Even NPCs have rights! by Martin
May 07, 2007 01:48:35

It's getting late so I hope my mind isn't playing tricks however, I believe my first interaction with an NPC (Non Player Character) in a game was way back around 1983 where my character is standing on a cliff saying "hello sailor" to a Viking on a boat in Zork III. I get rewarded for my dialog as he tosses me an invisibility potion! NPCs have come a long way since then acquiring rich, somewhat believable and often highly entertaining personas. Since my early gaming days, I must surely have interacted with thousands of NPCs. I have been trying to define a benchmark which is nearly impossible however my favorite NPC of all time was Minsc (and his pet hamster Boo) from the Baldur's Gate series.

Until the advent of MMOs, entertaining and interactive NPCs have been the mainstay of standalone games. While MMOs provide a number of opportunities and balance challenges to PvE experiences, their value in pure PvP environments often relegates them to something more akin to simple window dressing.

So what makes an ideal NPC?

In most instances a non-player-character should be treated in all other in-game respects as you would treat a player-character. I suspect that the "ultimate" NPC might even get close to if not, appearing to be, another live player.

I don't consider fully controllable sidekicks to be NPCs they appear to fall more into the category of pets. To make an NPC believable, they should have a certain degree of (or even total) autonomy. An entity in-game that merely attacks you is also not typically an NPC I would put that in the category of a pure player damage-dealing MOB (Mobile Object).

In an MMO most of the NPCs are usually associated with a story line or quest and often give advice, provide loot, hand out rewards and sometimes accompany the players themselves. Many NPCs have been pre-programmed with a collection of actions, dialogs, quests, items, other NPC interaction, player direction and are general purveyors of supporting game information. All in all a pretty mundane existence! Of course, all of this is a product of writers and programmers under the direction of the game or level designers. Over many years of playing, I have encountered numerous dull and uninspiring NPCs in-game, but I have also interacted with some truly entertaining and incredibly realistic NPCs! Once in a while I've certainly been fooled into starting a dialog with an apparent "real person" but it rarely lasts more than a second before the "its only an NPC" thought hits me.

Will we ever see NPC Freedom?

This thought has intrigued me for several years but what if some NPCs could be seeded with a significant dynamic vocabulary supplemented with player snippets. Include other elements like a viable family history, racial and geographic background, life changing events, basic personality, biases, obsessions and personal goals to seek. Over time the NPC would catalogue persistent recent geographical knowledge, adjustable (based on interaction over time) race/clan/family/player affiliation/trust (and/or distrust/hatred) How about adding personal NPC property, status, titles to land areas, possessions and other equipment they can either covet, share, sell, destroy or give away both to players and other NPCs. The ultimate goal is a truly autonomous and believable NPC.

Consider a theoretical future expansion to WoW, Vanguard, SWG, LOTROL or Guildwars where your team gets a quest in an unfamiliar area. Go to the NPC recruiting hall and look at the "resumes" of various NPCs to see not only their stats and cost to hire but also which NPC has knowledge of the area (i.e. they have been through the same area on another quest). Take this line of thinking one step further, give the NPCs their own path to follow (they might even enter a dungeon on their own initiative when there are no players hiring them).

Moreover, as was suggested earlier, NPCs collect wealth, status and items of their own - it might even be the case that you go to the recruiting hall where the NPC hires you along with other NPCs/players to follow their current quest and rewards. This could be a real boon for newbies to be taken under the tutelage of an experienced NPC.

Part of the dynamic NPC dialog could be retelling stories that incorporate hints and discoveries from previous quests, drawings, diagrams and maps as well as recounting good and bad experiences with other players, races, clans, dungeons, towns and other NPCs.

Just like a player these instances of persistent NPCs would really need to be unique and would be "checked out" from the recruiting halls when they are pursuing a quest. They could even have something akin to a mailbox which would allow players to request notification of availability - of course the NPC would be at liberty to refuse requests, snub players or leave invitations to join the NPC in a quest of their own or on request from a third party. An NPC might even be hired on remotely by a highly trusted player to independently create a party then attempt a quest without the requesting player even being online at the time. If the object of the quest was an item, it could be left in the player's mailbox along with a potentially re-playable summary from the NPC.

In order to keep the NPC ranks relatively "fresh", it would be prudent to have them age or even occasionally get permanently (some might even say tragically) killed in an elite quest. NPC wealth, property and maybe even hereditary titles could be bequeathed to a next generation and possibly some choice items may be bestowed on a memorable player or two. I could imagine some grand funeral celebrations or special quests being generated by the passing of a notable NPC.

Summary

If you have read my musings to this point, I hope it has inspired some creative thinking as to how NPC lives can be "enriched". I truly believe the hardware and infrastructure are close to being able to support this architecture. If true NPC persistence becomes a reality I can't wait to go adventuring with my online buddies along with Minsc and his pet hamster Boo!!!

Persistent worlds are passť it's time for persistent personalities!

- Martin: (Often seen posting - and/or playing - as BlueBottle - or Martinus Obstinatus)

Submitted by Brent on May 07, 2007 01:48:35 CST (comments: 0)


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