MEETING JONATHAN "CALANDRYLL" HANNA - Designer of the Unknown

Team Comment - Artificial Intelligence and Monsters - August 8, 2001
Artificial Intelligence and Monsters

The dictionary defines artificial intelligence as: "The ability of a computer or other machine to perform those activities that are normally thought to require intelligence." In some industries, artificial intelligence could allow machines to perform complex and/or dangerous tasks, thus saving humans the risk or trouble of doing such tasks. But what does AI really mean when we are talking about massively multiplayer monsters?

First, I think it's important that we define what the purpose of AI is for massively multiplayer gaming and, more specifically, for the monsters in the games. Is the purpose of today's gaming AI to replicate human thought? Not really. The above definition is nice, but it doesn't really apply to what we do. Some might say that AI is needed to make monsters more challenging. To me, that's not taking it far enough. For instance, I could make a new monster that has 25,000 hit points, 102AR, 500.0 magic resist, is immune to poison, and does 99 points of damage with a ranged weapon that hits 100% of the time. That monster would certainly be challenging to kill, but there's no artificial intelligence in the monster beyond its ability to target and attack players. It's not a "fun" monster.

And that to me is what AI in these games is really about...making monsters fun. That may sound rather simplistic, but sometimes the simplest explanation is the most elegant. If a monster is not fun to fight, nobody is going to consider it a successful monster design, regardless of how challenging it may be. Fun does not always equal challenging and, more importantly, many players do not want monsters that are as intelligent as players...otherwise, why not just fight players? They want monsters that are fun. Sometimes a fun monster can be something that reacts to your actions, or perhaps it works together with other monsters of its kind to defeat its enemies. Whatever its abilities, if the monster isn't fun, then all of the artificial intelligence in the world is meaningless.

To illustrate the kind of AI I am talking about, I'll give you the example of the savage shaman. Each time a savage shaman is hit, she has a chance to initiate a tribal dance. If she initiates the dance, she searches the area for other savage shamans. If she finds three or more savage shamans within a certain radius, the shaman and all those near her begin to dance. When they finish the dance, the savages cast a powerful group spell that can cause harm to players or even heal all savages near the casters. Needless to say, letting them cast these spells could spell doom for would-be adventurers. But, if you are able to slay enough shamans before they finish their dance, then you can interrupt the spell before it is cast. Or, you can run away from the savages and if you escape the spells' range, avoid the damage of the spell. This kind of AI causes you to react differently than you normally would, without creating undue challenge, and gives you choices for how to react. It also has visual cues, letting you know something is about to happen and giving you time (although not much...you’ve got to think fast!) to decide what to do. Do you try to kill the shamans before they finish dancing? Or do you run away, hoping you can escape before they finish? Or perhaps you just continue fighting, preparing for the spell, knowing that your friends can handle its effects. If savage shamans were nothing more than white hued humans that cast spells they'd be no different, for all intents and purposes, than evil mages, orc mages, or any of the other spell casting monsters with similar stats. It's not their look that separates them from the other monsters in UO...it's what they do.

Of course, none of this takes into account the other reason players like to fight monsters...loot. No matter how cool a monster is, if the reward is poor, people will be less likely to interact with it and hence, the monster will not be considered a success. But how often can we keep adding the typical 100-250 gold and a 10% chance of some rare new item on every new monster? No, there has to be other kinds of rewards to engage players with new monsters. Perhaps fighting these monsters is necessary to achieve some part of a scenario, like the savages in the previous scenario. Or maybe, the monster isn't aggressive at all, but rather, its actions give you evidence (like the frightened orc) of changes in the world. New ideas of intangible rewards, like titles or even abilities unavailable through normal game-play, should be explored.

I don't believe that we, as designers, have even scratched the surface of monster design with massively multi-player games. Aside from the way they look, too many monsters are nothing more than different variations of hit points, damage, and armor values. The team for Ultima Online is going to be trying out some new things over the coming months to help change that. Hopefully we'll present you with some new, exciting monsters...and of course, some fun.

Jonathan "Calandryll" Hanna
Designer, Ongoing Content

Team Comment - Scenario Building - April 13, 2001
Scenario Building

Those of you who read Sage’s previous comments from April 3rd have already heard about the changes to the Live team, including the new content designer task force, which includes myself, Augur and Gromm. To quickly summarize what our task is, we are responsible for providing context for new content on an ongoing basis. This includes items, monsters, and even dungeons. The difference between past content updates and these content updates will be that the items, monsters, etc. will have a theme and/or a reason behind them that explains why they are there, rather than just appearing in the world.

Normally, these comments from the team are a chance for us to talk to you about our plans for Ultima Online. I’d rather not get into the details of what we plan to implement, as that is best left to be discovered by all of you as we begin to update the new content. Keep in mind, we’re still in the documentation and planning stages of this, so the updates themselves may not start soon.

I’d like to talk a bit, though, about where my thinking is. I break down what most people refer to as “interest” into two major sections.

Scenario: A scenario is a broad, general description of what is going on, sometimes referred to as the plot. A scenario should provide a simple answer to the question, “What is going on in the realm?” The reason I say “simple answer” is because any player should be able to get involved in the overall scenario, even if they missed the first parts. The purpose of a scenario is to provide a backdrop for players to tell their own stories and take part in events that have context within the scenario. For example, the scenario for the film The Matrix was: In the future the human race, held in thrall, is being used for their bioelectric power to fuel a race of robots created by an Artificial Intelligence. One of the human prisoners escapes the computer generated illusion of the 20th century, with the aid of rebels, in order to fight the AI and bring the human race back to the top of the food chain. Of course, those of you that saw the movie know it was more complicated than that, but if you wanted to quickly explain what was going on to someone who just walked into the room midway through the movie, that might be enough to help them understand and appreciate the rest of the movie.

Events: Events are the building blocks of a scenario and are often used to facilitate the progression of the scenario. In the Matrix example above, the individual scenes, such as Trinity fleeing the Agents, or Neo's visit to the Oracle, are representative of smaller events that have meaning within the larger context. An event can include anything from a new item related to (or coming about as a result of) the scenario, to a new monster or opponent, to a change or addition in the spawn, to just about anything outside the normal scope of one’s expectations. The event isn’t the new item or the new monster necessarily; it’s the experiences leading up to them and, more importantly, the interactions with other players that these new items/monsters/areas create. Working with other players to find a new item is an event. Finding a strategy to bring down an unfamiliar opponent that uses special attacks and defenses is an event. Discovering why the undead are suddenly attacking the shrines and subsequently defeating them is an event. When all of these “events” are all tied to the simple scenario, they create a complex story… the players’ story. And that really is my focus.

I have always believed that fiction is at its best when it is created by the players themselves. The best part of the Trinsic Invasions during the Renaissance publishes wasn’t the stuff we did… it was the stuff you did. What I do want, however, is to provide context for the changes and additions to the world, to create an interesting backdrop for all of you to tell your tales in, and to throw the occasional curve ball at you, just to keep you on your toes. ;)

How I achieve that is a far more detailed post than this one… and rather than going on and on about what I plan, I’ll let the updates speak for themselves.

Jon "Calandryll" Hanna
'Designer in Charge of Ongoing Content'
Ultima Online