NPC WHAT? [Author: hedron]

Three reasons. One, I love to make you suffer. So just suck it. Two, I know you love it when I make you suffer, don’t pretend. And three because I wanted an article that focused on it in order to give it the attention that I feel it deserves.

Ok, I said we’d talk about it, so let’s talk about it. NPC manipulation. What is it? How do you do it? And what has it got to do with good combat?

NPC manipulation is just one method of implementing a principle of strategic combat. But it’s the only method I’ve actually seen work in MMORPGs. I’ve had various other ideas for satisfying the principle without using NPC manipulation, but those ideas are conjecture. NPC manipulation is fact.

So let’s start with clarifying the principle before discussing NPC manipulation specifically.

I explained in a previous article the idea of combat based on Options and Consequences. Let me dredge up the roots of the concept again to make sure it’s clear. If you want a refresher on the other types of combat, go back and re-read the old stuff.

Here’s the core of Options and Consequences.

The human mind thinks about combat on two levels. One is breadth or options – how many different options can you consider the results of in order to choose the best one among them. The other is depth of consequences – how many “moves” ahead can you think.

The archetype example is chess. You have sixteen pieces or options on your side of the board. You have 16 more pieces on the other side of the board and many consequences for every move. The player who can think about the most number of pieces with their different styles of movements, and for the most moves ahead has the edge.

Setting the bar for this complexity in terms of breadth and depth to a sufficient level to challenge the human mind is what creates the opportunity for skill and mastery of a game to shine. Tic-tac-toe, for example, has options and consequences too, but they’re so limited that any adult mind can see from the beginning to the end of every game, and they all end in a stalemate.

So the question is in an MMORPG how do you create an environment that provides enough options and consequences to challenge the human mind. I talked a little in the last article about using environmental effects, and not doing things like EQ’s limiting of the spells available to eight. Those are some good basics, but to get deeper into the specific spell types or melee moves is somewhat useless. There are many possible sets of spells and/or abilities that could feed successfully into this equation, and having or not having any one or several of those will not make or break the system. So while it’s profitable to look at an already built system to see what’s missing or what’s broken, there are no “you have to have X spell, Y weapon, or Z move” statements to be made about ALL systems.

However, all MMORPGs do inherently share one challenge by nature. They are all conceptually 1st person games. Even if the point of view of the interface isn’t 1st person, the IDEA of the game is 1st person. The whole concept of the game genre is to become your character, to experience a virtual life through it so that you can get into the role and have some fun with it. That means that a model like that of chess doesn’t translate very well into RPGs because there aren’t 16 pieces on a side. There’s one. You. Suddenly having options and consequences becomes a much more difficult prospect. Layered on top of that is the fact that today’s MMORPGs are real time games, whereas chess is a turn-based model. These two facts, one strategic piece (you), and a real time interaction have severely limited the depth of combat.

That isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some attempt to create combat depth. The major methods of trying to add interest to MMORPG combat has followed three paths:

1. Diversification of character classes/types to make group combat interesting and 1on1 combat less predictable.

2. Inclusion of various buffs and debuffs that need to be worked against each other.

3. Minor inclusion of twitch based skills (specifically in AC).

But none of these methods have worked to any successful degree, because although they add variety to combat, they can’t add true options and consequences. It’s a very linear model. Each move (for instance buffing against heat spells) has a direct counter (debuffing your opponent, or switching to ice spells). The “thinking ahead” in terms of consequences typically doesn’t last for more than one or two “decisions” during the course of battle.

These methods have instead resulted in the six ways of determining a winner that I listed in my last articles. And all of those are boring and unworkable.

There are two central problems with what’s been done so far.

1. The very direct and uncomplicated way in which the buffs and debuffs interact fail to add any challenge to the game. An Ultima Online example of this is that you put on magic reflection, and I choose to cast a weak spell (harm) on you to remove it before truly attacking. The interaction is now over. Not exactly a taxing thought process.

