Archive for the ‘Game AI’ Category

Talking Smack

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012
Talking Smack

I’ve never been much good at playing “pet” classes. My very first character in World of Warcraft was the pet-centric warlock. The only reason I chose that particular class was because I had been told that warlocks receive a unique mount for free. In hindsight, I have no idea why this was so compelling to me. Maybe I thought the game would require my character to spend time as a barn hand, shoveling horse manure. Considering how many quests Blizzard has since created that involve poop and outhouses, I may have been more prescient than I realized. Sadly, my warlock was abandoned by level 45 in favor of the more hands-on rogue.

For whatever reason, controlling a “pet” in a game feels unseemly to me. If I need to beat up on a bad guy I want to do it myself, not stand back in relative safety and demand that a magic hedgehog do the fighting for me. It feels unheroic to me. It feels… detached.

With this in mind I was a bit apprehensive when I first learned that all classes in Star Wars: The Old Republic would be assigned a “companion” character. “Oh great.” I thought. “An NPC that I have to dress and babysit. Just what I always didn’t want.” Not only is there a sense of detachment from combat when a pet is involved, I’m also frequently annoyed by the compounding of minutia. I have enough trouble doing the constant comparing/contrasting of stat bonuses and skill abilities that’s required in almost any RPG. For me, doing it for two characters becomes less a game and more of an exercise in Excel spreadsheet acrobatics – with the added threat of strabismus. I realize that number crunching is an integral part of online games that many players enjoy. I just don’t happen to be one of them.

Thankfully, SW:tOR’s companions are fairly undemanding, easy to manage, and probably wouldn’t be strictly classified as “pets”, as their combat abilities are completely independent of those of your character. Make sure to keep their gear current, set them to “attack” mode, and let the game’s AI do the rest. In the game’s many dialogue scenes they even have their own responses and actions based upon what conversation choices you make. Overall, companions add an interesting and fun dynamic without being burdensome – if only you could get them to SHUT UP!

My only experience has been with the Smuggler companion, Corso Riggs. Perhaps the other classes have less verbose buddies. After almost every kill, Corso feels the need to articulate his feelings about the enemy. These taunts and boasts are amusing the first 100+ times. They eventually became boring, annoying and monotonous.

Which leads me to my overall perception of SW:tOR. Here’s a game that has truckloads of back-story, history and mythology to draw from that yet somehow still ends up feeling dated, boring and monotonous. As I kill yet another generic mob, who is inexplicably standing around waiting for his (and it’s almost always a “he”) inevitable death – only to reappear 5 minutes later. As Corso yells his canned response for the bazillionth time. As I wander through beautifully designed yet sadly empty and player-less world environments. I can’t help but think to myself, “This is not the MMO I’m looking for.”

Good Help is Hard to Find

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons Online since its early (rough) beta. With its click-to-swing combat and hand-crafted dungeons, DDO was unlike any other MMO I had played to date. Unfortunately, it didn’t make for a very good MMO.

At launch, the game didn’t have enough content to sustain you through all 10 levels, so you ended up repeating dungeons over and over again in order to advance. Add to this the fact that there was also an XP debt death penalty, and you had one grindtastic experience that caused many players, including myself, to completely lose interest in the game before ever reaching the level cap.

There was also the problem of grouping. The pen & paper version of D&D is by its very nature a group experience. In an effort to maintain this shared experience, Turbine made DDO solo-UNfriendly. In fact, it was downright impossible to complete any of the mid-level dungeons without a full group. Although I understand the developers’ intentions, I think they failed to fully appreciate human behavior in a virtual environment. Sure, it was possible to acquire a dedicated group of players, or guild, to adventure with. But people tend to honor their real-life game commitments more readily than their virtual ones. Trying to wrangle the schedules of 6 people on a regular basis to play an online game is no easy feat. This means that you must often resort to the dreaded PUG, which anyone who plays MMOs knows is like trying to play a game of basketball with a bunch of epileptic monkeys.

Finally realizing that the forced grouping was a detriment to the game, Turbine introduced the Hireling System. Now you can purchase NPCs, either in game or through the DDO store, to play through the dungeons with you. These hireling NPCs work similarly to pets in other MMOs. You can give them simple commands to react offensively or defensively to mobs, as well as cast spells or perform specific attacks. At least, that’s how they’re supposed to work, in theory.

I quickly discovered that controlling hirelings brought a whole new dimension to my DDO experience. I’m not good at pet management in any MMO. In fact, I avoid pet classes like the plague! Turbine advertises that each hireling has it’s own “distinct personality”. Yeah. That’s a fancy way of saying that their AI is more than a little screwy. I had clerics who refused to heal. Paladins who wouldn’t fight. And a fighter that would wade into battle completely oblivious to every trap in the room.

I’ve finally managed to learn how to control my hirelings (sort of), and even reached level 10 for the first time. Overall, the hireling system IS an improvement. But I still call my hirelings Team Retard.