The Holy Grails of Everquest Next: Emergent AI

When I wrote about Storybricks a year ago last May, I could not easily conceptualize how it would make MMOs better, though I thought it would. Then David Georgeson described what I shall dub the Tale of the Wandering Orc bandits. I’m not quoting verbatim, but it went something like this:

Orcs don’t like guards, because guards don’t like orcs. So orcs stay away from cities, because cities have guards. Orcs also don’t like PC’s because PC’s also kill orcs. What orcs do like are roads that don’t have much traffic, but just the occasional traveller that can be relieved of their possessions if not their life.

So orcs will travel around trying to find a spot that they like and set up camp. And should things change so that that camp is no longer suitable, they will move on.

That vision, all by itself, is pretty compelling. Like things actually breaking when you hit them, it seems likely to make the world seem a lot more real. This breaks the “there’s an orc spawn point there and there and there” logic. Orcs were there yesterday, will they be there today? We don’t really know. It depends on what other players did, and just how much the orcs liked or didn’t like it.

This is a world that will be different, perhaps from day to day. This by itself is powerful. Gamedevs just don’t have the bandwidth to do this. So you could look at this as “players will do the work of gamedevs” if you so chose. But really, it’s “players will do the work that nobody else ever did”.

But the responsiveness to player action, in this case collective action, is icing. Maybe you can clear the orcs out of an area, rather than pretending that the 13 of them you killed solved the problem even though you can see them respawning as you leave. In fact, what defines something as “grinding” is the fact that it didn’t mean anything in terms of the game world, or the other people playing it.

There are more layers to this, of course. (Remember Shrek?) Perhaps not all half-abandoned roads are the same. Perhaps some are under the protection of an orc King, who is not going to take kindly to harassment by uppity PCs, and will strike back at nearby settlements. Or perhaps the orcs have allied with a dragon nearby, and point out to the dragon where some delicious snacks are to be found. There’s lots of possibilities.

Now it’s possible that this kind of thing could be done as ad-hoc code in some generic programming language, because Alan Turing. The value of a Storybricks is that it puts the structure of the AI into terms that allow the gamedevs to concentrate on what should be happening in their game, and gets rid of details that aren’t all that relevant. That’s what any good library or language should do.

When people say something is “emergent” what they mean is “we have no idea what will happen”. And the reason that they don’t know is that it will depend, in part on what we the players do. That’s exciting.