The roles of these NPCs, hostile and non-hostile, are incredibly spread out and used for every imaginable aspect. In some roles they temporarily or permanently replace offline players or tae the place of players that can never be present. In other roles they provide an enhanced interaction protocol so that players can artificially interact with other players through greater distances (both space and time). In yet another role, they simply fill the background space and help players feel like the environment is alive.
In the spirit of evolving systems the question comes down to this: Is there a way to create NPCs that act more like people?
Some of you don’t even realize the value of an NPC and how they already fill the roles of Player Character’s (PCs) on a daily basis, so when I say “more” you’re probably looking at me in that odd sort of way. Think about it… specifically from the point of view of an MMO what is the most abundant resource? Players Characters. These fill the world naturally and create a far more immersive environment than any developer could do with a million assets. So when PCs are limited, whether temporarily (such as offline; whether asleep or at work) or permanently (playing other games), we use NPCs to fill the void.
Well before video games and electronic devices people played against each other. I won't even begin to speculate as to which game was the first ever created, but, I know for a fact that human nature made it a competition between other humans. When the first video game was created – since this is a highly arguable topic we’ll just go with the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device – there was only the option to play a “single-player” in a radar style game. I have no doubt that Thomas Goldsmith and Estle Mann competed for whatever format dictated a victory.
Since then we’ve created NPCs that can resemble intelligence through processes (such as chess simulators, pong, Sephiroth) in order to provide difficulty. In many cases these are still used to measure how one player performs when compared to another player. Just because players use them in such a way doesn’t mean that has to be the only true role for an NPC…
So what can we do to spice things up? To make NPCs more like players and respond the way players might?
For starters we can teach them (or code them) how to act like player characters. That means that when you rob the NPC’s shop and another NPC or even a PC witnesses your crime but doesn’t confront you and instead informs the NPC, we should expect a similar response that a PC would have. If the NPC is a timid farm hand with no resources they simply won’t help you if you ever ask them for answers. Who knows, you may have to beat the information out of them for a quest now whereas if you hadn’t ever stolen from them, and been reported, they would have given the information freely.
If the NPC is a successful shop owner or a well-funded/respected member of their social groups they may hire other NPCs, or even PCs, to pursue and seek justice; I imagine this justice is based on how successful or popular the NPC is… basically, how disrespected they feel. In the event that we’re talking about an official or a guard whose home you robbed while they were working the night shift then expect that they pick up arms and pursue you themselves.
This is a single example of how an NPC can choose to act in a similar manner as a PC. This goes beyond a simple faction system and adds extra levels of interaction to a game. Now you’re not just robbing and slapping NPCs whenever you want, you’re not making quest choices without the fear of real consequences from those who were harmed as a result of your choices. Now you’re strategically involved in every choice you make from the beginning of your character creation until you retire that character for good.
At this point the only question remaining is: Is it worth the effort?
Bugs. Right? I know. UGH! This is the biggest issue with this system. What if I rob an NPC who has no resources and somehow that NPC manages to put together an army of supporters? That NPC had no respect from their peers and no financial assets to pull this type of support together. What if the NPC doesn’t respond at all? What if, developers forbid, the NPC starts to attack you every twelve hours, non-stop, even in a raid setting?
Again, these are just examples of the potential risks involved in creating a system where NPCs are more than just background noise. The potential with this type of system is immense and could open up the doors to training NPCs on how to respond by feeding them psychological traits from different personnel profiles. Imagine Google’s face match system where they use thousands of images to teach a machine how to recognize people automatically, but instead we’re feeding psychological data to specific NPC types to allow them to choose their responses. They would then determine their choices based on a series of questions they’d have to ask themselves, such as:
Do I have the resources to pursue them myself?
Can I pay others to do it?
Can I find out where they live and rob my items back?
How powerful are they compared to me?
Remember that I’m just bringing up the crime/combat relevant portion of this. NPCs will have the capability of making choices about other NPCs in a vast array of scenarios. If a player uses the beg skill on an NPC, what happens? What if an NPC passes by another NPC in combat with a player; will they join in (choosing a side), watch, or just keep on walking as if nothing was happening (maybe even find a guard to report the grievance to)? Or even recognizing that the last time you traded with an NPC you sold him/her a lot of unsellable items. Maybe the NPC decided to decrease the purchasing price of those items or even refuse to buy them outright.
That last scenario alone would encourage players to find appropriate NPCs that can sell specific types of items (selling weapons to weaponsmiths and selling armor to armorsmiths, for example) instead of just lazily running around and dumping items off wherever they please. Yes, balance is key here but the amount of immersion and authenticity to be had in a game where NPCs are more than just moving buckets of conversation and coin is inspiring!
So… NPCs… Are they people, too?
"To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing." ~ Elbert Hubbard
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