2. The limitation of strategic considerations to only what your opponent is doing is too basic.

It’s all a linear set of actions and responses.

So how, in a 1st person system, did the original NWN overcome this? It didn’t. The players did. Neverwinter Nights had several things going for it that increased the skill necessary to fight successfully which I will describe here, but ultimately even the oNWN combat system was boring once you knew the ins-and-outs of it. What added true interest to the process was NPC manipulation.

First, let’s talk about the inherent combat system options that oNWN carried that today’s games don’t.

ONWN combat was turn based.

Yeah, I know, this is a tough one. The reality is that today’s MMORPGs are real time. It’s a standard that people have come to expect, and it comes with a lot of advantages that a turn-based solution can never address. It’s more immersive, it allows smoother and more efficient interaction of large numbers of people without slowing progress down to an absolute crawl, etc. etc. But the truth is that any turn-based system inherently creates an opportunity for the thinking opponent to come to rational decisions and thoughts that there just isn’t time for in a real time system.

I’ve seen some proposals for creating turn-based COMBAT within real time systems, but I haven’t liked any of them. There may yet be a turn-based proposal out there that makes sense, but I haven’t seen it. In the meantime, I’d say that you have two choices in real time combat for adding skill. You can crank up the pace of combat, and invent the technology to do true twitch-based combat in an MMORPG, or you can crank down the pace of combat to allow time to think while adding options and consequences. So in short, in real time combat, for options and consequences based combat, barring being able to create turn based combat, at least slow combat down.

ONWN had a separate combat screen

This also breaks immersiveness, but in oNWN when a fight was triggered launch a separate combat screen for the combat to play out in. It was a top-down view that allowed you to roam your “eye” over the entire battlefield, which was several screens of territory. This was do-able because of the turn-based nature of combat. But this system contributed several things to combat. First the fact that a top-down view
f combat allows a much more strategic vision of how the battle is playing out because you’re making decisions based on information, not based on guessing what’s going on behind you. Second, it created a defined boundary to the fight that made it very clear if and when a participant fled the fight rather than leading to an endless straggling battle. And third, and most important, it provided a contained area that assured the fact that the fighters would remain targets of the NPCs that existed in every fight screen. More on this last one later when we get down to NPC manipulation.

ONWN had a finite grimoire of spells for each fight

Unlike the general manna based systems that the current games sport, ONWN followed the grimoire system where you could prepare yourself by choosing pre-fight to memorize a set number of spells in each “level”. This enforced a certain discipline during fights in that squandering the single teleport spell you had memorized at the wrong time could cost you dearly later in the fight when you REALLY needed it.

ONWN had complex spell interactions

In EQ there is no decision to make about buffs. The bottom line is to put on as many buffs as you can reasonably handle without getting bored of re-meming spells, and without pissing away all of your manna before combat. In UO similarly, there’s not a lot to think about.

In NWN, many of the buffs were no-brainers. But there were four principal exceptions.

1. Minor Globe of Invulnerability – protected the wearer from all lower level spells, INCLUDING low level buffs that you might want to throw onto yourself.

2. Invisibility – made the wearer invisible to NPCs, but PCs could still see you. Any attacking action broke the invisibility. It was not castable on someone who was Minor Globe.

3. Mirror Image – created up to 4 false images of the wearer so that any attacks stood a chance of merely destroying an image rather than doing any real damage. It was not castable on someone who was globed.

4. Haste – doubled your movement during each round.

All of these spells were vitally important at the right times during the fight, but casting them was often mutually exclusive. If you cast a globe on yourself, you entered into 11 rounds of being protected from all but the highest level spells. This INCLUDED the two major defensive spells, mirror image and invisibility. While globed, you could not go invisible and you could not re-cast your mirror images. While invisible, any casting at all would break invisibility. Mirroring could be done and THEN go either invisible or re-globe, but in a turn based environment, this was a clear announcement to your opponent that you were not CURRENTLY globed. Essentially that meant that for your opponent’s next turn, he was aware of the fact that his options for damaging you had just expanded to a rather nice list of VERY damaging but lower level spells, that you normally had to spend the whole fight protected from if you expected to win.

