[Storybricks] How well do NPCs simulate real people?

Partly inspired by Namaste’s idea of using ‘storybricks’ to let players generate content involving smart NPCs, and partly inspired by Elder Game’s discussion of NPCs, I’ve been pondering these odd mobs myself.

We spend a fair amount of time in MMOs interacting with NPCs, whether it be fighting them, doing quests for them, or trading with them. We also spend a lot of time not interacting with them, and just running past and treating them like mobile decorations or scenery. But in either case, the actual quality of the interaction is usually fairly low . So: the classic MMO NPC is a lump in the shape of a person/ creature that performs an action when you click on it.

Devs have been working on this whole interacting with NPC dilemma for years. And there are three basic ways to simulate how an NPC interacts with PCs.

1. Simulate all the NPCs all of the time and let them have mini-lives of their own. Let them get up in the morning, go to work, go to the pub, go back home in the evenings, have families, goals, enemies, friends, etc. If PCs wander into a town, they’ll see the NPCs going about their business because they will have stumbled into the middle of the simulation. Just simulate the whole darn gameworld, already.

The Sims franchise is probably the best known implementation of this type of NPC simulation. You can watch the other NPCs wandering around and see their aims and goals unfold even if you don’t feel like playing yourself. Dwarf Fortress is another game that takes this route with NPCs.

This is also where Namaste are coming from. By assigning goals to NPCs, this implies that in-game behaviour could also be driven by those goals and so this is a little like allowing PCs to ‘program’ the NPCs before letting them loose in the gameworld. The storybricks idea is just a core, it lacks any notion yet of how the NPCs are going to express the goals.  Read: how will a player get to know what the NPCs hidden goals are, if at all.

For example, if the NPC queen wants a cake does she go and get one, order a servant to fetch one, generate a quest for passing players to bring her a cake, or simply announce loudly at regular intervals, “I WANT A CAKE!!”? That’s an implementation detail but quite an important one.

This is a simulationist approach. It tends to be very computationally expensive if the game is large or the characters are complex. Another issue is how to resolve disputes between NPCs: do they fight? Argue? If two NPCs are competing for the affection of a third, who wins? And what happens if you simulate some feud as complex as Romeo and Juliet and the player only walks in after everyone is dead.

2. Just simulate what the players need to see. Imagine NPCs as rag dolls who only come to life when a player enters the room. Cut scenes, or NPC behaviour that is triggered on a player achievement would come into this category. Most single player RPGs work on this sort of principle, where the player effectively drives the NPCs as s/he progresses through the story.

When done cleverly, players will never notice the difference because the illusion of a functioning gameworld simulation will be perfect. They’re also much more likely to feel that they have an effect on the game and on every character they meet, because they literally do change the behaviour of every character by their actions.

This is a narrative approach.

3. Robot NPCs. These NPCs perform specific tasks. Imagine them as person shaped lumps who are able to give/ receive quests or buy/ sell goods. They may have a fixed range of tasks and offer fixed responses (eg. a barman who fetches drinks when asked.) Some may be purely decoration or furniture. They wander around as window dressing.

This is where most MMO NPCs currently fit into the sphere.

So which is the most realistic way to simulate an NPC?

It’s all nice and well to have every single one of your NPCs with a full set of short-term, medium and long-term goals and relationships, but how often in real life do you stop to wonder about the goals of the person who serves you in a shop?

At this point it all just depends on the type of game you’re playing and the type of scenario. A murder mystery on a submarine is the kind of setting where it is important for everyone to have goals; there’s a fixed number of NPCs involved and it’s integral to the genre that PCs probably have to go talk to all of them. But in a huge city? Probably not.

A heroic, plot driven, on rails adventure only really needs NPCs to ‘wake up’ when the hero/ine gets to their part in the plot. There’s no point animating half of London when the hero is off fighting on an airship over the North Pole en route to Mexico, where the story ends.

Simulating actual relationships is even more difficult

Reputation grinds in MMOs do fairly simulate the process of getting someone (or some people) to trust you by helping them out with stuff. Of course most people in real life won’t send you off on daily quests to kill ten rats, but it is also true that we get to know and trust people by working alongside them for awhile.

But what about actually getting to like someone? That’s trickier because coded NPCs are necessarily very one-way with their affections. You can make the NPC like you by doing coded tasks or offering coded gifts, but never usually by just chatting to them in a friendly way or being a generally charismatic individual. Freeform conversation is hard in simulations, especially when the bot can’t respond when you talk about yourself. And the NPCs rarely ask to do tasks or give gifts to you, so it tends to feel as though you’re trying to pull the right levers on the robot rather than making friends with a simulated person.

I personally find it even harder when devs try to be clever and ask you to guess or find out what presents NPCs would like. What if I miss some text based cue or don’t hang around long enough to hear the emote about loving chocolate?

