Greetings Pantheon Fans, and welcome to July's newsletter.
Before we get started with this month's features we wanted to talk a little about some of our goals here at Visionary Realms with Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. When we first set out on this adventure we knew what kind of game we wanted to make. You know what kind of game we want to make because you want it just as much as we do. And we knew we could reach the community that has been starving for a challenging cooperative experience. What wasn't as clear at the start, though, was how we were going to explain to all of the other gamers what kind of game Pantheon will be.
For some, it's easy to make comparisons to some other MMOs, but we wanted to make something different as well. We wanted the same core of promoting social interaction and understanding of true risk vs. reward but we wanted to be able to communicate this kind of experience to players who have never played some of these other MMOs. So for us, a big part of our journey has been in reaching out to these players—the ones who are thrill-seekers, who fill their hard drives with co-op games, who desire and thrive as part of a large community. We wanted to not only reach them but welcome them into our growing community.
So we constantly ask ourselves: "what is Pantheon?" To someone who doesn't have a point of reference, how do we explain to them what makes this kind of MMO special and important? This month the man who may be the most qualified to do so explains his thoughts on why a game like Pantheon is needed. Check it out in our feature interview with Brad McQuaid titled The Importance of Community-Focused Gaming.
In our second feature of the month Zippyzee gives us an inside look as to what he has been up to with AI design, bringing our NPCs in Terminus to life. Read all about it in For the Love of AI.
And of course, don't miss our monthly community spotlight. This month we have a chat with Yarnila. Find out what makes him tick here. The Importance of Focused Gaming
Posted date / 07.12.17
The earliest version of MMORPGs were all very much community based, what do you think caused that?
Brad McQuaid: I think it was really the text based MUDs that spawned the genre and created the sense of community. MUDs got their start in colleges and universities from folks who had grown up playing fantastic single player games like the Ultima series. They really longed for a place that felt alive, a persistent world where they could meet up with other adventurers and be the protagonists of their own story. This subset of users formed the genesis of the community that pushed the role-playing genre into those persistent worlds, where the AI took control of all the more menial tasks--the dice rolls, the NPCs, all of the more tedious stuff--and gave the players the freedom to explore these multiple user dungeons.
We really banded together out of necessity in these MUDs as they were pretty unforgiving. Just like the early MMOs, there wasn't a lot of hand holding in those games and people really had to come together to accomplish tasks and to advance.
Some of my greatest friendships came from a time when I was out adventuring. I had heard from some other players that there were dragons in the world, and I had to find them. At any rate, I soon got overwhelmed by some mobs when a random high-level cleric who saw me about to die decided to stop and heal me. That made a really lasting impression on me and it has carried forward even to this day.
We want to foster those sorts of interactions in Pantheon, what we call vertical interdependence.
How did the ability of these communities to self-police affect the gaming environment?
I think self-policing is an extremely important component. Community really is paramount, and not just in the role of helping the new player and mentoring them but also in self-policing.
In community based games, people who are jerks find real consequences for their actions. You weren't allowed to just change your name, you were stuck with your name so people knew your character. If you were foolish enough to be a jerk - to grief, to try and ruin other people's experiences, to kill steal or anything of that nature - you gained a bad reputation. People with a bad reputation found it pretty lonely and hard to really advance through the game. It's also why community size is so important.
We get asked all the time, "how many people will Pantheon allow on a realm?" It's not a technology question, it's a question of finding the right size for the community. We want a place where there is a lively population, but where you also don't lose that personal feel. When populations become too large and you get to a point where you are seeing more strangers than you are familiar people and the community begins to erode quickly. You no longer recognize these people so you don't feel as if you have any relationship to them -- there is lesser cause to help them as they are just random people. You are likely to never even see them again, especially if you have some sort of random group mechanism where you run through an instance without really talking. You just go about doing whatever it is you are supposed to do in that instance and you either succeed or fail and then those people simply disappear. There is no bonding, no sense of shared experience.
