Can talking to NPCs ever be fun?

Justin Achilli (a name that’ll be familiar to Vampire tabletop players since he was line developer for White Wolf, now working on CCP’s new MMOs) wrote this week about task resolution systems for conversation.

The vast majority of computer roleplaying games are designed with combat first and foremost. “Roleplaying” in a computer game context really means “advancement,” not “you take on the persona,” and as such, fighting stuff to level is your primary gameplay.

He’s pointing out that dialogue in computer RPGs isn’t fun gameplay and the rewards are usually either a bit more text or a slightly more convoluted path to the same scene that everyone would be directed into next anyway.

These are not “social interactions.” These are more obstacles to click through to get to the big fight at the end that you’re going to have to have anyway.

I’m not really sure how much I want actual social interactions with bots in my game, is the only thing. That’s just a little bit creepy and leads to people falling in love with characters in their Japanese dating games. I might be happy with an interactive fiction with cut scenes, like a film in which I can decide what sort of person I want my character to be and then stand back and watch them get on with it.

I actually liked Mass Effect’s dial that lets you roughly guide what sort of response you want to give and then let your character get on with it. But I’m glad people are thinking about how to make this side of the game world more fun and involving.

Thought of the Day: I want HIS armour!

Aside from being quest givers (or kill targets), loot holders, canned comment makers and general world furniture, mobs and NPCs also sometimes act as role models for players.

“I want what he’s got”/ “I want to be able to do what he does” is one of the most powerful motivators in gaming. And in MMOs, we aren’t just modelling ourselves on more hardcore players – no, that’s an old MMO model which encouraged hardcore guys with their amazing flaming swords and sparkly mounts to hang out in capital cities, that has largely been discarded in favour of letting everyone have shinies (possibly at a price). We’re also getting our ideas about what we want for our characters from the NPCs.

Does anyone else think, “I wish I could do that!” when they see an NPC use a particularly cool ability (why can’t MY shield breathe cones of fire??). Or “I wish I could have that armour (why can’t I have a cool set of deathguard plate?).

Various games have experimented with letting mobs drop copies of gear they are wearing or using. Players, I think, have always enjoyed being able to visually link some loot to the boss which dropped it. In pen and paper games, it’s pretty much de rigeur and players would be shocked if a) the NPC declined to use some useful item in its possession during a fight and b) if said useful item was not lootable afterwards.

But we’ve been moving away from these sorts of virtual world/ immersion arrangements with loot, where mobs drop something which would be logical for them to own. I think it’s a shame. I always liked the idea of looting a characteristic weapon or armour piece from a particularly tough enemy. And as for the dream of being able to spew fire from my shield like the second boss in Grim Batol … who knows, maybe next expansion …

Lies that NPCs tell you, Part 1

lies1

This screenshot is taken at the end of the Culling of Stratholme instance. Arthas, your group’s pet NPC in this timeline, calls out the big boss. Unfortunately, he’s constrained to use the same lines that he used in this encounter in Warcraft III, where he wasn’t accompanied by a party of Azeroth’s finest.

So he says, “We’re going to finish this right now, Mal’Ganis. Just you… and me.” And every single player who has run that instance thinks, “What am I? Chopped liver?” Then he bats at the boss ineffectually while players kill it.

lies2

This screenshot is the last boss in the Trial of the Champion 5 man instance. The Black Knight isn’t so much lying outright as suffering from the worst care of delusional thinking in the entire game.

Has anyone not seen this dialogue and thought, “Yes, of course we thought that.”

Tigole on The Art of Herding Cats

Jeffrey Kaplan aka Tigole, gave a talk at the recent GDC (game developers’ conference) on Directed Gameplay within Warcraft. He’s talking about quest design,  where it went wrong, and how he thinks it could be better.

Now I’m not saying that shock headlines get readers, but most of the  posts I’ve read about this have led with something like “Warcraft is crap, says lead developer.”

