Saturday, February 7, 2009

Playable non-playable characters

I started to reply with this idea to a comment in my last post, but it ballooned out as usual into its very own post.

So, the idea was discussed about having players take the role of NPC's. The idea I've had kicking around in my head for a while now is to have a world composed entirely of NPC's that all move around and do their own thing - when a player logs on, they choose an NPC to take control of.

The player is then free to do whatever they wish with that NPC, however within certain bounds. If you take control of a palace guard, he absolutely can not be forced to turn around and slaughter the royal family. However, if you take control of a brigand on the streets... well, his moral compass is a lot more askew, so he can tend more towards the ultra-violence - but he can't be made to go out on a trek to save the city (looting a dragon's lair would of course be a different kettle of fish!). And so forth.

Obviously, there would be some NPC's that would be more desirable to take over than others - your Drizzt's and your Elminster's for example. These characters would have a dynamic price based on the demand for them, and the length of time you can play one for before being logged off it would be less. There could even be some sort of system whereby players can bid on particular slots for particular characters.

The currency with which to buy play time would be accrued by fulfilling the goals of other NPC's you have taken over (i.e. take over that palace guard and defend the royal family from assassins... get points. Take over that brigand on the street and nab some purses for him... get points). Whether you want to blow all your points on playing the most famous character for 10 minutes, or playing a lesser known but still fairly powerful character for a couple of hours, is up to the player. The higher the profile of the character you take over, the more opportunity for changing the world would present itself. There would of course be free characters - peasants and beggars, you know.

So basically, I envision this world that drives along on rails of its own accord resulting from the combined action of thousands of NPC's scattered across the game world. Players can deviate the story from those rails if they work hard enough, by controlling particular NPC's at particular times. Or they can just muck around and enjoy the ride.

One objection many MMO-ites would have (I imagine) is the lack of a persistent avatar with which to identify yourself. To overcome that problem and also to add a bit of flavor, you could have the players being, say, angels or demons, who are able to possess the earth-bound NPC's in the world. In 'spirit' mode players would be able to turbo-fly all around the world, looking for a likely NPC to take control of.

This even makes for interesting faction-based warfare, with angels warring demons by proxy through their human hosts, each seeking to promote their own agenda. Or something.

Conventional MMO problems I see this system as a whole overcoming:

- People can do epic stuff in the game that changes the game world.... they will literally get their 15 minutes of fame (more frequent players will get their 15 minutes of fame more often though!)
- Players will feel like they're driving the story, but because it's governed in large part by NPC actions, they can't deviate things too much from the interesting scripted plots that the developers have in mind for the game.
- No running around in RvR looking for a fight! The armies of NPC's will already be there fighting each other, you can just take control of one and jump right in.
- No armies avoiding each other since 'not defending gives more renown noob'. The NPC's can be made very reluctant to leave their posts (unless of course the army is being routed).
- Death means something - the NPC dies. But YOU don't, you can just take over another one.
- Battles can be balanced - the developers can make sure that in a battle between 2 armies, there is an even representation of all classes. Then the players can waltz in and play whichever class they feel (of course, important battles will fill up fast, so the better you can read the flow of events in the world, the easier it will be to get into such events). No more people bringing classes to a dungeon that are incapable of beating the encounter - developers would be able to design things KNOWING what the group composition will be for each fight.
- No levels or classes or respecs needed for your character (the NPC's have all these things, and control of each one is temporary)
- No accruing endless power - you can save up for that leet NPC, but if I play once a week and you play every day and we both have enough to each take over a wizard in some epic mage duel that's about to happen, we're on the same playing field for that fight.
- Instant travel possible while in spirit mode (avoids wasting player's time) while still avoiding having armies teleport on your doorstep to ruin PvP (since the NPC's still have to walk the old-fashioned way). Also, the 'massive world' epic feeling is retained since in NPC-mode you can't teleport around the place.
- Can easily get rid of griefing while still having a massive open world (since NPC's can not make be made to do things that are too against their nature, those very against griefing can control NPC's in peaceful nations, etc). But, there's still a place for the griefers, since they can take over the murderers and brigands of the world.
- I'm sure there are others....

Anyway, discuss :)


Crimson Starfire said...

Do I smell a potential game design idea? :P

Tesh said...

Hmm... so how do we give the players a sense of progress? Are they working to achieve some greater goal for the chief angel/demon?

Cool idea. :D

Anton said...

Oo! I do like this. It's not what I was thinking when I said no NPC's, but this would be fun since I've always wished I could hop in the body of a rabbit or a murlock and run around for awhile in WoW.

It would be interesting to see the players steering the fate of the world. It might need some control, though, because I would think the easiest way to cause one side to lose a battle would be to possess each of their characters one at a time and jump off a cliff!

Melf_Himself said...

For progress, I'd probably let people have the ability to unlock more and more powerful NPC's as they 'level up'. But I wouldn't make it take to long to get to the 'cap' that way.

