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MMOWTF - Mob Mentality

In this week's MMOWTF, Dan Fortier tackles the issue of monster AI in MMORPGs. Fortier feels that monsters today just don't have the intelligence to pose a real challenge to human players.

Mob Mentality

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fortier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

This week is not a tribute to those wonderful MMOers that I love so much. Instead, I decided to drop the hammer on a common gripe of mine: Monster AI. In most theme park PvE MMOs the mobs are designed to have simplistic AI to make it easier for solo players with a lobotomy to kill them. It doesn’t do well to frustrate your unskilled customers with lots of free time and extra cash if you want to run a successful game these days. This week I pay lip service to this tired topic and anything else that comes to mind. Keep a bottle of eye-drops close at hand for this week’s Tour De Ordure!

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Most gamers don’t expect much realism when they log into an MMO. Fields of meandering monsters who do nothing but spam the same basic attacks with a few special abilities thrown in at predictable intervals are the most common ding crops for players. Raid bosses and the tougher elite creatures have a few more surprises, but are only dangerous by virtue of their obnoxious stats and henchmen instead of their brilliant use of terrain or tactics. Of course, even the most complex routines can be analyzed and dissected by an observant group repeatedly farming the same area, but with enough dynamic content they would still have to be prepared for a wider variety of opponents.

Ironically, WoW is not at the bottom of the barrel in this category, since their mobs will at least make a run for it if you are spanking them and maybe even grab some help from nearby spawns. Games with much deeper game play like EVE are much worse in terms of mob AI although admittedly PvE is not a major focus for them in most cases. MMOs are obviously not alone in this failing and it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that most developers focus much more on volume of content than on making it challenging or varied. Making things harder is not the solution since a game that is too hard is much worse than a game that is too easy. What could make fighting AI opponents more interesting than carving a soap sculpture?

How about designing more special purpose mobs that are exceptionally good at one or two things and stick them into small to medium groups? This is done already to some degree in most titles, but their abilities should be on par with a player of their level instead of a generic spawn with two proc percentages in a database. Smart players would find creative ways to exploit the weaknesses of each type and therefore the group as a whole. If these kinds of groups were generated in a somewhat dynamic pattern by varying the types and numbers, it could make sizing up AI opponents more interesting than checking the color above its head.

It might also help to take a look at the motivations/needs of mobs along with their interactions with the environment. What if single mobs scouted around the main encampment and sounded an alarm if they spotted enemies or came under attack. Clever players could use stealth to silence the guards before moving in to dispatch the rest of the unsuspecting monsters. It would also make sense to have most intelligent creatures try to flee from an unwinnable fight. Only berserkers or rabid animals would fight to the death against a superior foe. While it makes sense in the real world, it would have to be used carefully or in a game that doesn’t require grinding otherwise it might be a ridiculous chore to get any XP.

There is no magic bullet for how to make AI more interesting without alienating the casual audience, but it’s not impossible. Other genres that have multiplayer capability, like RTS, use the AI for training fodder and are buffed beyond belief to be any resistance to a competent player. A decent portion of the player base of these games can only get their fix in PvP matches. If only balancing an MMO was as simple as creating two sides with a dozen or so units a piece eh?

I’m going to can it for this week and let you guys run roughshod on the topic. Behave yourself and have her back by midnight Y’hear? Next week I’ll serve up another industry flaw topped with a sputtering fuse. Save up some spite till then!