» the skewed views of a large opinion: Persistent World Design
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
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NPCs are mindless automatons -- they're dull, dumb and disposable. Every so often someone brings up the idea of using warm bodies to actually play out the interactions that players have, rather than subjecting them to flat conversation trees, or rather maddening text parsers. I happen to think it's not only a waste of time, but a step in the wrong direction.

NPCs are particularly delineated from players because they aren't intriguing characters in the grand stories that RPGs are all about. They aren't supposed to be engaging or interesting. The story isn't about them, it's about us. If the shopkeeper is really interesting, if she's more interesting than we are, she becomes the actor and we become dull and disposable.

Visiting towns itself is simply a means to the end of continuing the adventure. This is why traditionally pen-and-paper games condense and abstract it. The only time actually going through the motions of talking to a shopkeeper is desirable - is when something interesting is going to happen.

Therefore, the only potential benefit to actors-as-NPCs, is if they're going to provide 'live' content. However, the cost-effectiveness and quality of content created is going to be highly questionable. These thespians either have to be excellent scripters, writers, typists, and storytellers - all at rock-bottom prices; or they're selecting quests from a predefined menu, which sounds conspicuously like what we already have.

Making good content takes time, talent, and tools. Doing good content 'right' requires revisions, editing, and testing. All of these factors conspire together against live content. Live content provides no time, requires flawless talent, extremely powerful and robust tools, and provides no opportunities to review, rewrite, or rebalance. It's not the fault of any particular GM that 'live' content largely sucks -- it's an eventuality.

The trend toward pre-tested monthly 'themes' and such (in the style of SWG and AC), rather than ad-hoc 'events' (in the style of EQ and Horizons) is a step in the right direction regarding 'live' content. Putting money into live GM 'events', much less thespians-as-NPCs, is a step backwards. Players should be the center of the story. As difficult as that may be, making them effectively errand-boys in other, more interesting people's stories is not what the genre is about.

In the dynamic content end of the genre, the importance is greater still. If a handful of NPCs are 'live', and thus provide 'better' feedback and hand-crafted content, they become contended resources in the style of static spawns. As dynamic content is consumable, players will conflict over who gets to perform which task, robbing most players of even being disposable participants in the content. A few get to be lackeys and henchmen, the bulk get to be viewers. And frankly, our genre's narrative product isn't worth $15/mo to read.
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