As you reach the outskirts of Bloodstone the rancid smell of a fish merchant's stall nearly slaps your nose off your face. You vainly wave your hand to clear the air.
"Wot's a matta gov?" the merchant asks, sneering. "Can't 'andle a little fresh fish?"
"That fish is as fresh as my feet," you reply. The short tempered merchant draws a rusty cutlass and grimaces. Several ruffians milling about sense an impending fight and begin to circle you.
"If ya don't like it, you and that mangy dog can bugger off!" he responds, kicking your dog in his hinder. Your dog whimpers and sits next to you, tail between his legs. The bolder members of the encircling crowd brandish knives and mock you and your dog. They see a tired traveler and easy pickings. As tired as you are, you can't help but laugh to yourself and shake your head. Your eyes begin to glow a soft white hue. The humid air of Bloodstone begins to crackle. Time to teach these lowlifes a lesson.
The brigands around you stare in awe as tiny jets of blue are ripped, crackling, from the surrounding air. Each spark begins to swirl into a glowing ball of blue-white light between your rotating hands. A distant rumble of thunder seems to fill the night air. The veins of your hands and arms begin to glow. The brigands, drop their weapons, scream in terror and scatter. The merchant trips backward into his fish stall, coating himself in rotted meat, and scampers into the darkness. Satisfied with the defense of your canine companion's honor you release the ball of lightning into the night sky with a deafening thunderclap.
What I just described was my first experience entering the town of Bloodstone in Peter Molyneux's Fable II. What made it so memorable and remarkable for me were the actions of the town's non-player characters (NPCs). When I arrived in Bloodstone I had no idea that the town's evil residents would mock a do-gooder like me; I didn't know they were even capable of that level of player interaction. I also didn't know that townspeople could kick my dog or draw their weapons on me. These were townspeople, not monsters after all. And I had no idea that a little display of magical power would be enough to send them running for their lives. It was a memorable and exciting experience because it was completely unscripted and unexpected. That level of NPC interactivity is something I'd love to see more of in MMOGs.
In their current state, artificial intelligence and MMOGs are rarely spoken of in the same sentence. In most cases NPCs are simply quest dispensers. They stand around, shifting their weight, shelling out quests and rewards. They might occasionally follow a pre-programmed path around the village where they "live" and there might be some interesting background information about them. Otherwise though, most NPCs feel as alive as a barrel next to the door of the inn. It doesn't really inspire the feeling of a "living and breathing" world. Instead it feels like an animatronic "Small World" ride at Disney.
Much like the townsfolk in MMOGs, most monsters you fight are just as braindead. In single player games enemy soldiers frequently take cover or use flanking techniques to attack you. Their strategy and coordination with each other often makes combat that much more entertaining and challenging. With the exception of the occasional boss monster in a dungeon, most MMOG enemies simply pace back and forth waiting to be slaughtered. Once engaged, their attacks are typically straightforward and without strategy. Occasionally a healer in a group of mobs will heal his buddy, and ranged classes will hang back rather than rush into melee. But coordinated attacks are few and far between.
As MMOGs evolve I hope we'll see more dynamic interactions between the players and the gameworld's inhabitants. Rich Vogel, co-studio director of product development for Star Wars: The Old Republic has stated in a Games for Windows interview that, "One thing we don't want to do is NPC Pez dispensers, as I call them -- go over there, dispense a quest, and then go "vacuum-clean" a zone. We want to make sure you listen to NPCs, because choices matter." Story and player-driven consequences are obviously great ways to make a gameworld feel more dynamic and compelling. Whether or not that translates into more lifelike, interactive townsfolk / monsters remains to be seen.
We've all seen impressive moments in video game cut scenes or pre-programmed, scripted events, but when they occur, we're not typically interacting with them. Unscripted interactions that unfold organically can be so much more exciting and entertaining. For a few moments when playing Fable 2 I was completely immersed in the gameworld, all because of a little AI programming. The gameplay ramifications of intelligent behavior are what make its execution so exciting. For instance, I could've chosen to ignore the jests of the brigands, kill them, or return their mocking behavior. Instead, I "powered up" and scared everyone off without killing anyone. The fact that all those options existed and were viable was possible because of the artificial intelligence of the NPCs. Here's to hoping we'll see this level of interactivity in the MMOGs of the future.
MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke.