Massively Overthinking: Could bots save dying MMORPGs?

Last week, a reader named Chris, who is writing a paper on the MMO industry and revivifying sunsetted games, dropped an intriguing question into my inbox. It’s about bots – but not the sort of bots EVE Online is constantly fighting. The good kind.

“Do you think people would be interested in coming back to ‘closed’ MMO games if they were populated with AI bots instead of real players (to make them feel alive/populated)?” he asked me.

Let’s ponder that for today’s Overthinking. Certainly we’ve seen bots put to work in games like Camelot Unchained, which uses them to test massive numbers of players on the battlefield. Would you want to see them in live play? Would they help the feel of the world in ways that default NPCs simply would not? Is the AI even doable? Could AI bots take our place to make MMORPGs even better – or even to keep them viable and save them from destruction?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m a big fan of AI and robots, but I’m also someone who would strongly consider cyborgizing myself and side against humanity to form a third faction in the inevitable humans vs. machines war.

I think while it’s an interesting idea to have AI bots along with humans, there’s a lot of questions I would have. How advanced would they be in terms of AI? Would they be always around with their own goals, or essentially Westworld bots there with a very strict function and inability to progress? Would we know who’s AI and who’s real very easily? And what worries me is how marketing/monetization might be abused – would they also be a kind of pet/escort we’d have to pay for if we wanted an AI partner to play with? Would people be able to fill their guilds with bought AI to have a larger presence and potential farming power?

I love the idea, and no matter what, I’d love to explore that world. But without specifics, it’s really hard to judge right now how much it could help or hinder a game. All I know is that the novelty alone would be a huge boost for the game utilizing it!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): When Chris first posed me this question, I had three immediate thoughts.

First, my mind went to Morrowind, one of my favorite games of all time – though not an MMO. I run a ton of mods, with probably half a dozen that add more NPCs and conversations to better populate and enrich the world. It does work to make the game feel more like a living game world – but it doesn’t help much to make the game feel less lonely.

Second, I thought of Westworld. Clearly, exceptional AI bots are pretty convincing. Getting to that level of believability is easier in a video game, though harder for the player to become immersed once he realizes they’re just interactive scenery. Maybe you’d be a young William falling in love – or maybe you’d be a Logan, totally unimpressed with the mere bots and just looking for ways to mess with them. So much depends on the player in a sandbox, by design.

My final thought was for classic Guild Wars’ heroes, which I think is probably the closest approximation to the type of bots that would actually be the most use here – they aren’t just NPCs standing around but NPCs who literally make the difference between completing content and not. Given how angry some players became over first the addition of henchies, then the addition of heroes, then the expansion of heroes to seven per party – meaning no humans besides the player were required – I think that alone proves bots can be critical. You couldn’t play GW1 today without them; they literally keep the game functional right now.

So yes, I think bots could save dying or dead or empty or revivified MMOs to a degree, particularly themeparks. On the other hand, I suspect we’re a long way from creating NPCs that could make a sandbox about homesteading and long-cons feel real enough.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The funny thing about this question is that… well, it’s already been done. I can speak to its implementation in Final Fantasy XI. Where it’s clean, efficient, and a perfect solution to the game’s existing party-based setup from top to bottom. Seriously, rather than rewriting the whole game’s structure to be more solo-based, it just provides you with a crew of AI-controlled companions that also happen to be many of the more important story characters, which at once answers the longstanding question of why NPCs don’t help you with Ye Olde Importante Storie Questte (with a bit of side-eye, anyhow) and keeps the core of the game working just fine.

Of course, ideally the solution is to keep the game’s content universally relevant, but I feel like FFXI’s Trust companions do a perfect job of fixing the issue when dealing with a game where the real problem is simply the drop in overall player population. No game remains equally popular forever, and it’s a good way to keep older stuff accessible and often fun all by itself. Nor does it stomp on having other players around; FFXI is still lots of fun to explore with other people, it’s just no longer mandatory.

So I think it’s a pretty clean and clever way to keep the game enjoyable. It’s something that has to be approached gently and with care, but isn’t that always the case?

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I really had high hopes that Storybricks — the AI that was being coopted for use in EverQuest Next — would have given life to otherwise static NPCs. I would desperately love to see a game world populated by computer characters that do more than stand around and show up for cutscenes. CRPGs have come a long way in scripting NPCs, but by giving them choices, preferences, and routines, they could be made to be a lot more than what we’ve seen so far.

That said, computers can’t replace real people for that sense of real community. It might superficially help, but we’re pretty good at telling the difference. NPCs would probably hop around a lot less, for one.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): AI that goes about living the game and giving me more immersion instead of folks who scream obscenities in chat, grief, and harass folks? Um, yah — totally sign me up. In fact, this is something I was so looking forward to with the Storybricks AI that was touted for EverQuest Next. I would love my world to be populated by many characters that have living, breathing lives aside from canned interactions with me. I could go on and on about this, but I won’t give Bree a headache with a massive word count.

My problem with them being a way to liven up a dying/dead world is who would pay for the AI to be there? If there aren’t players funneling funds to developers, there’s no way to foot that bill. If you mean to give me personal servers with only players I invite like the survival games do but in a vast MMO world populated with AI, mmm yah that sounds pretty amazing.

Your turn!

Embroidery Digitising