SOE Live 2014: The revolutionary intelligence of Storybricks' AI in EQ Next and Landmark

MJ Guthrie
M. Guthrie|08.21.14

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SOE Live 2014: The revolutionary intelligence of Storybricks' AI in EQ Next and Landmark
SOE Live 2014 The revolutionary intelligence of Storybricks' AI in EQ Next and Landmark
The most exciting part of EverQuest Next and Landmark for me is the living, intelligent AI brought to the games courtesy of Storybricks. Thanks to a tech demonstration at SOE Live, we got to see that AI in action, and can I tell you I am even more excited having seen it! This technology really will revolutionize the game, creating a living, breathing world in EQ Next that players help shape as it develops as well as give players the power to make their world come alive in Landmark. And to add icing to the cake, the panel also delved into the background of the new Norrath a bit, revealing the world map complete with familiar areas (like Kithicor).

Storybricks in action

We've detailed the idea behind Storybricks before and even anticipated how that will work in EQN. The idea is that NPCs have their own lives: their own wants, their own needs, and their own personalities. Groups, such as races and organizations, also have specific wants and needs fueling their goals. Interactions with players will then be individual experiences. If NPCs have taken a shine to you because of your past actions, they may tell you about things you can do to help out, get glory, or obtain riches. On the other hand, if you've ticked them off, they may totally rebuff you (or maybe try to send you to your death?). But until this panel, it was still conceptual; now it is real.

One question that's been on the minds of players is whether or not Storybricks can pull off such a feat: Could NPCs not only react to the changes in their world but actively instigate them based on their attempts to fulfill their desires and goals? After seeing this exact thing illustrated through various time-elapse scenarios, I now know it can!

Because they were a macro view of the system, the demonstrations resembled an RTS map with certain areas controlled by certain races. One of the devs would drop in a catalyst (like adding in the discovery of a gold mine near the wealth-hungry Kobolds) or simply change a variable, and then we sat back and watched as the NPCs reacted. The change in the NPCs' influence was visible via the changing colors on the map as well as by the scrolling text of all the individuals' actions. It was absolutely fascinating to see the ebb and flow of territory control as the NPCs influence waxed and waned, and I personally cannot wait to see it in action on the ground. (In the scenarios of Dark Elves vs. Dryads vs. Shadow Elementals, I'm sad to report that all but one run of the simulation resulted in the total annihilation of the Druids.)

Of course, this system is available not only in EQN but in Landmark -- the difference being that players will be able to set the variables for the NPCs in Landmark, dictating what their wants, needs, and desires are, whereas devs do all that in EQN.

Influencing the world

How does this work? NPCs all radiate influence that others react to. And not only do individual people have have different types of influence, but different groups do as well; races, kingdoms,and organizations all have different kinds of influence that cause different reactions. Each also reacts differently. No behavior is scripted. If a king walks into town the people will react accordingly, giving respect and reverence. However, if a necromancer strides in, people will most likely scatter in fear. That same king would get a different reaction if he were to walk into a camp of bandits who coveted his wealth. The panel explained that this is accomplished because objects also radiate influence and serve as cues to characters, such as a crown to a king or a specific staff to a necromancer. The various NPCs are programmed to have certain responses to specific cues.

Of course, in the game the NPCs are not the only entities; players are there exerting influence, too. Players' actions will also have consequence and can turn the tide of a situation one way or another. This demonstration helped bring the idea of Rallying Calls to life, showing how players influence the development of a world populated by much more than just themselves. The Rallying Calls are triggered by player actions and are impacted by player choices, and they change the world in lasting ways. As Franchise Director Dave Georgeson stated earlier, the direction of each individual server world is pushed by the combination of events and player choices. Another dev emphasized, "You literally make history happen around you." And remember, unlike in static games, there is no reset button so you can do things over! Once a scenario has played out, the results are permanent.

What if players choose not to participate in a storyline, such as not aiding a certain group? If players actions do not hit the triggers that lead to the advancement of a story, that specific story arc will not progress and players will not experience that next part. However, there are multiple Rallying Calls around world, so a number of stories will be in different stages at all times. If a specific Rallying Call is missed on a server, sometimes events will transpire further down the road that will trigger that call, giving players a chance to participate.

Finding the story

As stated in the panel, story is the backbone of EQN; however, story is delivered in a unique way.
It's not something players click on an NPC to scroll through and read. Instead the narrative is embedded in the world itself and projected through the actual events. The devs elaborated, "We take the races, the kingdoms, the organizations, and even individual NPCs that we've written into the lore, and we create behaviors and desires based on those stories. By dropping NPCs with opposing drives in a location with resources in a world they care about we have endless opportunities for conflict." And the story doesn't stop when one drive is met -- the NPCs just move on to the next one. Players need only insert themselves into the story. But how exactly can players find the content of the world to participate in it?

The answer is two-fold. First, players can simply bump into it during their adventures. There's something to be said for stumbling across an unexpected situation. Players will also get hints from the NPCs they encounter. But getting involved isn't all left to chance. Besides these ways, each player will have a personal companion book that is his or her personal atlas, bestiary, and lore repository. "It's a living record of your travels through EQ Next," the devs told me. This book remembers what you have done and the choices you have made, taking that into account in order to guide you to new places to explore. It also reveals conflicts in the world that you can delve into.

A hint of story

Tucked away in the panel was also a bit of story from the new Norrath. For instance the history behind Kithicor forest is different than previous iterations. Here, the forest was the site of a huge battle thousands of years prior to the game between the gods (or Seraphs) and horrible Chaos magic monsters. Many Seraphs died in this war, including Tunare. The blood of the monsters spilled in the war corrupted the land, and Erollisi placed pockets of dryads throughout the forest so that the nature magic can hold the evil at bay. This scenario holds out until some catalyst comes along and changes things. And that catalyst is the introduction of players!

The Dark Elves vs. Dryads vs. Shadow Elementals scenario example above refers specifically to the Bloody Kithicor Rallying Call, which if triggered will ask players to side with one entity to help protect their interests. Will players choose to help the Dryads or the Dark Elves? Whichever choice is made will have lasting consequences (note the previously mentioned annihilation of Dryads!). Even if players "fail" at an objective (like helping the Dryads), the story will continue; because choice in involved, there are multiple possible outcomes. As Lead Designer Darrin McPherson pointed out, "The notion of Pandora's box is definitely a key feature of our content. You can do things, perhaps with the best intentions of restoring the Dark Elves and something as simple as 'Let's just let them take some of this territory' and that ruins the world." You can hear about even more Rallying Call scenarios in the video below.

Now you can start to see how each EQN server will develop its own unique history and timeline based on the choices of players as they adventure through a living, breathing world filled with truly intelligent AI.

What happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas, at least where SOE Live is concerned! Massively sent intrepid reporter MJ Guthrie to this year's SOE Live, from which she'll be transmitting all the best fan news on EverQuest Next, Landmark, H1Z1, and the other MMOs on SOE's roster.
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