In a strong community you might not be friends with everyone, but at least when you have a community you will find that people will be more likely to help each other and keep each other in check. If the community is effective these people who are consistently rude or poor sports become pariahs, and other people won't be as inclined to group with them or help them. They'll say "No, I won't help you get back to your corpse, I won't rez you." To that degree it really creates a situation where this player either really has to work hard to fix their reputation or they have to roll a new character and hopefully learn from their mistakes and become a productive member of the community.
Why did the genre shift away from group-centric gameplay to a largely solo experience?
There was speculation in the industry that there were a lot more players out there who wanted a less social experience, that most players like to see people running around and have that feeling of a bigger world, but don't want to really socialize much, or be tethered to a group as often. I think because of WoW being so successful that the game space became much more mass-market. Then you had other publishers trying to cash in on that success by emulating WoW or adopting a mandate to create a "WoW killer" assuming they had to have 10 million plus players to be successful. WoW certainly wasn't a bad thing, WoW is a fantastic game and it opened up this huge new opportunity for people to experience MMOs. But these mega-expensive attempts to create a WoW killer did indeed harm the MMO gamespace and MMO developers.
Why do you think the playerbase is so hungry for a game that extols the virtues of grouping and challenge?
When that course correction happened, and the game space shifted to far more solo friendly titles, it pushed out a lot of the players who enjoyed that more challenging experience and they became marginalized. So now you have a lot of options for players who enjoy solo and casual MMOs, and that's great, but the player who is really focused on community, challenge and long-term investment has been orphaned.
There is this perception out there that that type of player, the one who really enjoys that group-centric game, is strictly made up of people who played EQ, DAoC, UO or Vanguard, and that's not true at all. There are so many younger players who are gravitating to our type of game. You see it happening in genres that are traditionally all about the single player experience, like in FPS games where now some of their most popular modes are the co-op ones like Zombies in the CoD franchise. The desire to play with your friends, in a group, cooperatively, against the AI - that wasn't some odd preference that appealed only people who played EQ, DAoC or UO, it's something that exists within every generation of gamers.
What aspects of Pantheon will allow it to be a leader in the return to community-focused MMOs?
We're really excited at Visionary Realms because after that course correction in the industry, there really isn't another game like Pantheon in development. Now, there are some others that are challenge-focused, but they are pursuing their own target audience - maybe PvP or RvR, or have found another niche to fill. Pantheon isn't just a reboot of older MMOs. I mean, just look at our website and our differentiators, we have a lot of really cool features that will push the genre forward while promoting community. We are looking for ways to help reward what I call vertical interdependence, like when that high-level cleric stopped and healed me in the MUD I was playing, interactions like that are what really helps build community and we would like to reward players for doing that - it has to be in a way that's not exploitative, but still meaningful.
Everything is really centered around building community. The perception system might give you unique opportunities based on the various race or class you play. The climates and atmospheres may require a special relic to overcome or only allow for gestured spells instead of ones that are spoken. We really want to reward players who thrive in an interdependent environment and, of course, do everything we can to foster community.
There are so many great opportunities to evolve existing ideas and to really bring new ones that we weren't able to do in MMOs of the past. We are evolving the genre so that PvE actually means player versus environment, not just player vs NPC, and we will keep exploring new features and mechanics that encourage greater engagement. This is the style of game that everyone at VR is passionate about so it goes beyond just making good business sense to cater to an underserved market, it's a desire and tenacity to make games that both we and our players will enjoy for years and years to come. The Love of AI
Posted date / 07.12.17
We asked Zippyzee this month to give us a bit of insight as to what he's been doing with the AI in Pantheon lately.
"You want to interview moi?" he asked, bright-eyed.
"Well, more of a rundown of your current projects," we replied. He leapt from the table.
"I shall prepare a Q and A like no other!" we heard him proclaiming as he rushed off to his office and began writing furiously.
The following is the result:
Q: Mr. Zippyzee, what exactly have you been working on down in the depths of the Pantheon designer dungeon?
