Saturday, March 14, 2020

Hey, Nature Boy, Are You Looking At Me?

Yesterday, I began writing a post that fed off an open question asked by Telwyn at GamingSF: how observant should mobs be? It ties in with something Shintar was writing about recently, the desire of many modern dungeon and instance groups to "skip the trash" and also with some observations Belghast made about "trying to find that balance between fun “Arcade” combat and an attempt at realism".

As I was hammering out my thoughts it became apparent I was dealing with a subject more suited to a dissertation than a blog post. It seems like such a simple thing but the complexities that start to surface as soon as you take a closer look are almost scary.

Rather than attempt to codify and define the astonishing variety of mechanisms and behaviors that make up the ways mobs perceive and react to players as they encounter them across the genre, I'll just link to this highly detailed guide on how to "pull" in classic EverQuest. Why do the hard work when someone's already done it for me?

I didn't really want to go into the details of how mob behavior works anyway. What I wanted to do was talk about how ridiculous it is. Very few, if any, MMORPGs give much of a nod to realism or even sanity when it comes to the way mobs react to the actions of players. It is, perhaps, the most overtly gameified of all the common mechanics of the genre.

And for good reason. As Belghast suggests and as personal experience bears out, "realism" in video games rarely leads to enjoyment. SynCaine will tell you that much.

It should only take a moment to see how ludicrous the idea of combat is in almost every MMORPG ever made. It pretty much has to be or almost no-one would want to play.

Imagine what would happen in every dungeon and fortress and bandit camp if the mobs exhibited even the most basic sense of organization or self-preservation. You'd need to make sure that none of them ever saw anything you did, or at least that not a single one escaped to tell the tale.

I took this shot this morning. I was certain the gnoll on the right would agro when he walked past his rooted, dotted colleague but he just strolled past, oblivious. Either my memory is faulty or agro on these gnolls has been changed.

That's hard enough to achieve in single-player stealth games, let alone in a context where gameplay involves fireballs, explosions, lightning, shambling undead, pet tigers and a whole bunch of players either clanking around in plate armor or waving their arms and chanting. If mobs behaved rationally,. what do you think would happen the moment you killed the first guard at the first gate? Someone would ring a bell and every able-bodied creature at arms in the place would pile out to see what was up. Unless, of course, you did something to prevent it.

When I played AD&D back in the '80s, our group had an extremely cheesy tactic that our DM let us get away with for far too long. Every time we came to a new room or corridor in a dungeon the mage would cast Silence on a coin and someone would lob it in ahead of us. If anyone was in there, they wouldn't be able to call for help. Or cast any spells, for that matter.

Older MMORPGs used to build that kind of planning into the gameplay. EverQuest had a spell called "Harmony", for example. Cast that on an NPC or an area and it would cancel all social interactions, which meant you could pop an arrow into a guard on the right side of a gate and his partner on the left would stand there humming and polishing his sword until it was his turn to die.

You can do that sort of thing with magic. It might not be "realistic" but it has a form of internal logic. Even then, though, it didn't make a lot of sense when other mobs outside the spell's area of influence just stood there minding their own business because they were out of agro range.

Line of sight is the reality killer. Audio clues are one thing but you can hand-wave most of those away. Yes, you'd think someone might come in from the next room to investigate the screaming as your pet grizzly bear chews someone's leg off, but if they can't see you, you also can't see them. Who knows what they're doing next door? They could be fast asleep for all you know. Or they could just be deaf.

Our feathered friends. Unless you're a troll, that is...
When they're in the same room or courtyard or corridor, though, plainly looking right at you, it's a lot harder to come up with an explanation for why they don't seem to notice or care that you're methodically chopping their pals into pieces, one by one.

But they can't notice you, can they? We've all been in that one instance where the designer decided to put in a designated runner, the NPC in the corner who yells something and scarpers the moment he spots you. That's always fun, isn't it?

No, it's not. Does anyone like runners? Okay, maybe, once in a long while, for a bit of variety, a little frisson of terror but imagine if it happened every time - which it should, if we're going to be logical about this. Who'd want to play a game like that?

It was bad enough in classic EverQuest, where most mobs would try to run away at low health. You had to have some way to snare them or root them or they'd get to some friends and suddenly find their courage again. But at least it only happened towards the end of a fight and most mobs moved more slowly at low health. It was manageable. Imagine if it happened at the start of the fight, when they could run faster than you and, anyway, you couldn't get to them to stop them because you already had two of the braver ones on you.

Extend the realism out of the dungeon into the open world. All those animals we hunt. Isn't it convenient, the way they come pounding towards us as soon as they feel their fur catch on fire or find there's an arrow sticking out of their face? Is that really how you'd expect a deer to behave? Or a badger? Or a rabbit?

No, they'd leg it away as fast as they could, which would pretty much always be faster than you (unless you were a druid or a ranger, in which case why are you harassing random animals in the first place?). What's more, they'd aim for cover, somewhere you couldn't follow. You'd have to cut your way in or dig them out. Some enterprising dev could make a feature out of that.