But what he’s  talking about is Blizzard’s philosophy of quest design and what kind of experience they want their game to give the player. The WoW Insider article has the most extensive coverage of what was actually said (because they had people send back audio to their editorial team, rather than relying on notes).

Directed Gameplay

The goal of directed gameplay is for every player to have roughly the same experience in game. It doesn’t stop people from getting lost, not figuring out how to play their class, not being able to find a suitable guild or being mocked on the trade channel, but people will  probably end up doing the same quests in the same order.

If Blizzard put a Wrathgate in the middle of their game, by gum you WILL find it.

I read this, and even though I can see why it’s a good thing, it makes me a little sad. Part of the fun of exploring was the hope of finding things that others hadn’t seen yet. I liked quirky out of the way quests, especially if they weren’t essential. They were rewards for exploring.

But it does play to one of the big strengths that video games have over pen and paper RPGs. You can offer a guaranteed experience to the player. I think having a good directed form of gameplay is essential to breaking into the mainstream. After all, we all have the same experience when we watch a film or TV show. Yes, they’re broadcast and not interactive. But you can talk to your friend about a show and know that they saw the same thing.

And the other reason that it makes me sad is because it’s not very interactive. It might feel interactive. You may occasionally touch base with other players. But the interactivity is a trick. It’s a clever trick, designed to make you feel as though you just happened to be exploring some remote area when you run into an exciting adventure … but if you looked into it more deeply, you’d find that you were there because the game sent you there.

There are lots of quirky quests in vanilla WoW that made the experience memorable. I guess a really well designed directed play experience would be memorable too, but would it feel so personal?

And the third reason that it makes me sad is that Tigole is working on Blizzard’s next generation MMO. If it’s quest based, this is the philosophy he will be using. And it is very consistent with how quest based games currently work.

Anyhow, back to herding cats.

Telling Interactive Stories

“Shakespeare couldn’t 3D model his way out of a paper bag, Scorcese couldn’t program ragdoll physics, and The Beatles are pretty lousy at balancing three unique races on an RTS battlefield.”

He does also talk about how videogames should tell stories. And particularly that they should stop trying to be mediums that they’re not. A videogame is not a film or a book. Graphical MMOs are not text based games like MUDs.

So we don’t really need long boxes of quest text to tell stories. What players want are living breathing worlds with which to interact, and in which the game’s story becomes THEIR story.

I don’t know how possible this will be in MMOs. But in single player games, we can look at classics like Planescape: Torment or Fable II to see how things can roll out. For me, an important part of this is NPCs who become part of the story and react to me in ways other than using the same canned soundbite just after I saved the world (again). Because let’s face it, other players won’t care and won’t respond in character. Unless their interests are also involved.

It’s a definite challenge and if Tigole and his team can come up with some good solutions, I may even forgive them the extremely directed gameplay.

And is The Green Hills of Stranglethorn really the worst quest in WoW

Tigole also takes responsibility for designing the Green Hills quest. If you have never done it, this quest needs you to collect lots and lots of pages of a book which you can turn in as chapters. The pages can drop from any mob in Stranglethorn (which is a large and quest heavy zone).

He describes this as the worst quest in game. He is totally and utterly wrong. The worst quest is “Deep Ocean, Vast Sea” which is the best reason ever to go Horde.

The only bad things about the Green Hills are:

  1. Takes way way way too much bag space. If they’d given you a special pages bag, it would have been much more pleasant.
  2. Should have been accompanied by a breadcrumb quest to lead you to the auction house to make sure people knew how to buy and sell excess/ missing pages OR have made sure you got the pages in order.

Good things about it are that it is a metaquest for the zone. If you are there anyway doing quests, you will end up killing lots of mobs. You can be working on the Green Hills while doing other things. I rather like that side of things.

Minor points of interest about the Green Hills: My husband is such a hoarder that he still has 3 WHOLE COPIES of the green hills pages on one of his alts. He says, “You never know when it might be useful.” I know when it might be useful. How about never?

It must be love.