So I do prefer games which let me assign some kind of charisma or perception score to my character and then just figure out automatically what the NPC wants. Unless mind-reading the NPC is going to be an interesting mini-game or the conversation options are fun, I’d like to skip the bit where they hate me if I give them the wrong present rather than just saying awkwardly, “Oh! A stuffed frog, you really shouldn’t have! I’ll be honest and tell you that I prefer chocolate but I’m still touched by the thought.”

Conversation trees and romance style options also wind up with the sort of gameplay where you speak repeatedly to your chosen romance object in the hope that eventually the game will let you virtually snog them, as if it were the equivalent of a quest. Again this might simulate real life fairly well if the NPC didn’t eventually get caught in the same speech loop (eg. I’m busy calibrating, come back later.)

Eric@Elder Game has interesting ideas (which I referred to earlier) on how to make NPCs memorable and how to simulate friendships, trust and building relationships with PCs. But as I said, there is always a risk of falling into the trap of having every character in your game act like an amateur dramatic, emoting about their goals at the drop of a hat, when all the PC wanted to do was buy a pint of beer.

Let’s Play Dwarf Fortress


Are you ready for a grand adventure in architecture, engineering, dwarven culture, and 101 exciting ways to kill off a dwarven civilisation?

Dwarf Fortress is a free, notoriously complex simulation game in which a handful of dwarves set off from the Mountainhome to construct a new dwarven paradise. The dwarves themselves are somewhat autonomous – they have names and personalities, can enter into romances with each other, and you can give each one instructions; but don’t be surprised if they interpret them in unexpected ways. Imagine a cross between The Sims, a roguelike, and Sim City, but rather more complex than any of them. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s an inspirational(?) story about one of the most infamous dwarven fortresses of all time – Boatmurdered. This particular game was played as a succession game, with different players taking charge of the fortress for each year of game time.

Because it is such a fully featured simulation, DF also seems to generate the best stories of any game I know. Every game is different, and some of them are a bit mad.This is another reason I’m determined to try to make some headway with it.

A new version of the game was released this year. And although it is likely to still be a bit buggy, this is the version I plan to use.

Strike the Earth!

World is made of cheese, for you to carve.

It is clear from very early on that I’m going to need a good tutorial to hold my hand with this one. If you are interested in playing along, here’s one I found for DF2010. It’s by capnduck and comes with a half-built dwarf fortress to practice on, and a bunch of awesome youtube tutorial videos.

Captain Duck’s video tutorial play along page

My goal for this week is to get this thing set up, and play alongside the first tutorial which mostly involves loading the pre-packaged fortress and exploring the part built section.

I notice immediately that this game involves some control keys which don’t seem to be listed on the help page. So to assist with figuring this dratted thing out, I enlisted another (text based) tutorial by Abalieno which is for the old version of the game, but they seem to have kept the same key binds. There is also a very fully featured DF wiki.

Useful control things I have learned so far:

  • To go down a level, use SHIFT + >
  • To go up a level, use SHIFT + <
  • To return to origin, use F1
  • when the game asks for + or –, it often means to use the ones on the numpad
  • it’s also space bar to pause or unpause the game. Depending on which menu you have up, the screen will not always tell you whether the game is paused.

Good luck!

Thought for the Day: Why we need the grind

When we talk about the grind in an MMO, we mean some kind of repetitive action that a player must repeat for hours. Figuring out how to optimise the grind IS the basic unit of MMO gameplay. These are resource management games; the main resource is player time and the main gameplay is strategic. The grind is deeply embedded into the virtual world side of the game — it’s a way to simulate that an activity is time consuming in the virtual world.

This is why gold buying breaks the game conceptually (this is not a moral argument, by the way, it’s based on gameplay). You break the simulation by bringing real life cash into play, it’s like bringing a gun to a knife fight.

Every time a game introduces a buttload of new tokens with an associated vendor, players are  encouraged to strategise how to most conveniently get those tokens, and how they want to prioritise their purchases.

Every time a new reputation grind is introduced, players are encouraged to think about how to most conveniently get whatever level of reputation they need for the rewards they want. (This is why the most popular post on this blog is the one about how to get the Crusader title in WoW, it’s based on multiple reputations.)

Every time a player creates a new alt, they’re encouraged to think about how to optimise the levelling time.

Every time a game introduces a large game world, players are encouraged to think about how they plan to minimise their travel time.

Every time a game introduces a new gold sink, players are encouraged to think about how to most conveniently get enough gold in game to buy the whatsit-du-jour.

If the grind is removed … is what’s left really an MMO?

Games that are fun even when you’re not good at them

The Brainy Gamer was taken by surprise by The Sims 3. He hadn’t expected to enjoy it, but was entranced by the way the game lets you define your own goals and tell stories (stories with limited scope are still stories). I haven’t played Sims 3 extensively — I tried it at my sister’s place and thought it was cool but not cool enough for me to pay full price — but one of the things that struck me about the game is that even if you failed totally to meet any goals that you had for your characters, it could still be highly entertaining.

