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Exclusive: Storybricks dev diary expounds on bringing NPCs to life

MJ Guthrie

In much of the MMORPG world, NPCs are nothing more than quest-filled Pez dispensers, human vending machines doling out the standard kill-10-rats chore to each and every player who roams by. They are lifeless tools at best and forgettable backdrops at worst. But the folks working on Storybricks believe NPCs can be more, much more.

In this exclusive dev diary, Brian "Psychochild" Green and Stéphane Bura discuss making AI that can interact with players on an individual basis, adapting to individuals' choices, needs, and emotions and even remembering and drawing on past interactions to make a deeply engaging sandbox experience. Check out their thoughts in the full dev diary after the break!

Storybricks dev diary

by Brian "Psychochild" Green and Stéphane Bura

Sandboxes, emergence, and the illusion of life in RPGs

Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games have offered us a wondrous promise. Imagine: roleplaying games played online with multiple players! Yet MMORPGs have only been able to partially deliver the experience of roleplaying with others in a shared world that reacts to your actions.

Storybricks was founded to bring the core of the roleplaying experience to MMOs. We are working to realize the incredible potential offered by this medium. With this potential in mind, here is a glimpse of where we believe MMOs will go in the next few years.

Exclusive  Storybricks dev diary expounds on bringing NPCs to life
Roleplaying games are my sandboxes

Computer roleplaying games (CRPGs) focused on a single player can offer a far richer experience than MMORPGs when it comes to playing the role of character in a story. But even CRPGs themselves pale in comparison with the flexibility of tabletop RPGs. From their ancestors, MMORPGs have kept only the veneer of gaining levels and better gear for fighting bigger foes. In Dungeons & Dragons, the "munchkin" approach was indeed popular, but RPGs evolved to offer more options beyond combat for the sake of combat.

Tabletop RPGs are huge sandboxes that allow players great freedom in how they can interact with and actually change complex living worlds. Non-player characters (NPCs) are as deep and real as the players need them to be, since they can become more detailed with the attention the players give to them as they help or hinder each other. And this can occur organically, not only as part of a pre-written scenario. Unscripted interactions can create lasting relationships with NPCs, like a proud wizard becoming your enemy over a slight offense. Each of these relationships opens new story opportunities, new options, or new complications when dealing with existing problems. It makes playing adventures more interesting, more engaging, and a lot more fun.

Current MMORPGs aren't delivering this kind of deeply engaging experience. There is a business opportunity for the MMORPG that can recreate these unique qualities from the deep and varied NPCs of great tabletop RPGs and give them to computer-controlled characters. Giving the NPCs, as the Disney animators called it, the "illusion of life" would add wondrous new dynamics and life to MMORPGs.

Exclusive  Storybricks dev diary expounds on bringing NPCs to life
With these new systems, interacting with NPCs could mean much more than just triggering the next chapter of a quest or accessing a vending-machine-shaped like a person. Important NPCs should have inner lives, complex relationships, and their own goals that they work toward. They should remember past interactions with your characters and adjust their behavior depending on whether they feel grateful, trusting, envious, betrayed, and they should be able to express these emotions in a convincing manner, each one coloring their day to day activities (e.g., a guard whose girlfriend just left him should act differently from one who was just dressed down by his captain).

Player characters should also be able to communicate their feelings to NPCs. Imagine if you could share what you need or want -- and not just through canned emotes or quest dialogue -- and have NPCs react appropriately depending on their own emotional and mental states. The relationships your character has with NPCs would act as keys to new content: A trusting noble might ask you to help him topple a corrupt prince; a jealous husband might not like your friendship with his herbalist wife. Your interactions could give you more resources: Your friendship with the head of the trader's guild might grant you an audience with a local leader, belonging to a ranger faction might provide you with a companion when crossing savage lands, and so on.

This goes beyond narrative. Access to these richly varied interactions and relationships helps you accomplish your own goals in the game. No more grinding repetitive quests to get faction with a group. Instead, giving a gift and talking to the princess could lead to courting and marriage down the line. Exposing a traitorous priest could lead to your becoming the head of a priesthood after building trust.

"Scripted content creation is bringing the MMORPG industry to its knees."

Satisfying content should emerge as a response to the player's actions. There is overwhelming evidence that releasing a game with a scripted story does not scale, no matter how good that pre-generated story might be. Scripted content creation is bringing the MMORPG industry to its knees. As competition intensifies and players churn through content faster than ever, no amount of development effort can entertain a large and diverse playerbase such as the one found in online RPGs. Resorting to gating content and grinding only results in players getting bored and leaving.

