Posted on November 8th, 2018 by | 5 Replies

One downside of MMOs is that the sheer length of time we spend playing them can tend to serve as a microscope for any issues the game has. Minor annoyances become intolerable headaches over the course of months and years. As a case in point, there is one very fundamental aspect of design that in my mind most MMOs get wrong. Not badly wrong, but wrong enough to seriously get under my skin in the long run.

Fighting open world mobs in Black Desert Online

I’m talking about open world mobs.

Yes, the proverbial ten rats you need to slay to feed your character’s crippling XP addiction.

Rethinking Open World Mobs

The problems with MMO mobs are subtle, but many, and they tend to feed off each other.

My top complaint tends to be that they’re simply too weak. While it does depend a bit on the game, generally speaking quest mobs have pitifully low stats and little or no mechanics to deal with, making them an absolutely trivial challenge to all but the poorest and most undergeared players.

Myself I would prefer in monsters actually felt like, well, monsters. Pulling an unexpected add should be a moment of genuine anxiety, not a minor inconvenience. They should take more than two or three hits to kill, and at least some should require actual tactics to defeat.

That being said, simply buffing all the mobs in existing games up to those levels would not make things better. It might just make the games all but unplayable.

This is due to the second problem I see with MMO mob design, and that’s that they’re everywhere. This may be a side effect of how weak they tend to be. As with so many things, developers seem to have replaced quality with quantity, with the end result being that in most games you can’t walk five feet outside of a quest hub without pulling something.

Fighting quest mobs in the shuttered action MMO Dragon's Prophet

If mobs are to present an actual challenge, they need to be placed more intelligently. Rather than spraying hostile NPCs across the entire landscape, they should be fewer in number, with placement concentrated on locations that make good sense for the story or gameplay. It makes sense for enemy soldiers to densely populate an encampment, or for a Dragon to guard a hoard of treasure. It doesn’t make sense for every random field to contain fifty hostile tigers.

Beyond that, for all their aforementioned weakness, MMO mobs do have some odd superpowers. They tend to be able to climb vertical surfaces players never could. Sometimes they even walk through walls. These are clearly measures to prevent exploits wherein players find places to kill mobs that can’t fight back, but I have to think in 2018 there have to be better solutions than this.

Also in the realm of mob superpowers is the fact they all seem to have eyes in the back of their heads. You can be fifty feet away from them with them looking in the opposite direction, and they’ll still come charging for you if you step even one inch into their aggro radius.

Mobs should have realistic senses. Stealth should be a viable strategy, even for classes that can’t click a button to turn invisible. The fact it isn’t further contributes to a paradigm where combat is constant.

And it’s that constant combat that prevents mobs from ever being a serious threat. No one wants combat to be a significant challenge in a world where it’s nigh impossible to go more than a few seconds without fighting. A total rebalancing is in order so that combat can feel meaningful.

Finally, I would like to see greater variety in MMO mob design. In some areas, it can be okay to have swarms of weaker foes, but there should also be places where mobs are stronger. In some locations strong and weak mobs could mix.

Hunting hostile mobs in Warframe's open world Plains of Eidolon zone

The strength of mobs should come in different forms, as well. Some might simply boast high and damage stats, while others might be numerically weaker but have powerful abilities that must be dodged or countered.

At the end of the day, what I want is for open world content to get the same love and attention raids and dungeons do. It should be a hand-crafted experience, with challenge and variety, not something made with a cookie cutter to serve as a speed bump for leveling.

It may be too late to make this change in existing games, but it’s something I hope the next generation of MMOs will keep in mind.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking MMO Mobs

  1. Pallais

    My concern is that changing the mob density only works when a few people are leveling in the area. During a launch window or when public quests are active having just a few mobs is a recipe for player frustration. The needs of gameplay override more realistic conditions.

    I’d also prefer that leveling combat be easy. One of the major annoyances of WIldstar was that leveling combat was always like raiding combat (place that telegraph just so). I want to relax and level, not be focused and level. YMMV, of course.

    I do agree that having mobs with eyes in the back of their heads is annoying, but that’s a technical issue. I suspect distant mobs are oriented by the client until the server sends a reaction message to the client. Unless you add more round trips between the server and the client about all mob behavior within the range of the client you’re going always have some oddities.

    1. Tyler Bro Post author

      I feel like mob scarcity concerns can be addressed by dynamic spawn rates. If there’s a lot of players in an area, more mobs can be spawned. This technology already exists in at least one MMO that I know of (WoW); it just hasn’t been capitalized on as much as it could be.

      Similarly TSW already had mobs that had a lower aggro radius if they weren’t looking right at you, so it can be done.

      As for difficulty, I don’t need leveling content to be raid-level hard, at least not all of the time, but there’s got to be a happy medium between that and the standard paradigm wherein most things drop dead before you even finish a full ability rotation or lose any health.

  2. Bhagpuss

    Ironically, what you’re pretty much describing is EverQuest circa 1999-2004. Mob density was much lower, the level range of mobs within a zone was much wider, mobs displayed an extraordinary degree of difference in AI, tactics and abilities and adds were something to be feared at all times. Traveling was fraught with danger but use of stealth or invisibility made things manageable – of course you had to know which mobs could see through invis and which type of invisibility to use…

    All the MMOs of that period had a good deal of the complexity and added risk you describe. It got removed because people complained about it. Turns out that if you offer people open world zones with mobs that don’t present much of a risk they throw money at you.

    Whether that will ever change – in the mainstream – I tend to doubt. It’s going to be a niche market now the cat’s out the bag that it doesn’t have to be that way. Personally I like both versions. I’d quite like both in the same game, with some zones being chock-full of dimwitted, weak mobs and others sparsely populated by tough, clever ones. And a few zones with both!

  3. jonreece

    I’ll echo what Bhagpuss said, and give another example: Dark Souls. I recently played through Dark Souls, and was really struck at how similar it felt to me to both EQ and to Classic WoW, with areas that were sparsely populated with mobs, and others that really wanted to be pulled intelligently. I think that the desire to make leveling “quick”, “easy” and “soloable” has led to open world mobs being like ants at a picnic — lots of them, none of which are an actual threat or worth much thought. Very much the opposite of fun design, at least to me.

    This is one of the things I’m really looking forward to in Pantheon and WoW Classic — a return to “the game” meaning “the leveling game” not “the endgame.”


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