This dynamic set up a fairly strategic set of decisions about what you used and when. This was ESPECIALLY true because of the finite grimoire that you walked into each fight with. You only had so many to cast – casting them at the wrong time meant death. Ideally, you’d like to be hasted, mirror imaged, globed and invisible at all times. And in a system like EQ’s, for instance, you could be, thus removing all need for making a strategic decision. But in oNWN, you had to pick and choose. Nonetheless, without NPC manipulation in the equation, even this dynamic became too simple over time.

NPC Manipulation

Ok, here’s the big one that made it all work.

Now I’ll confess right now that I have had limited success conveying the full scope of the effects of this system to people. I’ve explained the basics in the past to people, only to have them say things like, “it just sounds like an exploit of bad AI. So what?”

AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ok. Ok. I’m alright now. (takes a deep breath)

First, let me try and buy some of your attention by asserting that everyone who understood combat in NWN to this day still agrees that because of NPC manipulation, it was/is the most engaging combat yet to be found in any MMORPG. But somehow, if you never felt the impact of an ass-whooping via these methods it’s difficult to grasp. Hell, even in NWN itself your average newbie got slaughtered on the battlefield and regularly said things like “this game is all luck.” It was only after they’d been systematically smashed AGAIN and AGAIN by the same people that they started to think to themselves, “Hey, there might be something to this… nobody is THAT lucky.”

Let me be clear up front. This is ONE EXAMPLE of how to break up the linear pattern of combat by involving an outside vector. That vector forces due consideration of spell choices, tactics, movement, geographic placement, use of terrain and DEPTH of thought. Because of the NPCS you must think FORWARD in the fight beyond just the NEXT move. Instead it’s the next several moves. There may be other ways to breakup linear combat. I just haven’t seen them in action, although I’ll admit to having played with a few alternatives conceptually.

One last note on why this is so far beyond what’s being done now. Try thinking about all of this kind of like a computer program. Pretend you’re writing code to describe how to win an EQ fight or an AC fight or a UO fight. IF this then THAT. Visualize the complexity of the if/then decisions. Now, try and form a mental picture of the “code” for a NWN fight based not only on all of the above interactions but also on the basis of the NPC manipulation described below. At the end of this, I’ll ask you to tell me how big the complexity gap is.

In oNWN, the NPCs were a force to be reckoned with in every fight. The essential mechanic of even “triggering” a fight which would launch you into that separate fight screen REQUIRED that you find and pick a fight with NPCs while sharing a geographic spot with whoever else you wanted in the fight. The NPCs were relatively dumb in terms of their AI, and GOOD players who understood how the game worked were quite aware of what made an NPC change focus or targets. The AI’s decision making gave priority to a target based on the following hierarchy, or at least this as close as I remember it – it’s been awhile:

1. Select among those PCs who are “visible” (not protected by the invisibility spell)

2. Select among those PCs who are in a direct line of sight

3. Select among those PCs who had taken a distinct action this round (cast, attack, etc.)

4. Select the closest PC

5. If no PCs are “visible” then select among the invisible PCs the ones in direct line of sight

6. Select the closest invisible PC

The rules were actually a little more complicated than this when initiative was considered, but that’s a good enough base.

In any given fight that you triggered, the NPCs might be anything from very weak and easy to kill to extremely powerful and hard to kill. As a testament to the power of NPC manipulation, a fight in oNWN which did NOT contain powerful NPCs was considered a boring slug-fest. Without strong NPCs to have to contend with, most strategic decisions were reduced to extremely simple formulas. Deciding when to globe and when to re-mirror were fairly wrote patterns UNLESS the NPCs were used to break up the flow.

The bottom line here is that in the right fight the MOST powerful weapon at your disposal was not X sword or Y spell, it was (for example) the 12 Mammoths who could trample a single PC to death
in one or two rounds. If you ignored this weapon in favor of the spells you could cast, and your opponent concentrated instead on manipulating the situation to use the NPCs to his advantage then you were dead as dead gets.

