In a lot of games, mobs are theoretically trying to kill you. In many of them, it doesn’t really feel like they’re trying to kill you. Often, it seems more like they’re going through the motions of pretending to put up a fight before they die, and trying to be manipulated into doing something stupid.
There are reasons for this, of course. PvE content is generally meant to be beaten. But mobs often die in such stupid and predictable ways that it seems that they’re not taking their job seriously.
Perhaps the biggest attraction of PvP is that it feels like the other players really are trying to kill you. That is, of course, because they are. Other players are often smart enough to learn from mistakes and vary their tactics.
The answer, of course, is smarter and less predictable AI. It’s not easy to randomly conjure up better AI, however. The question isn’t whether to improve the AI, but how.
My answer is to let the players design the AI. At first glance, that probably sounds absurdly impractical. I’ll concede that it would be difficult to pull off. Let me explain how I think it can be done.
Each mob in a typical MMORPG has some AI associated with it. This controls how the mobs react. This can include what makes them decide to attack, what makes them give up and leave, which attacks they use, when they use each attack, how they choose which player to target, and a variety of other factors.
A company presumably has some internal tools to set up the parameters for each mob or linked group of mobs. What the company could do is to allow a huge number of AI parameters, and then allow players to fill in particular values for various mobs or groups of mobs. Each mob could have not just a fixed set of skills, but several skills available from which players could pick which few particular skills the mob will actually have available.
Let players set parameters and then try a sample fight against the mobs in a separate before submitting the parameters. That’s essential in letting players figure out which parameters do what, and learning how to give the mobs AI that works reasonably well.
Make it so that there is a considerable cost (in the in-game currency, henceforth “gold”) to submitting an AI for mobs. That will prevent players from randomly submitting a bunch of stupid AI parameters to make mobs ridiculously dumb.
Conversely, reward players for writing successful AI. Each time a mob kills a player, give a small amount of gold the player who wrote the AI that that particular mob used. Make it enough that the amount of money paid out for each particular type of mob is the same as the amount players paid in to create the AI. (This may require dynamically adjusting both the cost of submitting an AI and the payout for killing players with it, both of which would vary from one mob to another, but I won’t bore you with particular formulas.)
The AIs that mobs use in a particular period of time should be the ones that were relatively successful in the previous period of time, as well as any new ones created in that time. Thus, a player who finds ways to make the mobs fight effectively could have his AI stay around for a long time. One that only leads to mobs dying and never killing anything could quickly be removed from the system. Not only would players be rewarded for building a smart AI, but the mobs that players in the game fight would mostly use the better AI parameters that players had come up with.
There are two different reasons to take this approach. The first has already been discussed: smarter and more varied AI. If, when you approach a mob, it has 20 different AIs written and you don’t know which it will use, that makes the mob far less predictable. Players wouldn’t know whether mobs will chase them, hold their ground, or even try to kite the player. Neither would they know which particular skills the mob has, nor the timing with which it will use which skills. For group content, players wouldn’t know which group member(s) the mobs will target. Even after fighting mobs, all of those parameters could be totally different the next time the player fights identical looking mobs. Having to react on the fly to mobs doing unexpected things would give more of a PvP feel to PvE content.
The other reason is that writing AI would itself be an interesting subgame to certain players. Most players would lack the aptitude to write intelligent AI, of course. Many of those that remain would lack the interest. Still, trying to kill players as mobs would be a challenge rather different from anything else on the market. If done right, there would be a relative handful of players who really liked it. That is all it takes to write more AI than the game needs.