?


  • Static spawn points can be tweaked, depending on the entity, to provide more realism.

For example, let's take ... Rad Scorpions! So, we have a bunch of Rad Scorpions. Shall we put them in a field with X Y Z coordinates, static walking paths, etc? That's no fun!


For this example, it's easy to change a static spawn point to something more realistic. Say, inside a cave. Or, inside some rocks. Whatever the place is, the player won't be able to get there. And to add to the fun, the Rad Scorpions won't just run out of the cave or rock. Maybe they will, but maybe they'll wait until there are 3-5 of them together to come out.


This example shows how easy it is to make a static spawn point a dynamic encounter. Hero goes jaunting off to the Rad Scorpion cave. He shoots a few scorpions in the eyes with his BB-gun. It's quiet... where'd they all go? OH MY GOD 4 JUST CAME OUT OF THE ROCKS THEY'RE COMING FOR ME AHHH!


That's the sort of encounters we'd like to see. Of course, this scenario is easy with entities such as Scorpions, Rats, and generally small things that can burrow and live in places people can't go.


But what about big things like Deathclaws and humans like Slavers?


Well, things get more complicated here, of course.


Regarding Human and Intelligent Encounters


Stepping back and looking at the current implementation of these encounters is sadly amusing. Nothing like walking down the street or being knee-deep in a bad guys hideout when *POOF* people just pop out of thin air and attack. The sad part about is that gamers are so desensitized to this thing that they don't care. Does this mean we should take an apathetic approach and not improve on this archaic system? Of course not!


Here are a few quick solutions to this:


  • Don't have entities appear within a certain distance of any players.
  • Set distant "spawn points" where reinforcements or packs of things will come to aid. (like a slaver patrol coming into the hideout once it senses trouble, or a pack of deathclaws stalking into the den to protect it)
  • Make spawn points dynamic in location, time, and strength.
  • Randomize spawn cycles and points so that it's not predictable where a given entity will "respawn" after a given amount of time.

Any of these would make for a more dynamic, fun and challenging encounter.


In conclusion, making static spawning more dynamic is doable. Simply:
  • Randomize entity strength, location, and spawn cycle intervals.
  • Get away from the static X Y Z , time M coordinate/timer mentality.
  • Add a surprise factor in encounters that will constantly keep players on their guard. (how did that scorpion learn to use a machine gun?!)
  • Lastly, don't be afraid to implement ideas because they are complex or hard to code.

Do you have more ideas on how to make spawning more dynamic? We'd like to hear it!

Fighting Death: The Fragile Hero/Heroine

Posted by Daedren Friday June 8 2007 at 7:48AM
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It constantly amazes me how easily a character can die in most, if not all, current MMORPG's. Whoever originally thought up the system "Player gets to 0 hit points, dies instantly" system really must have worked hard on that one. Can't we do any better than that? The answer is yes. Yes we can. And we're damn well going to do it.


The Fallout series implemented a system where a character was knocked unconscious, then bled to death over time (or died instantly if horribly injured). This alone is miles above most any mechanics that you'll see on the market today.


However, we're going farther. Much farther. So far you might not even believe it.


And now, for our tentative ideas of ...


Mommy, what happens when Daddy gets his ass kicked?


Here's a scenario. Our brave vaulter has decided to go alone and take on some slavers. For some reason, he wants to go in and kill everyone of them at a certain location. However, our vaulter isn't feeling well today. Maybe some bad rat-kabobs. Oh no! He pissed himself mid battle! He could be going... he could be... yes, he is... he's down!


Now what can happen? Chances are, you were just knocked out or incapacitated. And that can lead to...


  • Slavers take his valuables, and throw him in a cesspit.
  • Slavers try to heal him, tie him up, and sell him as a slave.
  • Vaulter was knocked unconscious. Nearby there were other vaulters, who bested the Slavers. Vaulter 1 is revived or aided up. Or he's left to die. Whatever.
  • Vaulter surrenders before. That's right, surrenders. What kind of hero surrenders? Well, one thats going to smooth talk his way out of this mess, maybe?
  • Bubo the slaver thinks your cute. He fixes you up real nice, and you get to be his bitch. Oh, and don't worry: people will find out.
  • Slavers kill our poor vaulter.

That's only a simple scenario. There are so many different things to do in these situations. I think that's a good sample of what *can* happen in a given encounter. The options are going to be numerous, and they'll keep you laughing, crying and praying for a while.


To maintain viability and overall realism, encounters will be made with this mentality in mind. Situations of what can happen will vary depending on what you are fighting (carnivore animals being less forgiving then say, some poor brahman you just got your ass kicked by) and intelligent encounters will really be sky's the limit.


