The Curse of Groundhog Day Continues: No Dynamic Content for Pantheon MMO

In the classic film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is forced to relive February 2nd over and over. Eventually he learns from his mistakes, perfects his strategy and wins the heart of the heroine played by Angie McDowell and the curse is broken. For years, MMORPGs have been subject to a similar curse. I call it the Groundhog Day syndrome.

In this design paradigm players are forced to deal with a virtual world of static spawning enemy NPCs with predetermined attributes and abilities. When killed, these mobs spawn again within a few minutes or if within an instance they re-spawn when you repeat the instance.

In the real world people would quickly tire of being trapped like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog day. With so many interesting possibilities available to a dynamic virtual world, why would anyone want to go back to a predictable scripted theme park MMO?

Do we really need another Groundhog Day MMO?

Another Tale of Blind Visionaries

Even 15 years after the release of the classic EverQuest, state of the art MMORPG is still bereft of dynamic content and autonomous NPCs with artificial intelligence. Somehow MMO designers and visionaries stopped dreaming and caring about how to move the genre forward and became content with foisting a predictable stale virtual world design ethos on their customers.

Today in most MMOs, there is only the illusion of dynamic content; this is thanks to a random number generator and designer scripting that spawns the occasional named mob that appears in both overland and dungeon locations.

The sad thing about these NPCs is that they behave like mindless robots on death row, tragically waiting for players to kill them and take their loot — loot that just magically appears on the NPC for no legitimate reason — another sacred cow MMO design convention that has yet to be challenged. Thanks to Luddite developers, these hapless NPCs wallow in a perpetual state of ignorance that never allows them to change their behavior and and learn from their mistakes. Bowling pins have more intelligence than the average NPC in an MMO.

In a Groundhog Day MMO, players are the only entities that are allowed to be dynamic in a non-dynamic MMORPG. In time, the players learn everything about these enemy NPCs and eventually come up with strategies and techniques to defeat them. After the initial challenge is gone, many players leverage their new found knowledge and continue enter these dungeons but not as an adventurers but as farmers. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the woeful state of the modern day MMO.

To a large extent with a few limited exceptions, EverQuest and World of Warcraft are both Groundhog Day MMOs and I am sick of both of them. While this kind of MMO game design was acceptable in 1999 in EverQuest, it’s appalling lazy and unambitious in 2014.

What is Dynamic Content?

Since dynamic content has never really been properly attempted yet in a MMO, it would be useful to try to define what it is. Dynamic content is content that can change and be changed.

Often virtual world designers and thinkers use the phrase “living breathing world” as a sort of Holy Grail design concept that they someday wish to realize. A living breathing world can change and be changed by the things that live in that world. There is something that fascinates us about this idea because it speaks to the potential of what a virtual world ought to be: an environment so rich, believable and alive that that it completely and totally immerses the participant.

One of the ways to achieve this goal, along with artwork and sound design is to create mechanics that support dynamic content.

As I see it, dynamic content exists when the NPCs of a virtual world exhibit some form of artificial intelligence with the purpose of providing the player with a more challenging, interesting and immersive experience.

There are two spheres of artificial intelligence that NPCs should have: self-interest and collective interest. Here’s an amplification of what I mean:

  1. NPC Self-interest – I want to survive and thrive
  2. NPC Collective interest:
    1. Tribal – I want my tribe to survive and thrive
    2. Racial – I want my race to survive and thrive

This design construct could even be expanded to guilds and religions as well — in fact it could apply to any kind of social relationship structure within a virtual world. In each case the NPC uses artificial intelligence provided by the designer (base wants/needs/statistics/attributes/personality) reacts to the players and the world/resources around them.

The Invisible Hand of the Dynamic Virtual World

Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations used the metaphor of the invisible hand of the marketplace that self-regulates a free market society. Likewise, I believe that a virtual world could be also be endowed by it’s creators with the same dispassionate intention to impact its inhabitants much like Smith’s invisible hand. The creators set the world in motion and then let nature and the players take its course.  The journey the world takes depends on the players, the NPCs and the world itself.

This dynamic virtual world is a place where anything is possible, a far cry from the stale and predictable design of EverQuest and the quest and narrative based World of Warcraft. Much like our own world, a truly dynamic virtual world is like a character itself; it should be given the right to evolve or devolve as it sees fit. This kind of virtual world with its invisible hand would provide a vastly more interesting and rewarding experience to its inhabitants than is currently available.