In the link above, TBG describes a rather sad little story that winds up with social services (in the game) stepping in to look after his character’s baby. That’s an absolutely gut wrenching experience for everyone involved if it was a real life incident. That a game can so strongly (and unexpectedly) evoke some of the same feelings is surprisingly cool. The fact that it happened because the player got distracted and didn’t click ‘feed  baby’ often enough takes a back seat, because ‘neglect’ is one of the reasons why social services iRL might also have to step in.

Although I haven’t really investigated The Sims, I’ve enjoyed playing simulation games a lot whether or not I really beat the game. I spent many happy hours on various versions of Civilisation (Civ IV still available for £5/$5 at Direct2drive for the next two weeks, btw) without ever getting much above 25% — I think I’m insufficiently aggressive in game to score high, but I get to Alpha Centauri anyway. So even though I may be rubbish as a player, my civilisation survives and goes to the stars!

One of the appeals of a simulation game is being able to pick your own win conditions and see the game’s score as an optional extra. Another is being able to see your civilisation/ character grow, even if that means it eventually is conquered and dies out. And yet another is the sense that your civilisation/ character takes on a personality of its own, shaped by decisions made by the player but not completely controlled by them.

When we talk about the ease or difficulty of an MMO, it’s easy to put the simulation side of the game on the backburner. But the sim (or sandbox) side of the game is one of the big appeals. The whole point of an MMO is that you progress your character and/or faction somehow and see what happens to it. This is really what people are getting at when they ask for more simulation in MMOs, not that they particularly want rag doll physics or realistic blood spatters. They are asking for a world where actions that are under the player’s control lead to consequences that may or may not be expected.

The most successful sandbox games are the ones where people are explicitly able to pick their own goals and objectives. This has always been one of the great appeals of EVE, that you can choose whether you want to build a business empire, be a pirate, join a huge corps and fight for territory, or whatever else you want. The other side to the game is that actions have consequences.

But PvP is often not as fun or as interesting for the loser as it is for the winner. If I had to play Civilisation competitively against a really good opponent, I’d be wiped out before I had a chance to get to the fun parts. My strategy has nothing to do with competition because I just like seeing how quickly I can get the good technology and what I can do with it (once an engineer, always an engineer).

Having multiple players in a game who are not personal friends becomes competitive, even if they all are on the same team. People constantly compare themselves with each other, even if they aren’t actually PvPing. That’s not a bad thing, people like to compete in different ways.

But even though I’m not interested in no holds barred PvP style simulations, I’d still like to see more options for players to create their own goals in a living world. Where even doing something suboptimal could lead to interesting and fun gameplay. I’d like to see devs stop being afraid of emergent gameplay, and less railroading and being nudged towards the raid boss of the week just because it’s there. I’d like more games where even if you don’t reach your goal, you can be rewarded by finding out what happened.

Are there any games that you like even though you aren’t good at them?

Links for the Summer’s end

Hope you all are having a good weekend. It actually isn’t raining here which is astounding because it is both August Bank Holiday and Festival weekend (I’m not going this year but can hear it from my house).

  1. Peter Molyneaux reckons that Americans find it harder to play evil characters than Europeans or Japanese. Write up via The Escapist and Game Set Watch.
  2. Brian Crecente@Kotaku enjoyed trying Diablo III’s witch doctor at Gamescom, but wonders how much of that is down to nostalgia. Do we like games because they’re good or because they remind us of other games we used to like?
  3. Game by Night has some good advice for avoiding keyloggers, and how to get rid of them if you do pick one up.
  4. Kinless is getting conflicted signals from Blizzard. On the one hand they encourage alts (heirloom gear, new classes) but on the other hand … where are the new character slots? Do Blizzard love alts or hate them?
  5. There are a few games in open beta at the moment. Julian@Kill Ten Rats asks whether Open Betas really work as beta tests.
  6. Rohan ponders why players hate the new faction leaders in WoW so much – Garrosh and Varian are not well liked.
  7. Romantic subplots in games like Mass Effect and KOTOR are not without their critics. I have said before that it felt to me like ‘select the right options and get the girl’. Kotaku points to an article on gamecritic.com by Alex Raymond who argues that games present a model where sex is given out as a reward (just like epics), not shown as part of an ongoing relationship.
  8. G Christopher Williams at Popmatters asks why it’s always more fun to kill Nazis, and whether it matters.
  9. Runeforge Gossip has some advice for anyone who wants him to respond to their LFG(uild) posts.
  10. That’s a Terrible Idea unearth the rotting corpse of the GNS model and ask how we can get more simulationism in our MMOs. How can we focus more on immersion and the experience of being a ((insert race/class/etc here)) and less on achievements and rewards?
  11. Tobold gets some interactive drama going with his readers, otherwise known as the Is he? (Gevlon) or Isn’t he? dance. Personally I’m so happy to get any comments at all that I’m not inclined to mess with people’s heads just for the sake of it … or am I?

Blogs about new games

There were a lot of announcements about new games during cons recently, and we’re not done yet. If you want to follow the news about an upcoming  game, why not subscribe to one of the blogs and let someone else do the work? 🙂