 

Now that we've cleared up that dying itself won't be as common as in other games, it still leaves the question:


Where does a Vaulter go when he dies?


This system is of course, up for review and discussion, as we speak! Finding a perfect balance of realism and practicality is the ultimate goal here.


So, I won't release details until we have them all, but I can say a few things.

  • Mutation due to radiation along with bio-genetics, grafting and other science things are going to make things pretty interesting.
  • Friends or NPC affiliations might be having to drag your bloody corpse (or whats left of it) out of places you died. Hope your Pip-Boy stayed intact to your ragged body!


In conclusion: actual character death will be much more uncommon than other games. It will be more realistic. Expect to be knocked out, held down, captured, surrendering, sold and beaten as your punishment for getting in over your head!


On a last note, not many people survive a point blank shot with a Desert Eagle. This will be taken into consideration. ;)

Skilled vs. Leveled Progression Systems

Posted by Daedren Friday June 8 2007 at 7:47AM
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In coming up with a next generation MMO, one thing we definitely want to avoid is the leveling treadmill that plagues (or is "featured") in today's MMO's. It's proven to be a good way to hook players in some games, if they're lucky, but to me, it seems just like a hamster hitting the little lever to receive his treat. And a radiated one, at that. Surely we can come up with something more imaginative than this!


Leveled Based Progression: Why it can work


Level progression is the simple progression of a character through "levels". You start at level 1, and the end goal is to reach the maximum level, at least for character progression/power purposes.


The benefits of this are:


  • A clear sense of what you need to do to progress; i.e, level up
  • A distinction of progression compared to other players (this is also a negative in many eyes)
  • A simple, static system that any kid that took a couple months of programming could probably do (player gets item A or skill Z at level X. Yay!)
  • An extremely simple scaling system that can tell players whether or not they should be in an area or attempting to do something (and what's the fun in that?) -- If something is X levels higher than you, it's too hard.

Why leveled progression sucks
And now for the good stuff, which is the negatives! As you may have noticed, my positives started turning into negatives. So let's cut through all the crap:


  • Level based systems are too static; something or someone is X levels below or higher than you, so you know that you can or cannot take an encounter.
  • Customization of character. It's hard to truly customize your character how you want it when you're on an unerring path to a pre-determined destination.
  • You have to kill stuff in a leveled base system. As a warrior, you could group up, do absolutely nothing and let your friends kill stuff, and you would advance and be better at your skills.
  • Lack of realism. Sure, we're in fantasy worlds toting around swords, throwing fireballs or shooting people with mini-guns. That doesn't mean it has to defy all logic. Heroes, as they get older and more seasoned, become harder to kill because they are better at what they do. Just because someone has been around the world a few times doesn't mean they shouldn't die with a dagger in their throat or a few bullets in their upper extremities.
  • Best of all, your skills (progression in this case) actually go up when you use them, or down if you let them atrophy. There's nothing wrong with a game actually making sense - at least in some ways!

And now, why does a Skill based system rock?


  • Allows full customization of a character. If you want to play a pacifist mad-scientist doctor merchant that would never harm a fly: you can! You may have to find ways to get specimens and such to work on (and test with and kill of course) - but you don't *have* to have any certain skills.
  • It adds a sense of adventure to the game. If you're still wet behind the ears, and feel like taking on an entire slaver ring, go for it! You'll probably die (or more likely get sold into slavery - more on that soon) - but you won't know by some "consider" system if someone or something is too powerful for you. Generally speaking, if you're a wimp, and you're looking at a huge man-eating whatever or a guy in a powersuit with a gatling gun: that's warning enough to not mess with these guys.
  • It allows for a much more interesting combination of skills than a leveled system could.
  • Most importantly: your skills increase or atrophy as you use them or don't use them. There is nothing wrong with a fantasy or sci-fi themed game to actually have hints of realism in them.

In the end, skill based progression just allows for a much more dynamic and unique experience. It's also much more in the 'spirit' of the Fallout world, in our opinion, to choose this route.


We don't want to limit the overall experience by choosing an industry standard just because it works in some games. Skill based systems are harder to implement, of course, but that's our job.


Isn't it hard to implement? A skill based system?

 

It is difficult. The majority of games out there today have leveled based systems because they are easy. However, the market is so saturated with these now that to try to make any game really standout is near impossible. This really just comes down to lack of vision within game developers.


 

The problem isn't the scenery we're looking at running on the treadmill. I believe we, as gamers, have just ran on too many treadmills and we're keen to view some scenery via a different mechanism. It will take some long hours and a real drive to make something revolutionary, but I believe it can be done.