So which world would you want to be a part of? A non-dynamic world or a dynamic world?

No Emphasis on Dynamic Content for Pantheon

So here we are in 2014. The legendary creator of EverQuest Brad McQuaid and his band of merry developers are pitching their Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen.

So it is with surprise and dismay, while watching a recent video where Brad McQuaid and Salim Grant were being interviewed by the Project 1999 staff, they revealed that there will be no emphasis on dynamic content in their proposed Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen MMO.

In the video at the 1:11:00 mark, Salim talks briefly about limited dynamics such as bosses moving around and possibly some alternate data sets for zones. Here are some quote snippets that deal with the concept of dynamic content:

Salim Grant: Maybe bosses might rotate. Someone was asking us to put in a notion of you kill the pirate king and he never re-spawns. Something else replaces him at some point. Maybe the son of pirate king replaces him.

It’s hard to answer because it’s a debate of familiarity versus things constantly changing. If I go in with a group of people and going to crawl a dungeon and I’ve done that dungeon 3 or 4 times, I’m teaching someone the dungeon, I want to be familiar with it. I don’t necessarily want the dungeon to be new every time I go into it. Why would I go into any other dungeon?

Population might change whether it’s nighttime or some special event going on, an alternate rule set for the zone.

If you want to go online and learn tactics we can’t stop you from doing that. If you want to experience the game organically, and not do that stuff then do it. That’s the experience you want.
If you want to learn a dungeon, go run a dungeon. You go through it one time, you are not going to know everything.

If someone is asking me specifically if we are going to have Storybricks type stuff that’s currently not the plan. I wouldn’t go on the Internet to look for tactics. If a boss is kicking my but

At about 1:14:20 into the video Brad drops a few bombshells and reveals that he is not a big fan of the idea of dynamic content and explains why:

Brad McQuaid: For a lot of years, players and also developers you know are saying, “we want a dynamic world and in the real world things change, so if we are going to create a virtual world it should change also”. And our answer to that is well first of all, the real world — at least my world — doesn’t radically change every 6 hours. I know where that McDonald’s is, I know where that gas station is, I think I know where my parents house is. You know, things like that. So we don’t think players want to log to an environment that is totally different then what they were encountering yesterday with totally different mobs or totally different behaviors.

Now, that said, as Salim mentioned, there could very well be different places key mobs spawn. There will be some dynamic and some things you’ll have to learn over time. Like such and such only spawns at night, that vampire comes out at night or this crazy boss mob only comes out when it’s raining. That’s good dynamics. We don’t want to go overboard and have a world that changes so much so you don’t feel good about how you’ve learned how to navigate the world. That’s a big part of that memory and that sense of accomplishment that’s paramount to Pantheon . You get a sense of accomplishment and you achieve things.

One of the things you achieve in the game is mastery over a dungeon. How do you achieve that mastery over a dungeon? You and your group, go thought it, you get wiped, you lose some guys. Maybe you have to regroup and come back and employ a different strategy. Like Salim said, maybe you go to a spoiler site — that’s up to you. However, but you come back and eventually you can say: “you know what? That dungeon, I know that dungeon. Maybe you want to have me along. For 20 plat, I’ll guide you through it”. “Oh ok”. We want that sense of accomplishment and a pure dynamic world, doesn’t allow for that.

It is clear that both Brad and Salim are not fans of dynamic content and are seemingly content with a token amount of dynamic content that was that case in the EverQuest for the first 4 expansions to Planes of Power.

I will now analyze disassemble and analyze Brad’s main arguments:

Brad 1st Argument

Synopsis: People say they want virtual worlds to be more like the real world but the real world really isn’t that dynamic. Since the real world isn’t as dynamic as most people think it is, therefore the virtual world of Pantheon won’t be dynamic.

Even though the real world doesn’t change that much it still has the capacity to change. Contrast this to most fantasy virtual worlds that have no capacity to change whatsoever except via rare content patches and/or new expansions.

What Brad has forgotten in all of this is that in a dynamic virtual world change can be affected by the players and not by some arbitrary or random means. Let me repeat that: change can be affected by the players.

The fact that a virtual world has the capacity to change is enormously important because it gives players a sense of empowerment and ownership. The ability to change and influence is what empowerment is all about and when those abilities are exercised the player feels a sense of ownership.

