Sunday, December 30, 2007

Making NPC Behaviors More Plausible +

Originally Posted by Botanybay:
The whole time you meet NPC-zombies that stare at the horizon, doing nothing. Note, there are sandstorms on Tatooine and heavy rain on Naboo. Doesn't matter for the NPCs, a zombie doesn't know any pain.
This is one of my big problems with MMORPGs as well: NPCs appear to have virtually no awareness of their environment.

I've described before my feelings about the time I observed a single maxed-out Rebel player enter Kadaara and start butchering every Imperial NPC in the city. I'm watching it happen right in front of me; the sound of blaster fire is unceasing... and what are the local NPCs doing?

The civilian NPCs just there for eye candy are walking around like they're out for a nice stroll. Why aren't they screaming and running for cover, or begging the Imperials for protection?

The quest-giving or trainer NPCs are standing in their usual spots scratching themselves. Why aren't they reacting according to their specializations?

And the stormtroopers investing the town are lounging up against a wall, looking dangerous and doing absolutely nothing, as though their comrades in arms aren't being slaughtered a mere thirty meters away in plain sight. Why aren't they running to assist, or calling in reinforcements?

Forget about being too stupid to get inside out of the rain (or a sandstorm). The NPCs in SWG -- and pretty much every other MMORPG -- are too stupid to live. Maybe that works for pure mindless gameplay, where NPCs are intended to serve only as reward pellet dispensers, but as a world containing anthropomorphic characters it's a disaster.

An MMORPG with non-reactive NPCs doesn't feel like a world; it feels like a wind-up toy that just plays one note over and over. It's boring. It's not fun.

Now, that criticism made, to be realistic we need to consider the other side of this question: how much is all this wonderful behavioral plausibility going to cost a developer?

Making NPCs react plausibly to specific kinds of changes in their environment would impose three types of cost:

  • time to develop subroutines that allow NPCs to react plausibly
  • significantly increased load on servers to process decision-making by smarter NPCs
  • NPCs that serve specific gameplay purposes sometimes can't be accessed because they've been shifted into Panic Mode (allows griefing)
So the question isn't just, "Why don't MMORPG developers make their NPCs behave more plausibly?" The real question is, "How much improvement in NPC behavioral plausibility can be justified considering the likely costs?"

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