All though the title might suggest that this is purely an AI related journal, I’m going to stick to the gamedesign side of the subject. Or at least, try to.
I’m also going to try and not just give the situation of Spellborn, but rather talk about possibilities and why I think some choice are good or bad.
First some goals must be set, what do we want to achieve when a player fights a non-player (mob). Should the mob fight back or maybe run away in fear? If there is a fight, what should the player experience?
A challenge? Okay, but easier said then done, challenge because? Mob hits hard or mob is hard to hit, mob heals itself or does the mob have a couple friends waiting around the corner? Besides, making something a challenge doesn’t necessarily make it fun. So, the goals will have to be thought through and might evolve a bit during the early stages of the project to achieve the desired ‘vision’ which they all contribute to.
Combining all these goals will actually decide a large portion of the core gameplay so getting them down on (digital) paper is of the essence. Goals should be clear and simple, so everybody can easily understand them, yet they should cover every aspect and leave no questions unanswered.
As an example I will handle a (well known) goal set for Spellborn. Never should a player be just as effective with his hands in the air as on his mouse, keyboard.
Working with goals
The mentioned goal sounds pretty easy, but in the world of MMO’s this means that all old fashioned stun/polymorph effects aren’t allowed. We could decide to allow these types of effects and add a counter mechanic, so players have something to do while their avatar is incapacitated. Maybe some button mashing minigame, popular in a lot of console games currently, to break out of the effect early.
However, we prefer to remedy the cause, rather than the effect, so players will always be able to do something. Slow downs are still present, but no complete root effects. Players might get disarmed but then there’s always magic and the other way around. Another popular mechanic is ‘fear’, our equivalent are the numerous ‘teleporting’ type skills, which displace a target across a short distance, effectively disrupting aim.
Goals might influence subjects you wouldn’t expect after giving them a quick thought. This goal single-handedly makes sure that big bosses will never be allowed to stun a player to make it harder for the rest of the group, let alone stun entire groups for phase transitions (not counting cut-scenes).
Implementing goals, making them work.
So, we have our complete set of goals, now the game designer will have a good chat with the AI designer. This set of goals will have to be translated to an AI machine which can make choices, which should result in the effects the goals want to achieve…
What if a goal said that the combat experience should be “dynamic and realistic”? Really dangerous terms and they sound like something players will want. Dynamic as in, mobs will pick the weaker target during the fight, make sure there’s no healer in the back, finish off players with low health, ignore players who are good at dodging and so on. Realistic because you want a bear to be a bit slower then a tiger, but have more biting strength. Swords to cut and maces to break bones, but where’s the limit?
I’m sure a couple of you readers now think “cool, yes I want that, of course, who doesn’t”, yet most MMO’s you enjoy work with very transparent aggro systems. Having these complex ‘dynamic’ and ‘realistic’ systems in place, combat could become very chaotic, unpredictable and especially, not a fun player experience at all.
So it needs to be translated to something transparent and somewhat predictable. Players want be able to anticipate moves, create strategies, want to know what kind of reaction(s) they can expect from their actions.
In general, players enjoy it if they can achieve real control over the fight. This doesn’t mean that the behavior should be dead-on like:
- ‘hit the mob, get aggro, mob won’t go anywhere else’.
But rather an enhanced version of these simple mechanics. It’s one of those cases where less can indeed be more, in terms of player experience. So, let’s apply that on the above behavior.
- ‘hit the mob, get aggro, mob will go to another target if previous target keeps being healed’.
Although this is ‘dynamic’, it’s far from the poohah-dynamic AI you read so much about on game box covers and feature lists, but will in fact add a great deal of gameplay. Let’s add another little simple rule.
- ‘hit mob, mob checks which nearby target is the weakest and aggro’s, mob will go to another target if previous target keeps being healed’.
Simple additions which can already cause countless of ‘dynamic’ combat situations. Because these rules are rather basic, players will be able to predict the behavior after a couple of encounters, so they can be expanded with more of these basic rules.
Some designers prefer to add chances here and although I think some use of ‘chance’ can make the experience a lot better, excess use of it will make the fight chaotic and eventually destroy the fun all together.
So, should fights be predictable? The basics, yes, to a certain level, even though it makes the situation not so super-dynamic-high-realism. It will create a better, more manageable user experience and players will be able to estimate what can happen…to a certain level.
This subject is far from covered completely, but I’m going to close this journal now. I hope my message came across and maybe even sparked some interest. I’m open to well constructed questions and opinions, which I might answer or reflect upon in a following journal.
By El “Selachii” Drijver
Developed by Spellborn International, The Chronicles of Spellborn will introduce gameplay that challenges MMO gaming conventions. No longer will back stories be irrelevant, players will move back and forth in time to experience the storyline. The Spellborn team has thrown out the old "auto lock" MMO attack system. Players will actively maneuver and aim in combat while they manipulate a "skill deck" that allows them to string together hundreds of different possible attack combinations. Also, armour and weapons do NOT affect combat so players can dress exactly how they like from the very start. Finally, the successes and failures of every player from the lowest to the highest levels will determine the fate of their House and the rest of the world.
Players selected to participate in the closed beta will be the first ones to experience this new model in MMO gaming. They will assist the developers in testing gameplay and provide feedback directly to the developers. The closed beta test began with a limited number of applicants. More beta testers will be added periodically over the next few months. In early 2006, the Spellborn International team plans to hold a large-scale open/stress beta test.
What differentiates ‘The Chronicles of Spellborn’ from other MMORPG?
- Dress to impress: From day 1 you will be able to look cool by choosing and changing clothes, armors, weapons, skills.
- Influencing the world with your actions: This ranges from lifelike statues of your character in Quarterstone to unlocking and owning new parts of the worlds through questing, politics and conquest.
- ‘Join and play’, you don’t have to walk whole marathons before the fun starts.
- ‘The Chronicles of Spellborn’ combat system based on skill decks. You will be able to create your own individual fighting style.
More articles about The Chronicles of Spellborn