Change also can come about organically. Consider the force of nature in a virtual world. Let’s say, there’s a terrible snow storm so all of the snow orcs decide to huddle back in their dungeon for safety. Obviously a player who decides to enter the snow orc dungeon will have a harder time of it. There could be a famine which causes humans to over fish a river, which then causes hungry bears who like to eat the fish to seek other prey — namely the humans.

Keeping it Real about Reality

The real world fallacy has been used for years in the world of MMO debating by both sides of any issue. It’s easy to criticize a feature that is not real enough and conversely easy to balk at a feature that is too real.

However, in this case, how the real world functions should not be the final arbiter of what makes up a MMO. If every feature in a MMO was put up against what is normal in the real world then most MMO features would not exist and many other real world activities that involve bodily functions such as sleep and the need to eliminate waste would be included. How about old age and death? While there must be some reference point with reality, the virtual world can’t be a slave to it either.

What people want from a virtual world that they are devoting their precious leisure time to is the measured addition of the exciting things about the real world along with careful subtraction of the tedious and annoying things. Finding the right balance between both is the art of good MMORPG design.

Brad uses the analogy that he knows where the local McDonald’s is. The fact is that on any given day, Brad can go into that McDonald’s and there will be different people in the restaurant and yes even McDonald’s does change the menu almost every month and offers new promotions. The same would be true of a local pub which has the effect of making the experience potentially fresh each time one goes to visit the pub.

Taking this analogy even further, in the real world businesses succeed and fail all the time. There is no guarantee that new restaurant that opened up will be there a year from now. In fact most new restaurants fail. Do we really want to live in a world where everything stays the same and there is nothing new?

The Untold Story of the Lonely NPC Vendor

Let’s evaluate one of the casualties of current MMO design: the average NPC vendor. What a sad story indeed. He stands motionless like a statue and never moves, always sells the same stuff.

Why should a NPC vendor that sells useless items in a virtual city still be in business if he has no customers? How can he make a living and feed his family with no sales? Why isn’t he in a new line of work or living on the street like a bum? Imagine the reaction from the player seeing a previous successful vendor that sells swords, living on the street in a slum because players have found a merchant that sells better swords at a lower price. The game play possibilities are endless for NPCs that have some semblance of A.I. if only folks like Brad McQuaid would show some appreciation of the possibilities of dynamic content.

Pantheon Rise of the Fallen It's Good to Be King

Brad’s 2nd Argument

Synopsis: Players don’t want to log into a dynamic world where everything is changed. Players don’t like change. Change in the form of different mobs and behaviors might confuse players and impede their enjoyment. Therefore the virtual world of Pantheon won’t be dynamic.

How does Brad know that players will not enjoy a world that is dynamic? Has such a MMO ever been tried? No. This is just Brad telling the public that he knows what is best for them.

I believe the opposite is true. I think that players would appreciate a virtual world where anything can happen and where they can make an impact more than they appreciate a scripted predictable one.

As a Senior Guide for EverQuest, I was privileged to be involved in writing quests for GMs and Guides to perform as Salim “GM Silius” Grant can personally attest to as he was my server GM. We spent countless hours performing live events for players. Unlike the EverQuest devs, the volunteer Guides were in the trenches with players. Once word got out about a “GM event” scores of players from all over the server would flock to that zone to take part in the mayhem and the unfolding story. We would get emails and comments of appreciation from many players thanking us for giving them an amazing immersive experience. So I know from firsthand experience that players crave dynamic content. This is not just my own anecdotal experience; it was noted by many volunteers throughout the EverQuest Guide Program on all servers.

Brad makes a red herring in his argument by invoking the notion of “radical change”.  Of course players would get frustrated if every time they logged on to their virtual world the world was radically changed. The thing is, nobody is asking for radical change all at once. Change in a dynamic world would be gradual, organic and frankly expected. Rome was not built in a day; the American west was not won in a day either.

The Tedium of Static Cities

I for one am tired of cities in most MMORPGs where nothing ever changes except the monthly scripted ho hum festival. Dynamic content could solve the problem of these tedious cities. Let’s say the summer has been very hot and there’s no rain. Or the local bands of goblins have been stealing food from the villagers. In both cases a food shortage would cause starvation and disease and people would resort to crime to feed themselves — all of this drama courtesy of a dynamic world.

What if — because enough players didn’t help defend Freeport — dark elves have surrounded the city and after days of siege warfare they are victorious and take over the town and thrown out the humans? Suddenly the humans of Freeport are refugees and now have the task of taking back their city much like how the dwarves kicked out of their mountain stronghold in The Hobbit. Think of the exciting gameplay possibilities that could result!

