A New Game Model: Bots, Nurturance and Solving the Grind

It’s kind of ironic that EverQuest has just celebrated its 5th birthday, still going strong, and one might have imagined 5 years ago that we would have much better MMORPGs by now, but we don’t. Almost every game that has come out since EQ has been an EQ-clone. Actually, what’s more ironic is that EQ2’s biggest competitor will be EQ itself. Notable exceptions (A Tale in the Desert, Sims Online) have struggled to gain a sizeable player base. In a way, everyone is waiting for something innovative to come along, but it’s not clear whether anyone knows what that is.

Not that I think I know what the next big thing is, but the following is an idea that came to me after several weeks of playing Ragnarok Online. I’d like to briefly describe several interesting features of RO before moving on to describing my idea (impatient readers can skip ahead).

Notes on Ragnarok Online

RO caught my attention because it uses 2D anime-styled characters instead of 3D pseudo-realistic characters. It overlays the character sprites on top of the 3D environment pretty convincingly. One benefit of this is that you don’t walk into the city and lag at 1 fps (like in SWG). There are several unique game mechanic features in RO:

Transformations – There is something seductive about identity transformation on a very primal level. We are fascinated by metaphors of cocoons and butterflies, gray cygnets that become white swans, beasts that turn into princes. Of all the MMORPGs I have played (EQ, DAOC, SWG, RO), RO alone captures the seduction of transformation. Change is gradual in games like EQ and SWG, whereas in RO, you literally change appearances, abilities, and suddenly gain about 30-50% more hit and spell points twice in the course of the character’s career (in the addition to the gradual improvements). The visual transformation paired with the sudden access to several lines of new skills is powerfully motivating.

Repeated Cycles of Rewards – Instead of having a linear level treadmill, RO does something very clever. You have a base level and a job level which advance independently. When you change jobs (from Mage to Wizard for example), your new job level goes back to 1 and suddenly you can make job levels very quickly again (allows acquiring new skill points). The rewards cycles in these games are based on well-known behavioral conditioning principles. It entices you with instantaneous gratifications up front, and slowly eases you onto a treadmill that takes longer and longer before you get a food pellet … I mean level. So in RO, just when leveling gets slow, you get to experience the instantaneous gratification all over again. Just when you might have gotten bored of the treadmill, it becomes rewarding again.

There are two interesting sociological features of the game which I’m not sure are good or bad:

"Race"-less – There is only one race, which for all intense purposes might be called "anime".

Gender Enforced – Your characters can only be the gender you put down when you registered for the account. So you can’t gender-bend.



Now here’s the feature of the game I found most fascinating. RO has incredibly poor network security, which makes it very easy for players to download and use bots (AI scripts that pretend to be the game client and literally do the work for the player). Botting is actually a well-known problem in the game, with several maps known to be infested with bots. Bot scripts are fairly sophisticated. Users can control:

- which map the bot should travel to and stay on (given any starting location in the world)
- what monsters on the map should be attacked
- what loot should be picked up (to save encumbrance)
- switching to different weapons when fighting different monsters
- resting when HP/SP is low
- using certain spells, abilities or items given a complex set of conditions
- teleporting to a random spot when a crisis occurs (ie. mobbed)
- heading back to town to store loot when encumbrance max is reached
- avoid kill-stealing or loot-stealing from other players
- auto-responding to chat and PM’s based on key words (ie. They can pass the Turing Test sometimes)
- disconnecting if a GM is spotted

Botting is perceived as a bad thing by Gravity (who owns the game) and by most players (because bad bots will kill-steal you), but in a weird way, bots fulfill a critical function in RO’s twisted rare-item economy. Many highly-demanded items (ores, cards, slotted items) have very low drop rates to the point where if bots were not around to harvest them, many of these items would be several times more costly and difficult to buy.


The Big Picture

Here’s the aspect of botting that intrigues me. Sophisticated botters could script a tank bot (knight/assassin) for leveling a new mage, or script a buff bot (priest) for leveling a new melee character. One could imagine the AI becoming smart enough such that you could script both and let both run at the same time. Or what if you could script your own dungeon-crawling group? A collaborative botting model introduces several new themes:

Character –vs- Entourage: The focus on individuality can be seen in video games. Most games have you controlling one character at a time, or as an overseeing god-like power without avatars (except in some RPGs). What if you controlled interacting characters instead of single characters in MMORPGs?

Persistent Characters: Interestingly, the only thing not persistent about persistent worlds are the characters that inhabit it. Your character is gone when you log off. So much for persistence. Bots allow characters to be persistent, in fact making the world more persistent.