A: Well, good sir/madam, a lot. Much of my work on NPC AI has been experimental. Making a system that does what it needs to do when it needs to do it, doesn't do what it doesn't need to do when it doesn't need to do it, and is understandable by both coders and designers (unlike this sentence) is a big deal.
It's very difficult to fully plan out a system like this ahead of time, and put the blueprints into action. It's a game, after all, and the needs of the game change along the way, and the results of the work in progress lead to a better understanding of where we need to go and how we should get there.
That meant coding a system "on-the-fly" in some ways. Until I could be sure that the plan would perform in the desired way, I had to add little bits here and there that would force the actions we wanted to see to take place. And as I've gone along I've found common threads between each of the actions, and determined how to finalize the overall hierarchy of the necessary functions to be more "generic". This allows designers to "drop in" new stimuli, behaviors, and actions to test them on NPCs with minimal coding and allow support for external tools that we are developing. In the end, we'd like to have a library of common actions that NPCs can perform, a list of common stimuli that might occur as an NPC goes through its daily life, and a way to combine those blocks together to make new and interesting behaviors.
These behaviors may be as simple as a routine where an NPC walks to a certain spot, looks around, mumbles something to itself, moves to another spot, waves to another NPC, yawns, and so on. This should be something a designer can create for an NPC without doing any actual coding by using these custom tools and building blocks. If the designer needs a new action, or a new stimulus, then they can work with a programmer to create it, and then it will be available as part of the library.
Q: That makes about as much sense as a three-headed orc. Can you give me an example?
A: Certainly. An easy example would be creating a system for NPCs to stop and talk to each other briefly if and when they pass by on patrol. We can't just program a routine to have them stop at a certain point and run a conversation script, because we don't know where they might cross paths, and one might be in combat somewhere else, or dead, and so on.
In this case we would create a stimulus for each NPC that might be called "NPC In Range". That stimulus would have a small function that would periodically make a check to see if the necessary NPC has entered a predetermined range. If it has, it triggers the action, "Banter", for that NPC. Whichever NPC is in charge of the conversation could manually trigger the "Banter" action for the receiving NPC, and the actions would coordinate.
The "Banter" action would then control the conversation between the 2 NPCs. It would use the "Say" action to say each line, and the "Wait" action to pause between lines, since each action can be a series of other actions. It would also continue to check and make sure the NPCs are still next to each other and bantering. If a more pressing action like combat should occur, it would override the banter and the conversation would be put on hold.
The same stimulus-action process is crucial for designing dispositions. If we want to have a "Flee" disposition, we need a stimulus for "Health Critical" assigned to that NPC and a resulting action "Flee". A "Berserker" type of disposition might have the same "Health Critical" stimulus assigned to it but take a different action if it occurs. In this way we can create all sorts of dispositions that wait until a particular stimulus occurs and then performs a particular action. "Use Ability" is an action that the designers can use, so in combat a particular stimulus occurring might trigger a spell or ability on the NPC to fire off.
Q: How far along is the process? In other words, how will it all come together?
A: The major system rewrite to allow for generic stimuli and actions is complete. Before, it was really the job of a programmer to fit in the right code in the right place to make each disposition and NPC routine work correctly. Now, it's a single system that has control and the stimuli and actions, and related variables, are standardized.
In order to make good use of the system, we need to complete the designer tools for creating more complex NPC routines and for setting up new stimuli-action combinations to drop on particular NPCs. This also involves database support for dispositions, stimuli, and actions and their related optional variables, and support for tools to add and remove those from the database. It's not particularly complicated and we've done the same for many of the other systems in the game already. It's in line to be done right now.
In the meantime, that doesn't stop me from manually adding these into the code and playing with NPCs on my own. We have a number of new dispositions that need testing and adjustment and I've been working on those. Some are close to completion, and some are more in the theoretical stage.
Q: What else can you tell us?
A: I can tell you that without a doubt Terminus is looking better and better. The improvement is really noticeable since the last stream, and the play areas are feeling more "finished" than before. There is still a lot of work to be done but it is certainly looking more and more like the game we want to play for years to come!