Friday, April 9, 2004

SWG: Hero NPCs and Factional Gameplay

How can Hero NPCs best be used in a game where all the players want to be heroes, too?

On the one hand, you've got individual players who in many cases want to be Luke Skywalker -- they want to do things in the Star Wars universe that matter. They want to play a meaningful role in an epic story.

On the other hand... you've got many other individual players who all want to be Luke Skywalker, too! How in the world do you create a multiplayer game that satisfies all these people? They can't all be heroes of the Rebellion or the Empire!

...or can they?

To be successful over the long haul, SWG has to be constructed to give the individual player just enough freedom to have some impact in the game world, but not enough to prevent other players from having similar impact based on their own actions. To achieve this goal requires thinking like an individual player to understand what they want... but that's not enough. For a player to feel his actions have meaning -- that he's not just grinding -- the local effects of a player's actions have to have some cumulative global effect that the player can see. And that requires a different kind of design thought process.

The bottom-up individualistic viewpoint is important, and it's enough to satisfy the adrenaline junkies over the short term. But for a satisfying long-term gameplay experience, someone has to have spent some time integrating the individual game features from a top-down strategic viewpoint. The parts have to fit together to create a unique and unpredictable (but acceptable) whole. To put it another way, it's necessary for local effects to accumulate to some important global result, because that result filtering back down to the individual player is what proves to him that his actions have meaning.

There are obvious and subtle ways to accomplish this, but they all hinge on some designer having thought about how individual actions add up, and on some developer actually implementing features to sum up actions and reflect the resultant back to individual players.

Let's assume for the sake of this discussion that we have or can easily get the first part of this equation -- that what you and everyone else does is being watched and remembered and adds up to something that affects the course of the Galactic Civil War. OK, what then?

I'll offer two examples to give you the flavor of what is possible, and what we might aspire to having in SWG.

1. The Empire

You are a faithful servant of the Empire. You've mastered one or two combat professions, and exterminated countless Rebel scum in your progress through the ranks. In fact, you just earned enough faction points to buy the rank of Captain.

When other players you know have earned this rank, they've received the usual message. But something different happens this time -- you get a "loading" screen. Suddenly you find yourself in a shadowed (instanced) audience chamber... and you hear the labored panting of someone using a breathing regulator.

"Congratulations, Captain," you hear Lord Vader say from somewhere in the gloom. "I have been watching your progress with interest. Your rise through the ranks has been swift, and the Emperor appreciates your efforts on his behalf."

Without warning, Darth Vader looms out of the darkness before you. You sense a malign strength that could crush the life from you with a thought.

"But do not think, Captain, that your promotion entitles you to a life of ease. From those to whom the Emperor has granted authority, much is expected. You must do more to crush the Rebellion to prove your worthiness to wear this insignia."

The system dings, and you see a spatial message, "You have been awarded the Order of the Scarlet Robe, Second Class badge."

As Vader fades back into the shadows, he says, "Do not fail me, Captain. I will be watching...."

After another loading screen, you find yourself back where you were before your audience with Darth Vader... only now you're sporting a set of captain's bars and a shiny new badge.

Do you think this would help you feel like a valued soldier of the Empire, and motivate you to look for more ways to serve the Empire?

2. The Rebellion

You're a humble crafter who sympathizes with the Rebellion, but while you've signed up with a Rebel recruiter you just can't bring yourself to support the Rebellion overtly. After all, you've got a business to run.

But as time goes by, you notice that the buildings around your shop start to have Imperial symbols on them. And there seem to be a lot more stormtroopers hassling you. And your business has fallen off; you're not making as many sales as you used to, even though your products have improved.

One day you're contentedly tinkering away on a vehicle when the front door of your shop opens. In walks a customer who exudes an attitude of competence and authority, and he strides directly up to you.

"We need to talk," he says. "I'm Wedge Antilles, in charge of the resistance in this area. I know you support us; I've talked to our recruiter... but what I don't understand is why you're helping the Empire!"

He gestures forcefully, obviously upset. "Our Bothan spies -- don't bother looking around, you'll never spot them -- tell us that you're selling a lot of equipment to Imperials. In fact, you've done so well for them that we're actually losing the war in this area."

Wedge glares at you. "We can't afford to have an Imperial sympathizer in our ranks. So I'm going to make it easy for you: you have a choice."

"One," he says. "You can close up your shop here and move somewhere else where you can make your equipment for our cause. Or two... you can lose your status as one of us. If you're going to help the Empire, we don't need you."

Wedge adjusts his jacket as he prepares to leave. "I'll give you a week to decide. If your shop is still here by then, you'll return to being neutral in this conflict."

He looks you in the eye one last time. "We need you. You're a capable crafter, and I believe you understand what we're fighting for. I hope you'll do the right thing."

And he turns and walks out the door.

Do you think this would give you a greater sense of your value in the game as a whole, and possibly even persuade you to take a more active role in the GCW?

Obvious and subtle. Subtle in that small actions add up to meaningful results that are reflected in the game environment, and obvious in that the sum of a player's actions are occasionally reflected back to that player in a memorable way.

A game like that -- where today's actions have consequences tomorrow -- could last a long time.

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