You could also increase the rate at which veteran players accrue points, which would mean that they could possess more powerful characters more often. This supports casual players as well - once you've achieved a certain rate of point acquisition, you wouldn't lose it (although of course those who play all day long would be able to accrue even more points).

POSSIBLY I'd allow NPC's to be more directed out of their comfort zone as you level as well. i.e. as a veteran, maybe I can convince that level 1 farmer to take his pitchfork and charge off to the nearby city where a demon invasion is happening (which usually he wouldn't be too inclined to do :p). There's potential for exploits here though.

And of course, there'd be the fluff progression. I'd have each avatar quite customizable, with more and more options to change your look as you progress. Further, when you possess an NPC, it could take on some of your avatar's look about it (e.g. grow little horns, get golden glowing eyes, its vanilla sword takes on the look of your big ethereal shadowblade of doom, etc).

Another option would be to give more experienced players more powerful versions of the NPC's they possess - i.e. allow them to pump the NPC up even further than a newer player could do. Perhaps there should be a cap for NPC's that are already very powerful, but it would be cool as a veteran to take that low level farmer and have him stride into battle laying waste to mobs left right and center :)

In terms of working to achieve a greater goal, yeah I think that would be an interesting direction to go. Quests (assuming they're present in the game) could be generated by the equivalent of God/Satan, and could be designed with some knowledge of the future.

Like, Satan might say "hey, this rising nation is going to develop to become a powerful force of crusaders who will convert other nations to be religious, which will diminish my power... go and take them down". Or he might say "hey, let them live, defend them... help them prosper, infiltrate their ranks, and then make them run around slaughtering people to make God look bad". You could even add some interesting moral quandaries by creating situations where God asks you to slaughter a bunch of good people to, I don't know, save them from turning into a city of vampires or something later on... for the Greater Good and all that you know.

As for jumping people off a cliff - I think some characters would refuse to do that (i.e. no matter how powerful the spirit, if you take control of Gandalf he's not going to anything too n00b). However even if they could, you've just wasted the points that you spent on them. Ideally, the game would be set up to detect things like this. If an Angel starts controlling good characters and suiciding them, he might become a 'Fallen Angel' and switch sides, being shunned by Heaven but getting lots of browny points with Hell.

Melf_Himself said...

Something interesting to think about might be how to fit crafting into a game like that... Hmmmm I shall have to ponder.

Anton said...

There would certainly be certain characters that are professional crafters, right? Just possess them and support the faction of your choice with new technology.

Tesh said...

And/or some sort of etherial crafting that alters the posession dynamics.

Ixobelle said...

the largest issue I see with this idea is that people play MMOs to invest time in THEIR character. Nobody wants to level the innkeeper up.

I had a somewhat different idea for this a while back that I never fully fleshed out... instead of a tradeskill (blacksmithing), you could get an actual job in-game. you wouldn't be controlling the innkeeper, you would BE the innkeeper. You would be expected to be at your post from 8-9 on sunday evenings (where someone else would come and relieve you). people would interact with YOU to set their hearth, etc.

obviously, not everyone could be the ogrimmar repair guy, so you'd have to work your way up (IF this was something you wanted to do, totally optional), but there would be pay and benefits for doing so (rep, gold, discounts, unique titles and items?). if you failed to show up for a shift, you'd be fired, and have a black mark on your toon.

this whole avenue would open up based on professions. Expert 450 tailors could train the noob ones, etc etc etc... this opens up huge posibilities in a similar fashion, but allows you to be YOURSELF while you do so, and run off and slay dragons afterwards.

it would only appeal to a certain mindframe, but if the option was there it'd be cool.

Melf_Himself said...

I know what you mean Ixo.

I wouldn't actually suggest that any leveling up of the NPC characters possible. Each NPC would have a set level, and a player of that level or higher would be eligible to take control of it. I would not make it take too long to get to the level cap - similar to how Guild Wars operates.

But, there still comes the idea of player progression. People want something to build up in a persistent game.

I'd of course have the fluff (look/titles/housing etc for your avatar) and unlocks (different NPC's that you are able to control) that you can build up in Guild Wars. On top of that, there's the fact that your actions would actually persist, i.e. each player could change the world to some extent in a way that hasn't been done before.

I think that plus is worth the loss of being able to build up the power level of your character for a really long time (and since a successful game like Guild Wars also lacks this 'feature', I think it could work).

Melf_Himself said...

That actually sounds pretty workable Anton. If you give the crafter a lot of decisions to make such as which other NPC's to craft for and how much resources to burn on a given job (i.e. do I make 1000 new swords for the army, or just 10 awesome swords for the lieutenants/heroes of the army, etc), the AI would be almost guaranteed to make sub-par decisions compared to a knowledgable human crafter. This would then make it desirable to take over such NPC's and allocate resources so as to really 'trick out' your customers.