The Nurturance Model: There’s something appealing about watching and being a part of a character’s growth – watching them grow from fledglings into masters of their disciplines, but that aspect is actually independent of the grind itself to a large degree. People get attached to plants and animals even though they grow and go about their existence when you’re not around them. Current game models try to get you bound to the grind (because the grind is what levels you up and grows your character), but that model severely cripples casual players. A nurturance model hooks the player on the character itself rather than the grind process.


The Details

But let’s take one step back and imagine what the game would actually look like.

It Takes a Village: Let’s say players start with a town with one or two characters at their control. These novice characters have the potential to level into a set of higher professions following RO’s model. The only difference would be that there would be more crafting professions that were more sensible (don’t require fighting to become a blacksmith or an alchemist). The goal of the game is to grow a large collaborative network of characters that complement each other and help the town grow.

Characters: Like in SWG, different characters complement each other well and need to work together to achieve larger goals. The difference here is that the player has to choose how to optimize his town according to his liking. Maybe he wants a more militaristic town that can take over other towns, or maybe he wants to be the merchant hub, or maybe the magic research hub.

Advancement: Apart from normal character leveling, we have two other ways of granting advancement to players. We can give them more novice characters to grow and we can give them more advanced botting scripts.

Control of Characters: Players can control the characters directly, but as they advance in the game, they gain AI scripts that allow them to automate their characters. Perhaps we would also build in several different areas of scripts such that certain players might choose to build great fighter bots while others build great harvesting/crafting bots. But in either case, players can choose to gain control of a character they want to play with.

Collaborative Botting: The complementary nature of character skills forces players to script collaborative bots that work together by themselves. In fact, this is where the real game is – how to optimize and get bots to do what you want by themselves. Players would create tank/healer pairs for hunting groups, harvester/bodyguard pairs for harvesting missions, and an elaborate production chain for mass-producing certain goods (for example, clay => bricks => wall enforcement, or ogre blood => red gems => spell research).

Focus on Strategy Not Grind: The semi-automation allows players to truly focus on the overall strategy of how they want their towns to develop as their village grows to about 20-30 bottable characters.

The Multiplayer Part: Different players collaborate or compete at a larger level now – two villages fighting over the same set of limited resources, or a fighter town that feeds resources into the manufacturing town and getting weapons in return. Diplomacy between multiple players becomes more complex and interesting.

A Battle Scene: Instead of controlling one character, imagine a player who is working with two other players to raid an orc city. They each have about 10 characters. One town will supply close-ranged fighters, while another will supply healers and mages, and the third will supply archers and fast cavalry. Many characters could be scripted to do basic tasks – like healing specific fighters, giving them priority over archers. We could also imagine a semi-automated group. The fighter town might have 8 bots that attack what 2 key characters attack – controlled by the player.

While You Sleep: In fact, the game makes it such that your village is working day and night even as you sleep or are at work. Your town is a living, breathing entity that persists in the world – harvesting raw resources, manufacturing enforcements and weaponry, battling hostile invaders, all according to your plan. You could set alarms to alert you to anomalies if certain strange conditions appear – healing potions running out very quickly.


Potential problems and answers

Run-away inflation: With a botted economy, there is the danger of out-of-control inflation. This can be controlled by having a closed player economy where players are not selling large amounts of unwanted goods to NPC merchants. Because everyone has access to automated harvesting, there isn’t a problem like in RO where some players have a lot more than others unfairly.

What about Socializing: This appears to be a very logistical and calculating game that at first glance seems devoid of socialization elements. But there is a lot going on at the inter-village level between players. We could also imagine many variations of non-combat oriented goals – a fashion tailoring village that produces unique clothing, an alchemy town that researches and sells high level spells, a ranger village where players can buy tamed horses for cavalry or exotic animals as pets, or towns where festivals are held.

Asynchronous Communication: At first glance, it may seem problematic that so many of the other people you would need to talk to have a good chance of not being logged on at the same time as you. This problem is solved by asynchronous communications like an in-game email system or a real-world IM system.

Bots are Bad: Because of the way bots are currently used, players think they can only do bad things like kill-steal you. But in fact, benevolent botters in RO could choose to set their bot to run around and heal or bless the players on a certain map. Indeed, we could build in altruism as a way to level up certain skills – like for priests who need to make a pilgrimage to another village and carry out priestly duties. The metrics and advancement requirements of a game are what guide players to do what they do. Like "A Tale in the Desert" or "There.com", if you get cool skills from helping out newbies, then players will help out newbies. Altruism can in fact be engineered by the game mechanics.

So the question is: What’s your gut-feeling about this game? Would you want to play it? Would you add or change anything about it?