NPC pathing and the living virtual world

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|01.27.14

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NPC pathing and the living virtual world
In the early days of vanilla WoW, I played Alliance. It wasn't until after hitting 60 that I began playing Horde in earnest. Although I appreciated the bare, rough-and-tumble primitive nature of Orgrimmar, I always felt there was something missing -- namely, the NPCs that happily wandered Stormwind all day long. Orgrimmar didn't really have much of that sort of thing, back then. And of all the NPCs that wandered the human capital, none captured my attention so much as Ol' Emma.

Emma was at the time part of a quest chain that took place in the Western Plaguelands -- a ghost in the upper level of a house in Felstone Field asked players to deliver a package to her. But Emma's charms weren't just wrapped into that quest. Ol' Emma spent her days -- and still spends her days -- walking the streets of Stormwind. I first found her walking to the well near the flight path in Stormwind, griping about how nobody respects their elders. Laughing, I moved on, but months later on a whim I decided to follow Ol' Emma to see exactly where she takes all that water she's been supposedly hauling. To my surprise, Emma walking into a building near Cathedral Square, went up the stairs, and ... stopped, facing a wall, still talking to nobody in particular.

Unfortunately, this was kind of par for the course for NPCs back then.

That was one of my minor pet peeves about WoW at the time, and it still continues to some small degree today. NPCs appear to have some sort of life within the game, but a moment taken to follow the NPC reveals that they're simply following a mechanical path, utterly spoiling the illusion. It's one of the things that charmed me about Skyrim the first time I played it -- all the NPCs in the various towns had day jobs that they would happily get up in the morning and go do, and when night rolled around, they'd make their way home and tuck themselves into bed.

It might not seem like much, but it made the world feel utterly alive in a way that WoW has yet to capture. However, a tweet we'd somehow missed earlier this month from Game Designer Dave Maldonado lends a little spark of hope that perhaps this situation might change at some point in the future.

While it's not really a guarantee of any kind, or even a direct confirmation that this is something actively being worked on, it's nice to see that the problem is, in fact, something the developers have seen as a problem -- and something that they're thinking about correcting. And I have to say, although this absolutely isn't any kind of confirmation, the news still makes me really happy. Imagine a WoW in which NPCs got up in the morning and went about their day. An Azeroth where shopkeepers and innkeepers traded off shifts, heading home when they weren't working. Where citizens of various towns and villages milled about around you with some clear purpose in mind -- and if you chose to follow them, they'd always have somewhere to go.

It's a really cool thought. It's that spark of life that has been missing from WoW for 10 years now. It might not seem like that big of a deal or that much of a change, but something that small can make a huge difference in the feel of that imaginary world around us -- a subtle shift from set paths and deliberate staring at walls to something far more akin to reality. Quite frankly, it's been 10 years that poor Ol' Emma has been walking a groove into the same pre-determined path in Stormwind -- I'd like to see what she does when she isn't tethered to a script.

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