As long as change is organic and reasonable and players know they are part of a dynamic virtual world and can impact it, they will have no problem with it and will embrace it.

Brad’s 3rd Argument

Synopsis: Players who learn and master static dungeons should be rewarded for learning the NPC encounters, their locations and the loot they drop. If we put in unpredictable and dynamic content in dungeons, players won’t be able to master the content and will be prevented from capitalizing on their knowledge. Therefore the virtual world of Pantheon won’t be dynamic.

Given our short attention span culture, how many times can you expect players to repeat the same dungeon with the same content without being bored? Of course, Brad and company want to make dungeons harder which would drastically increase the amount of time a dungeon could be mastered but the problem is that the content is still the same and never changes.

We need to consider that players don’t learn organically anymore; instead they learn from thousands of YouTube walk-thru videos and spoiler sites. For all intents and purposes that is cheating. Today most serious raiding guilds require that their members watch these videos made by the uber raiding guilds who use the test servers to learn how to beat the raiding content. Dynamic content would be a dagger in the heart to all those spoiler sites.

Having dynamic content makes your fantasy virtual world more replayable! One only has to look at the statistics of popular MMOs like WoW to see that when there is not enough new content people lose interest and stop subscribing. Players are bored of the non-dynamic MMO and voting with their feet. Over the years, millions of dollars of subscription revenue have been lost because MMO developers like Blizzard have failed to embrace the concept of dynamic content.

PVP: The Original Dynamic Content

I personally don’t like PVP but I can appreciate those that enjoy it in a MMORPG. They love it because PVP — like the game of chess — is truly dynamic as you never have the same experience twice even though you may be playing the same opponent. Each combatant brings different skills and tactics to the fight. This keeps things fresh, exciting and alive. That is the definition of dynamic.

Even Goblinworks that is on track to release their Pathfinder Online MMO is relying on PVP content because they realize that creating traditional PVE content is far too expensive and gets consumed too fast. But the problem is that not everyone likes PVP. I believe taking PVE forward with dynamic content is the answer.

Concluding Thoughts

Many veteran game designers often hail pen and paper tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons as being an inspiration and foundation for their philosophy of MMO game design. The key to the success of those tabletop games is the role of the dungeon master. The dungeon master or DM always kept the adventure fresh with different challenges even in the same dungeon. It was the dynamic nature of D&D that made it so popular. Of course it is not possible to have live DMs run dungeons in a virtual world but we do need to get back to appreciating the classic dungeon crawl experience that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and D&D made so popular.

Somehow the current crop of MMO visionaries has lost sight of what adventuring is supposed to be about. Dungeon farming has replaced the dungeon crawl. Instead of a band of brave adventurers venturing deep into the darkness recesses of some ancient crypt and hoping against all odds to vanquish the evil creatures in a dungeon, we now have players that have been reduced to statisticians, accountants, and farmers with slider rulers and calculators as their weapons. I’m here to say that the status quo is of MMO design is no longer acceptable.

Let’s be honest here, even if played as intended, today’s MMO dungeon experience in all its theme park glory is all about beating the scripting. It’s about data mining the enemy NPCs stats and abilities, it’s about theorycrafting, it’s about the numbers. It’s essentially Strat-O-Matic Baseball meets Lord of the Rings. Somehow the idea of bravery, determination, courage, valor, cunning and challenge got lost and the software engineers with their insufferable analytical minds took over. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Brad McQuaid often talks about the emails that players have sent him. I too have gotten emails from my readers over the years. I too have read hundreds of MMO forums and blogs. I know that players are sick of playing the same old MMO and many have stopped playing them altogether. They want to make an impact in the virtual worlds they play in but are prevented from doing so. They want they want to be part of a virtual world where they can make a difference both personally and collectively. Dynamic content is the answer and even SOE knows this with the upcoming EverQuest Next.

While I respect and appreciate many of the things that Pantheon promises to bring back to the genre, I am disappointed that Visionary Realms is not interested in providing players with a dynamic fantasy world. Perhaps they are jaded and complacent which is quite possibly a side effect of having been in the industry too long. I expected far more ambition and imagination from Brad McQuaid and his team. It’s regrettable that their aspirations are so small with Pantheon.  This is a deal breaker for me and I will not be supporting the Pantheon Kickstarter at this time.


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