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AI: Less A, More I

Editorials By Robert Fitzgerald on June 28, 2006

AI: Less A, More I
"AI: Less Artificial and More Intelligence Please"

Editorial by Robert "Kingslayer" Fitzgerald

Call me silly, slap me with a wet noodle, but please tell me why there is always more artificial than intelligence when referring to AI. Have developers really hit the proverbial brick wall when it comes to improving AI ? Are we doomed to the current iteration of NPCs whose intelligence is on par with the "your door is ajar" voice in your car. Speaking of cars, my car can tell me where I am, where I am going, when it needs a tune up, and as an added bonus score tickets to the big game. The current generation of AI still has problems giving me accurate directions to the next quest. I realize I should be more impressed with the new and improved AI seen in some MMORPGs, apparently now instead of standing in one spot and giving you mundane quests the AI will move around the area giving them "life-like" behavior. Really, the only difference I see is that now finding the AI quest giver can become a mini-quest itself.

OK, so I seem to be complaining a lot. Well, I am. How is it that for $90 bucks my son can own a toy dog with realistic facial movements and understands more than 120 words and for the one time price of $50 and an ongoing $15 dollars a month I can't get a computer generated character to do more than spit unintelligible and boring dialog over and over again. Yes, I get it go kill the rats. Some developers have taken it a step further with their new and improved AI. Now, rather than offering up one or two lines of drivel, the new improved AI offers up two or three paragraphs of drivel with only one or two sentences of relevant information for the player. Am I complaining? Of course I am. I beginning to think I should spend $240 on one of those cool dancing robot sapiens instead of the current fare of games.

Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of MMORPGs. I thoroughly enjoy most of what is offered in these virtual fantasy lands. I am just confused as to the focus of development teams. Why is it "smarter monsters to fight" usually means when you attack one monster, a whole bunch of monsters will come and attack you. That's not intelligent or improved its annoying and requires little or no effort on the part of developers. The monsters don't outflank you; they simply swarm you with numbers. For the record, outflanking a single character with more than one monster is a given. I wish developers would spend more time improving the quality of the computer controlled opponents and less time making the "Fire Ball" spell look cool. While I am a fan of a certain amount of eye-candy, it’s only going to look cool for so long and then it becomes redundant. Developers are given a huge empty canvass when creating MMORPGs. Some would argue the largest canvass in the world. And yet, they still create simple paint-by-number works of art.

Is there a solution? Can something be done to improve the AI of games without overloading the server? I admit I am not a programmer or in any way skilled in the secret art of developing games, but I do have a few ideas. Developers can start by giving NPCs a more realistic daily routine. Program them to work in the garden or go shopping at the market. Give them more dialog, maybe even a few choices of things to say. And for goodness sakes let them move their hands when they speak. Why is it NPCs seem to all have their hands tied to their waist. Why have developers included day and night cycles if shops never close? What’s the point? Its light, its dark, its light and yet there is no apparent affect on the game play (having to adjust your monitors gamma is not a game play feature). Will these suggestions improve the overall game play? It could at the very least improve the games immersion.

As for the monsters and bad guys we hunt religiously to grind our levels away, let’s give them a little personality. If they are over matched by player characters, maybe, they should run away. All monsters can't be that courageous or dumb. When attacking player characters, design them to use tactics that create a challenge for the player. There has to be a way to create routines a computer could access which would analyze a situation and find the most appropriate method of attacking player characters. The only challenge present in current games is in attacking mobs (mobs, mobiles, essentially monsters) of a higher level, thus risking death, or attacking mobs who are "social" thus risking the mob stampede. Again, that is not intelligence. It’s a very simple and aggravating system. The "level treadmill" is only such because we, the players, know there is very little risk or excitement in fighting mobs. The mobs are generally a predictable and boring grind. Advanced combat, third generation game features, and unique game play mechanics have all become buzz words that essentially mean nothing more than "our game is the same as all the others but with better character animations and pretty graphics." When was the last time you watched the colorized version of some old black and white movie and said “Hey, that was really innovative!" It’s the same movie, just in color and honestly the colorization process leaves a lot to be desired.

Why is it mobs never migrate? Are developers trying to tell us their entire world was populated without any type of migration? It just doesn't make any sense. Mobs should move and by move I don't mean circle the same fifteen paces of ground over and over again. I am suggesting real movement from one specific location to another. Can you imagine how much immersion that would add to the game? Can you imagine the other game dynamics that could be tied to mob migration? A hunter could actually use a tracking skill to help find creatures. Players would explore the land in search of these various creatures. There would be a whole new dynamic in learning the migration patterns of various creatures to increase your success in finding them. If you really break down most of the current popular MMORPG titles you find a world where players fly, ride, or port to specific locations to complete specific quests without any care for the scenery along the way. Why should we care? We know exactly where to find the "super-uber crabs of experience giving" without any exploration. It almost makes no sense to spend the time creating the artwork and breathing life into a fantasy world if you’re not going to give players a reason to explore it.

Personal computers grow more powerful by the day, server technology continues to grow by leaps and bounds, the tools available to developers are more varied than ever, and the only major improvement in MMORPGs I have seen are better graphics. We get the whole "life-like rendering" thing, we understand our avatars will be as unique as our own personality thanks to the plethora of clothing options and character customizations given us. Developers, on the other hand, don't seem to get most of us were impressed with text based adventures and terribly pixilated early generation role-playing games. Eye-candy will only take a game so far. The real meat and potatoes lie in the intelligence of a game. I want to battle an AI controlled mob and walk away afterward thinking "that was really cool". Next generation games should include next generation intelligence as well as next generation graphics. Players should expect more from developers and the games they create. I say we round up the troops, grab our picket signs and flood the forums of our favorite game and start asking for more dynamic and intelligent AI. We all agree it's very cool that we can now color our armor and add cool glowies to our weapons, but wouldn't it be even more exciting if we could face a mob that offered a real challenge.

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