No more playing elephant roulette.
Time was when game developers did play around with the rules a little. I've referred before to quirks in early EQ, like the elephants that were almost always non-aggro except when rng dictated they went rogue or the aviaks that were perfectly happy to let any player past unless they happened to be playing a troll.

I've only just remembered a couple more such quirks while I was writing this. Both involve line of sight. When EQ's first expansion, Rise of Kunark, appeared, it introduced mobs that would agro on players from any distance at all - provided they had uninterrupted line of sight.

From memory, there was some kind of cat in Lake of Ill Omen that did it. I remember being caught out that way more than once. It's apocryphal now, though, because it was changed at some point. Or I think it was. Or maybe I imagined it. Anyone know if it still happens in P99?

An even more unproveable story along similar lines comes back to me from the early days of Dark Age of Camelot. We believed very firmly that certain NPCs in one of the forests could spot us from much further away than usual and had much greater range with a bow. We used to live in fear of crossing LoS with one because the first thing you'd know about it was when an arrow twanged into you from deep cover.

I spent quite a while trying to find out if that was really true or if it was yet another of the many, many urban myths that ran unchecked in all MMORPGs around the turn of the century. I know I believed it but I could never prove it for sure.

Not exactly relevant but look at the colors, man!
Those tales stick in my mind because they were exceptions. A bit of local color. Flavor, if you will. I'd very much be up for some of that in the far more predictable and prescribed gameplay of our modern games.

I would very, very much not want to see it as the norm. For the games to be enjoyable the mobs have to be stupid. It's like a soap opera - no-one can let anyone else know what's really going on or the entire plot will fall apart.

There are ways and means, though. A bit of thought in the placement of mobs would help. Do they really all have to stand around in circles or along the walls? Just a nod towards the dim possibility of an explanation as to why they aren't reacting - like a piece of furniture in the way or a corner - would make summoning up that suspension of disbelief a little easier, wouldn't it?

Probably not. I think the days when I actually gave a second's consideration to the internal logic of what my characters are doing ended sometime before the last global financial crash. These days, few games I play even pay lip service to anything more than kinetics. Red circles on the floor cover up an awful lot. So long as we're dodging we're too busy to think.

Nope, I think we're stuck with dumb mobs who don't communicate and have no sense of self preservation. Every so often some developer or other talks a good game about improved AI and mob behavior but in the end the mobs have to lose and we have to win or we don't have a game.


  1. My old joke about mob behavior was that the NPCs clearly saw us and that we were killing their friends, but saying to themselves, "Please don't come this way, please don't come this ... oh crap!" All in all, a very Sergeant Shultz-ian view of life.

  2. This reminds me of Final Fantasy 11, where mobs would aggro based on sound or vision, and would track you by scent and there were spells to mask all three. Or just to harass your friends by casting Deodorize on them repeatedly.

    1. Oh, I've heard of that before, somewhere. I played FFXI for about a month but I never saw anything like that. I do like it when developers create a problem and then offer you the tools to deal with it. EQ was very fond of using invisible mobs but several classes also got "See Invisible" spells and you needed different types of invisibility for live and undead mobs. Could do with a bit more of that kind of granularity.

  3. I wonder if one of the nails in the coffin of EQ Next might have been attempts at making mobs more intelligent with the AI system. Mobs in MMORPGs really can't claim any intelligence of any kind, they are sooo dumb. As you write, I imagine that's actually a good thing: clever mobs just isn't that fun since they outnumber players so heavily.

    Rift showed that in Beta, and the early launch period. Yes, having coordinated swarms attacking settlements and whole zones can make for exciting "emergent" gameplay of sorts - but as soon as the levelling zerg moved past early zones they became frequently unplayable as the invasions would lock down all the quest hubs. I took part in coordinated attempts to repel them, and it because untenable with the available players in zone.

    Runners are a real menace. In WoW Classic several dungeons in particular are chock full of mobs that run (e.g. Stockades and Scarlet Monastery). They make for painfully slow and fraut runs, especially if you lack certain classes that have enough CC options on quick cooldowns - sure many classes have one ability, but they can miss...

    1. Apologies for the incredibly late reply - was just going through some moderated comments and noticed some older posts had comments I'd missed...

      I've mentioned a few times an interview I read waaaaay back in the early days of the genre, where someone (possibly John Smedley) said they already had the ability to make AI a lot more "intelligent" but that it made players very unhappy so they weren't going to use it.

      It's another of those "you think you want it but you really don't" issues. I believe some players genuinely do want smarter NPCs and mobs but it's a niche interest at best. Most players (of MMORPGs, at least) want the mobs to be dumb as rocks or at least to follow scripts that can be learned and countered. Even PvP players tend to prefer fights with players who aren't quite as smart, skilled or dextrous as they are. Everyone likes to win.


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