Exclusive  Storybricks dev diary expounds on bringing NPCs to life
Massively multiplayer

If a MUD player living in a cave for the past 30 years could be shown an MMORPG today, she would be utterly captivated by the graphics while at the same time being puzzled why gameplay has advanced so little.

The multiplayer part of current MMORPG remains disappointing. Today's MMOs either encourage you to solo amidst a sea of strangers all following the same chain of quests or expect you to function as a cog in a large player organization whose goals you have little chance of affecting, let alone defining.

Finding like-minded players is tough in current MMOs. If you don't play with friends, the only criteria that strangers tend to use to judge you in most MMOs are your class, your level or build, and your willingness to commit time to a group. But what if games could facilitate player connections by matching the quality of experience sought by different players? In other words, what is the next step in LFG?

It is about letting players clearly express what they're looking for in their game and creating a way to satisfy these desires. Players should be able to express their PCs' emotions and needs in the game world. This can extend to all goals, beliefs, and values. For instance, you could declare your character to be a champion of Justice, and once you've proven yourself in a storyline designed for this purpose, you'd be put in contact with other Justice-minded characters. Maybe you'll form a new group or faction, adhering to rules and oaths that help strengthen your drive. The game itself would enforce these rules and test you and your faction-fellows with situations. This means that being a paladin is more than having shiny armor and a holy sword. What if actually being just, pious, honest and honorable -- acting in the game world in ways that demonstrate those particular virtues -- gave you in-game advantages and let you meet players who have chosen the same path?

Exclusive  Storybricks dev diary expounds on bringing NPCs to life
From there, it's easy to imagine new kinds of player organizations that would develop organically like religious orders, trading networks, armies, tribes, political parties, crime syndicates, local communities, and so on. Each group would be defined by what brings its members together: their common values and goals. Since the goals of these organizations would sometimes conflict, player competition would naturally emerge from the existence of such groups. This competition would not necessarily be PvP combat but could take on other forms: Religions may compete to convert characters, merchant guilds might arrange trade routes, or indeed, law-oriented factions may hunt down criminals. By being able to do the things they personally enjoy doing, players would create content for other players.

Of course, players could belong to several of these organizations at the same time. These memberships could create inner conflicts for player characters themselves if the values and goals of these groups oppose each other. A game that allows characters to change other players' feelings could dynamically generate stories for players that offer tough choices; for example, should I bring my guildmaster to justice because he bent a few rules for greater profit? These unscripted stories would create memorable player-to-player interactions, where they could argue and bargain about the best courses of action and maybe sway others to their side without having to resort to violence every time.

Finally, beyond the fourth wall, the players should be able to express their goals, too. You can already tell MMOs when you want to play a quick dungeon, but what if you could also play a murder mystery with strangers? Or have your character experience betrayal and revenge? Or declare that you want to take over a kingdom and have both players and NPCs rally to your banner?

Exclusive  Storybricks dev diary expounds on bringing NPCs to life
Artificial intelligence and the sound of inevitability

While many of these features may seem impossible, they are not. Advances in artificial intelligence coupled with years of experimentation in RPG-like interactive storytelling have made it possible to model characters' emotions, needs, and relationships. Using this model, developers can plug characters into story frameworks, and those characters will remember and adapt to the players' choices. Conversely, a storytelling system that can look at players' goals, accomplishments, and skills to generate stories -- and the NPCs who populate those stories -- will deliver gameplay challenges that are highly appealing to a wide variety of players because the content quickly becomes personalized. It's not so much a technical matter anymore, although the AI involved in this has a lot of clever bits. Delivering this kind of personally adaptive gameplay is now more a matter of someone having the will to make the departure from the traditional model.

We are on the verge of a revolution in computer game storytelling that is driven by player demand and game economics. In future MMORPGs, your choices will have real impact on the world of the game and will provide you with experiences that match your tastes, just as good pen and paper RPG game masters have been doing for years. At Storybricks, we are focused on realizing this future. We lament the missed potential of games so far, but we see a bright future. We hope you'll agree and that together we'll soon see this new world of MMORPGs become a reality.

The Storybricks crew wishes to issue special thanks to Rodolfo Rosini, Bart Stewart, and Adam Baker-Siroty for their help, and the Massively crew would like to thank the Storybricks crew for this candid dev diary!

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