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Generative AI and the future of MMO content

MMOs have a reputation for providing hours of mindless content. Could leaving its creation to AI offer a better gameplay experience?

Barring a few too many fingers and a slight issue with understanding MMO class roles, it seems that the generative AI revolution is nigh.

For good reason, much noise has been made about the existential problems that these new technologies pose to the creative industries (as well as pretty much every other labour sector on the planet), and you can only imagine that it won’t be long before these tools start being used in game design.

Self-learning AI may not be able to make the next Elden Ring just yet, but could it at least make daily quests in MMOs a little more exciting?

Of course, procedural generation has been used in game design for a while now. No Man’s Sky uses it to produce its 18 quintillion planets, Dwarf Fortress creates “deeply generated world[s]” which have earned it a fanbase which belies its uber-simplistic aesthetic, and Source of Madness combines the roguelike experience – a genre rife with procedurally generated level design – with AI-generated Lovecraftian monsters.

As far back as the late 1990’s Raph Koster was working on procedural generation technology for use in the cancelled Privateer Online, and advancements in this tech would later make their way into Star Wars Galaxies. I confess, that a lot of the tech jargon here goes over my head, but it’s interesting to imagine how this latest round of generative AI tools might be used in future MMOs.

Daily quests could be made a lot more interesting with something like ChatGPT generating flavour text, but what might be more exciting still is to integrate this technology with player-created content. After a micro-boom some years back with systems such as Star Wars GalaxiesChronicle Master profession and Star Trek Online and Neverwinter’s Foundry systems, this MMO feature has been disappointingly neglected.

The main reasons for this are likely that a) most player-created quests were rubbish, and b) it requires a lot of moderation. Both problems which could potentially be solved with some integration of procedurally generated scripting. It may not necessarily allow for quite as much raw creativity from the players who excelled at quest creation, but I would hazard a guess that really good examples from thoughtful creators would still be able to stand out from the pack, while the general mass would be of at least a baseline level of acceptable quality.

Another problem with these quests has traditionally been that they don’t allow users to offer interesting rewards for completing them. Could integration of a tool such as Midjourney allow unique paintings or other decorations for players to hang in their homes?

Of course, these things substantially inflate the game’s database – something which held back early games in the genre from having too many unique items – but I can only hazard a guess that it’s less of an issue today.

Perhaps we will see entire quest lines created, or indeed procedurally generated on the fly, with these new tools. I don’t however foresee them taking over entirely from those created by actual human minds and hands. While basic kill, collect, and deliver missions could probably be handled fairly efficiently by the technology, I would guess that we’re still some ways off an AI-generated story which is quite on the same level as Final Fantasy XIV’s, or from quest design that could match up to The Secret World’s.

Could you ever feel as emotionally invested in a story knowing that a machine created it?

On the whole, I think procedural generation will result in something of a paradigm shift in how we distinguish between ‘content’ and ‘art’. In the new few years, I speculate that there will be a lot of projects spring up across every creative industry touting that they’re entirely AI-generated. This will include games themselves, and the websites – such as this one – that provide content around them.

It’s possible that we may even see an entire MMO created by AI. And it might be very popular – as with all the projects which will be first through the door in offering exclusively AI-generated content.

But they will be a novelty. Because AI cannot create art – it creates content.

Beautiful though that content may be, people will always want to know that a song, film, book, or game is reflecting a genuine human’s emotion if it is attempting to say anything beyond the surface level. It’s something I’m frankly looking forward to in the hopes that we can finally move away from the current trend of referring to everything as mere content. A devaluation of all the manhours and emotion which is poured into the act of creation.

Let me know in the comments how you think AI will be integrated into MMOs. Would an unending supply of procedurally generated content be a good thing for MMOs? Do you care if a game contains a human fingerprint at all?

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