Endless variation

As all of us are, I am still trying to piece together a coherent picture of Battle for Azeroth. It will come together more over the next few weeks, and of course will become clearer as soon as the beta or super alpha or whatever they decide to call it goes live. But my brain has been trying to digest one particular new approach to the game that emerged from Blizzcon: new technology that permits endless variation with minimal developmental resources. I think this may end up being the most significant development in the new expansion.

Let’s start with artificial intelligence. One of the big changes we will see in Battle for Azeroth is the introduction of advanced AI for NPCs. As I understand, these “super NPCs” will initially be confined to some of the special BfA “Island Expedition” scenarios. (I’m unclear about their role, if any, in the larger Warfront activities.) Basically, these NPCs will not be scripted, rather they will react to player actions. This summary from Wowhead:

The common creatures AI is generally well known. Melee mobs will generally walk to you and punch. If you walk too far, it’ll go back to it’s spawn. That’s why for these new islands, they are trying a different type of AI, that tries to beat the players at their own game. For instance, the AI will try to have tactical ability usage. It may try to Polymorph or Sap your healer.

The biggest advance is that the AI will have a good sense of map objectives; where are the big bosses? Where are the Azerite nodes? And also a greater sense of strategy; it may polymorph you and then just walk away as it has better things to do.

Also the AI will likely have personalities such as a rogue named “Sneaky Pete” that notices that you pulled too much, Sap your healer and then burst you down.

I can see the fun potential in this new technology, but part of me wants to think this is Blizz forcing us into PvP. I mean, variable and unpredictable actions are one of the big draws of PvP, right? (You PvPers out there feel free to speak up, all my PvP experience is limited to BGs as a bit player.) To me, one of the real benefits of PvE is that once you have figured out a boss or mob action you can rely on that happening, and the fun variable is how you deal with it. Consistency is something many players, me included, think of as a good thing in the game.

The science of AI is advancing by leaps and bounds — far beyond the primitive learning algorithms I played with in my graduate Comp Sci courses. (Check out this layman’s summary of the sophisticated set of machine learning tools recently released by the creators of the game engine Unity for a quick idea of what I am talking about.)

To paraphrase Alan Turing, at what point does the AI opponent become indistinguishable from the PvP one? And does it matter?

In addition to this non-scripted AI for some NPCs, the scenario-type activities in BfA will feature a large number of map variations, selected at random for any given instantiation of the scenario. Also, the items appearing on the random map will dictate various approaches to beating the scenario, so that any given victory strategy may fail miserably if you run the scenario again.

Of course, we haven’t seen this at work yet, so it is possible the mechanic will devolve into a “Oh, it’s setup X this time, implement the standard X strategy.” However, Blizz’s comments during some of the Blizzcon panels indicated that, although the possibilities are finite, there will be so many of them as to preclude this approach.

Fun? Yes, but for me only to a point. I actually kind of like it in an expansion when I can more or less put my brain into neutral and race through an instance (or scenario, as in Mists) I have done countless times before. It gives me a sense of progression and achievement — this was hard when we first started doing it, and look at us now! If it is hard every single time, it gets frustrating for me. (Add in the timed nature of victory, and it is doubly so — timed runs is one of the main reasons I do not enjoy Mythic+ instances now.)

I know there are a lot of players who will absolutely love this new kind of scenario, so I am sure it will be a big hit and remain a feature of the game for a long time. And of course it has great esport possibilities, so naturally Blizz will continue to develop it.

The result of these technical innovations is that Blizz will be able to give us virtually infinite content experiences using minimal development resources once the initial programming is done. This is good for the future of WoW, because it may mean that the game will continue to be viable for many more years. It is good for the player crowd that demands continuous new challenges. I am not so sure it is a plus for players like me, the ones who have grown used to a certain challenge cycle in every expansion: level —> progress —> achieve —> relax.

One wonders how long it will be before Blizz includes this new endless variation tech, along with AI bosses, in normal instances and raids and even world quests. If and when they do, how will that affect raid teams that rely on team learning and strategy development for their expansion fun? What if, every time you go into a raid, you have to figure out new strategy for each boss? What if you have to do it for pug dungeons? What does it do to the game if PvE eventually becomes indistinguishable from PvP?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, I merely pose them. Food for thought as we move into this Veteran’s Day weekend. Have a beer and hug a vet!