It doesn't even have to be crafting for the army... maybe a friend takes over a high level NPC hero, and you take over a crafting NPC at the same time, to craft him a ridiculously awesome weapon so that he can affect the game world more easily. Then both he and your awesome sword will have their praises sung in legend and suchforth.

I like it :p

Altering the possession dynamics sounds interesting Tesh. I suppose you could have different types of crafting, where you can extend the length of a possession, or amplify the power of a possessed NPC, or reduce the cost to possess the NPC, or add a power/skill that the NPC didn't have before.

motstandet said...

What's the point of buying stuff for an NPC if you are going to relinquish control of it in 25 minutes? I'd take all the gear off all the NPCs I controlled and store it in an alley somewhere.

This is guided gameplay to the extreme. How do you relate to the players what is in store for them once they possess an NPC? "Level 5 Guard: Stand around for 4 hours." "Level 16 Inn Keeper: Wait for someone to give you money for a room."

NPC interactions are usually scripted events, too. What happens when you get the Princess to evade her marriage? How do you dynamically translate the goals of the currently controlling player into AI goals and then aggregate conflicting goals? Or do you avoid that by making marriage the objective of the possession? What game play is there then?

evizaer said...

I think that you will run into trouble when the players, in attempting to accomplish a character's goals, set off unforeseen chains of events that make the guided story an impossibility.

There's also the problem of accountability. We obviously can no longer hold the characters accountable for their actions in any realistic sense, but the players are just detached entities. It becomes hard to track down who did what and why, which would hurt the community aspects of the game and hamper any meta-level storytelling efforts.

There's also no reward for acting consistently with the character's mannerisms and usual behavior. The only way to make this work would be to rip a lot of the control out of the players hands. That seems to invalidate the basic aims of this kind of system.


Here's an informal trackback. I linked to this article in one that I just posted on That's a Terrible Idea:

I take a similar concept and work it out in a different way, offering more concrete ideas about how to execute this kind of idea.

Melf_Himself said...

@ motstandet

The gear-for-NPC's thing was not really the main point of the idea.

However, the point of that is to increase your influence beyond the control window of one NPC at a time. Assumedly you have some goal you want accomplished (crush an enemy faction, say) so you outfit the other faction's army with better stuff.

If you don't care about that goal, you don't have to give stuff to the NPC's. You don't have to craft at all.

No, you can't stash stuff in an alley - problem solved?

No, people aren't going to stand around on guard duty for 4 hours. As I said in the post, the idea is to survey the events in the world and determine which place, and which NPC, you would like to control. Obviously this would require some UI features - probably an "event browser" and a campaign map should do it. So people would find something they want to do (ah crap, assassins are after the king, quick, possess a guard!!) and go do it.

Re: goals. NPC's do not have conflicting goals (they're not schizophrenic). The idea is that you take over NPC's *whose goals you want to achieve*. That's where the gameplay comes in. Reading the events of the world, and deciding where you can make the most difference.

Example: you want to crush an enemy faction. You can control any soldier in the conquering army, they all have the same goal. But which do you choose? Of course, you look to see where the fighting is thickest and most pivotal to the battle. That's the strategic aspect of this system.

Re: your princess griefing example. I'd give NPC's "goals" and "anti-goals". If you achieve the goal (marry the prince) you get points. If you achieve theanti-goal (the prince announces he doesn't want to marry you anymore), the princess and other princesses in the world will now cost more points to you in the future.

This way, people can grief if they really want to, but it's going to be a massive waste of points (which cost time to accrue) for them.

Sometimes achieving the anti-goal of an NPC will be quite likely even if you're trying hard. For example, the king might have an anti-goal of being dethroned, but you possess him just as an NPC army is bashing down his throne room door. You'd better think you have a good chance of winning if you take control of him at this point - with something to lose on the line, only the most stout of heart would attempt it. Imagine an actual act of bravery in an MMO, sounds pretty good to me.

Melf_Himself said...

@ evizaer

Who said anything about a guided story? The very idea is that the players can set of a chain of events to change the outcome of the story.

I expect the live team to be constantly throwing unforeseen events into the mix, but ultimately it will depend on player reactions as to how it all plays out.

Why does it become hard to track down who did what and why? It would be easy to have various leaderboards stating how many points have been earned with all the top characters, for example. It would be easy to see "evizaer controlled Gandalf at 14:30 PM PST when he slew Sauron in epic battle, huzzah!".

Also, even if that didn't work for some reason, it's a damn sight better than any other MMO would achieve.

As for ripping control out of the player's hand, I'll repeat my reply to motstandet. Within an individual character, you can basically either achieve its goal or not. There are no conflicting goals. It is *choosing which NPC you would like to achieve the goals of* that is the important player decision. That's where they get to decide how best to spend their time to shape the world. Don't like what Gandalf's trying to do? Control Sauron instead.