The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the NPCs

by jachilli

Disclaimer: I’m not speaking in any official or teaser capacity on this. This is just me talking.

If you’ve played many video games at any time over the past three decades, chances are you’ve run afoul of an NPC at some point. He probably stood there — or maybe he was extremely advanced and walked a patrol route of one to six line segments before returning on the exact same path — and asked you to do something for him. The first million times you did this, you were probably fine with it, but then it hit you: That NPC isn’t really a person. He doesn’t really care if I find his missing daughter, gather four corpse-thistles, or stick a knife in the ambassador’s eye.

NPCs make sense in a tabletop game. Tabletop games are run (in most cases) by a single individual, so all of the personalities in the world who aren’t players’ characters, are managed by that single individual. They also make sense in single-player games, in which a sense of interpersonal relationships has to be conveyed.

They are the bane of MMO design, however.

In a single-player game, this is fine. Especially a single-player game from the 8-bit era.
The entire function of an NPC is to create the illusion of an interaction with another person. One of the greatest travesties in the age of internet-connected gaming is the continued presence of NPCs. Why? Because, in an MMO, you have all those other real people. You don’t have to stick content-bots on your street corner to fool people into believing other people are there. It’s because
they’re actually there.

Back in 1643, when people were playing Wizardry and Pool of Radiance, NPCs were great. They took that tabletop RPG experience and let you play by yourself, assuming the role of the GM for you. They ultimately let you replicate the social activity of tabletop gaming if you couldn’t find a gaming group or had only finite time, or whatever other reason sent you to your computer instead of your gaming table.

Now, with high-speed internet connectivity, worldwide propagation, and greater numbers than ever before of people playing games online, NPCs in MMOs have only two excuses to exist:

The developer wants to dump giant buckets of exposition on its players, and uses NPCs to do the dumping via the clumsy illusion of dialogue.

The developer believes that people won’t want to fulfill the more commonplace duties of the world such as shopkeeping.

These are both bunk. Okay, maybe not pure bunk, but they’re the vanguards of developers that don’t want to let their players truly touch and shape their worlds, or that don’t have faith that their worlds are interesting. Consider the drawbacks of NPC-delivered content.

They Violate the Cardinal Rule of MMOs

The cardinal rule, of course, is “let the player do it.” With the massive amounts of people playing games, someone will take on whatever role emerges as necessary or enjoyable in the game. The tasks they undertake may be rare, but that’s okay — that rarity then becomes a facet of your virtual economy. When you have players depending on each other for in-game items and assets, you have a reason for them to be in contact with another. Playing together forms relationships, and socializing is what games are all about.

They’re the Anchors of Static, Stagnant Content

This guy is a terrible father. How many times a day, every day, can a guy lose his daughter?
When they die, they respawn. A world in which named entities respawn gives the impression that your actions don’t matter. You do a thing, it resets, and the world continues as if you had never done the thing in the first place.

You can cheat this a bit with clever naming schemes or instancing, but it doesn’t change the fact that the content in question remains static. For example, you can hide a quest-giver in an instanced location so that people who have already done the quest won’t see him again and won’t be reminded that he’s handing that quest out to every SOB who staggers past him (see the point below about disenfranchising players).

Even if you’re talking about a non-combat situation, an interaction in which the NPC disappears or appears elsewhere, or whatever takes him away from his sentry point or patrol route goes beyond the border of illusion and into the realm of blatant lie. Isaac the Arms Merchant isn’t really an arms merchant. Titania isn’t the faerie queen. Agent Jenkins isn’t your SAS contact. He’s not even a person, there because of his own motivations. He’s just another game piece placed there. You’re not having an interaction with him, you’re working your way through a preprogrammed exchange.

The One Thing They’re Designed to Do, They Do Poorly

Again, this is excusable in the early days of the medium, when everything was new, or in a game without other players, where individuals trade verismilitude for the opportunity to play a game with interpersonal interactions at all. But today? When technology as simple as text chat can allow a real person to be at the other end of that conversation? It’s inexcusably lazy design. It’s unquestioning adherence to “Oh, of course it’ll have quests. It’s an MMO, and MMOs have NPCs who dole out quests.”

At best, your “conversation” comes from an elaborate or randomized dialogue dictionary that vaguely conveys a sense of senility. (I remember walking out of my apartment in Grand Theft Auto IV and bumping into a bum on the street who shrieked at me, “You can’t get good drugs anymore!” Uh, okay. You’re telling me this why?) At worst, you get a single line of dialogue over and over. And most of the time it harangues you for having not yet performed the menial task the NPC doesn’t even really care if you do.

They Disenfranchise Players

You know who already has this exact same ring? Six thousand other dudes.
You did the epic quest? You fought your way to the top of the mountain? You faced down the perils of the avalanche, outwitted the wicked Ice Lords, endured the chilling winter winds, discovered the shortcut through the Rift of Frozen Souls, leaped the Hoarfrost Chasm, and finally plucked the Truesoul Gem from the deathless grasp of the Spiretop Witch?

Big deal. So did I. So did everyone who takes the quest at the bottom of the mountain, where Starchy Bushysprouts is offering it. It happens about sixty times a day. I have the exact same photocopy of the Durandal item you do. You’re not so cool.

So, What?

Despite my tone, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If “Hands off my world, you filthy, filthy player” is the developer’s intent, they’re a fine way to maintain setting integrity via stasis. Eleven million people subscribe to World of Warcraft, after all, so many players either actively like static content or don’t care. Or they haven’t considered it enough to seek an alternative. But this is also why Puzzle Pirates is a better MMO than WoW — all of the activities in the game affect the world the players share. Even if the player doesn’t know she’s creating an effect, or just wants to solo, she’s a part of every other player’s experience.

Next time, Part Two: What Am I Gonna Do About It?

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