So what’s the difference here, right? In EQ you can train a hill giant onto a PK, and then zone? The difference is centered in several major points:

1. The way the AI was coded allowed each player to make deliberate calculated moves that could shift the NPC focus of attention back to another player without disengaging from the scene of the battle to do it. The AI did not simply lock-on and stick with you no matter what you did short of getting the hell out of dodge.

2. The players were given a series of spells that could be used in conjunction with the AI programming to cause those focus shifts. Invisibility, guided teleports, gaseous clouds that could be used to block yourself in a corner hidden from NPC view, haste spells to allow you to out-run your opponent and put him between you and the NPCs. Players were given plenty of tools that allowed them to stay one step ahead of the NPCs while trying their best to trick their opponent into falling into the NPC’s hands.

3. The environment offered elements that factored into the NPC activities. Trees to hide behind, walls to hide behind, etc.

4. Combat was paced to allow intelligent assessment of the situation and action/reaction.

5. Dying to an NPC wasn’t a major negative (experience loss, loot, etc.)

All of this was managed while trying to deliver damage via normal spells. AND while trying to properly manage your buffs to stay protected. AND while trying to stay aware of the state of your opponent’s buffs so that if he let them drop while avoiding NPCs, you could slam home some major damage. AND while trying to get close enough to your opponent to make use of some of the powerful but range limited spells available to you.

Compare all of this to your average fight in EQ/UO/AC. How are those IF/THEN blocks looking?

Now take out NPC manipulation. Cloud spells don’t matter. Teleports don’t matter. Haste doesn’t matter. Invisibility doesn’t matter. Environment (trees/walls/etc.) doesn’t matter. Geographic positioning and range don’t matter. Understanding the NPC AI doesn’t matter. Choosing to pass a round versus taking offensive action doesn’t matter. The only thing that REALLY matters is keeping your globe up, and trying to re-mirror sometimes during the fight. Simplistic. NOW how does that IF/THEN block look?

In actuality, ONWN combat was more complicated than this. Fake globes, short globes, delay tactics, initiative games, table casting, silenced NPCs, NPC dispell tactics, scroll casts, amulets, ecloaks, bottle-necks, Hold Monster, NPCs that could see invis versus those that couldn’t, NPCs that had ranged attacks versus those that didn’t, indoor fights, outdoor fights, lightning bolt bounces, etc. I haven’t touched any of these things, because – well, you’re probably already bored.

Why does any of this matter? HUMAN SKILL! In ONWN when I beat your ass it was for one reason. I was a truckload better than you. What did that mean? It meant that community was MONUMENTALLY enhanced by the creation of a hierarchy of good players. It meant that the satisfaction from playing the game was MONUMENTALLY enhanced because you felt pride in your wins and losses, not just annoyance that somebody out-leveled you, or hit first.

Why is NPC manipulation more important than team-fight tactics? Because in a team fight, you still only control yourself. While team tactics add complexity to the fight to some degree, it doesn’t add immensely to the need for each individual to make pivotal decisions during the fight. A team fight that was done in the NPC manipulation environment was much more challenging.

OK – before I unleash the gale force winds of the comments board, let me resurrect this thought in your minds.

I don’t care if you don’t like NPC manipulation itself. I don’t care if you don’t like what simplistic AI does to the PVE part of the game. What I want you to acknowledge is that WITHOUT NPC manipulation, combat in MMORPGs is LINEAR and LIMITED. WITH NPC manipulation, it is complex and demanding of skill because it plays on options and consequences and it forces the human mind to operate in combat in terms of both breadth and depth.

If you don’t want NPC manipulation, that’s ok with me. But then you had better give me a DIFFERENT method of breaking up linear combat. Otherwise we’ll all be doomed to eventual boredom in every combat system that’s out there. Of course there’s always a skill alternative – twitch. Quake here we come. 😉

The False Prophet
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