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Matt Miller: Artificial Intelligence?

Column By Matthew Miller on October 01, 2013

Early on in the development of City of Heroes, we had a problem with Fire Tanks being able to defeat swaths of enemies at once by grabbing all the aggro then herding the mobs into patches of burning ground where they would happily immolate themselves while trying to take down the Tank in the process.

Eventually our solution to this problem was to limit the amount of mobs that would actually be affected by powers, beit taunt or the burn patch itself. This wasn’t our first solution, but it was the one that the players took with the least amount of pushback.

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Our first solution was one that I really liked, but the players of Fire Tankers absolutely hated. We changed the AI of mobs to be smart enough not to stand in the fire. Once they took a tick of damage, they’d realize that they were in an immobile DOT patch and override their instinct of “get the tank!” with “save myself!” They would then scooch out of the fiery piece of terrain, and find another avenue to the tank (or switch to their ranged attacks if no avenue existed).

I liked this solution the best because it was the more realistic of the proposed solutions; without being immobilized or slowed, mobs would attempt to move out of the patches of death. This put a higher value on the Controllers in the game because they were the ones who usually brought the mass Slows and Immobilize powers to the game, making for some synergistic gameplay between the two archetypes.

Now the response we got back from the Tank community was on par with going in and just deleting all their characters. They were outraged that their “tactic” no longer farmed mobs like they were mowing the lawn. And one thing was made clear, they absolutely didn’t care if the AI seemed “smarter” or “more realistic”. The AI was dumb and they wanted it to remain dumb. That was how they got their advantage!

This taught me an important lesson. While there is always a voice in game community for smarter enemies, there will always be an equal voice for enemies who are dumb and can be manipulated to the players’ advantage.

Where do you fall in? I think the easiest way to figure this out for yourself is where you fall in the “Holy Trinity” argument. Using a Tank to grab aggro, a Healer to heal that tank through anything an enemy can put out and Damage classes to make the enemy go away as fast as possible is really only made possible because of limited AI. The enemy needs to be dumb enough to never try to kill the Healer because if that happens, then the enemy would have an easier time dispatching the rest of the group before he dies.

If you think the Holy Trinity is the absolute best course for success in MMOs then you probably fall into the group that doesn’t want smarter enemies. You want predictable enemies who work off of patterns, like Raid boss battles. To you every encounter is a puzzle that can be solved with enough time, effort, or gear (or looking up a strategy on the internet).

If you think the Holy Trinity is a holdover from the days of bad AI and want your character able to contribute to a group no matter what spec anyone in the group is, then you might be part of a group that wants smarter enemies. You likely prefer PVP over normal gameplay (because your opponents there are not predictable, and don’t follow a pattern). You are also likely to have an uphill battle in convincing the majority of players that smarter enemies means more dynamic gameplay, so stuck in the ways of old players are today.

So where do you fall in the AI argument? Do you want smarter enemies that can react dynamically, realistically, and sometimes unpredictably? Or are you content with MMOs being more akin to a puzzle game that has solutions to encounters, that, when learned, reduce the threat of those encounters to the point where success is all but guaranteed? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something 

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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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