Series Info...Pleasures of the Flesh #12:

NPCs as a Valuable Resource

by Heather Logas & Josh Powell

Depending on the MMORPG you play, you will sooner or later (probably sooner) run into computer-controlled NPCs (non-player characters). These NPCs are usually extremely stupid and are unhelpful beyond their programmed purpose. Maybe they will sell you things you need or direct you to where the nearest monster camp is. But they do not add a lot of depth to the world or contribute much to the over-arching storyline. In order to obtain true role-playing nirvana, suspension of disbelief is an absolute must. Trying to role-play with a bot that only returns repeated canned responses is terribly obliterating to any sense of immersion.

In LARPs, experienced players will often be recruited to play NPCs. These NPCs are given general goals, character description with personality traits and a limited amount of time to accomplish their tasks. Storytellers make use of these characters to forward plot-lines in the game, or to create in-game consequences for actions of player characters. For example, if a character decides it would be really fun to vandalize police stations all over town, an NPC police officer might show up to arrest them. Or maybe a local anarchist group would come to recruit them. Having the flexibility of human-played NPCs allows storytellers to improvise reactions to character actions in the game. NPCs in LARPs thereby help create a rich game world which in turn deepens the players’ sense of immersion.

The primary purpose of an NPC, whether it be bot or human controlled, is to move the plotline along by giving hints or pointing players in the right direction. Human controlled NPCs can better differentiate when players need more help and can act appropriately. Computer controlled NPCs, on the other hand, are limited to offering up whatever help the game designer has anticipated in advance that the players might need and cannot deviate.

With careful consideration, online RPGs can greatly benefit from adopting the use of human-controlled NPCs. Whoever is in charge of story development in the game must create NPCs that have real reasons for their existence. Some reasons may be as straight-forward as welcoming new players to the game and helping to get them oriented or as complex as spreading rumors about otherwise unannounced new game features (dungeons, quests, etc.) Allowing players to stride the land as an NPC that is devoid of specific goals offers rife opportunity to abuse their NPC privileges.

An ST might create an NPC if they have a specific scenario in mind that may need the NPC to introduce it to the player characters, further it along once it gets rolling or to move things along if players get stuck. The NPC needs to be granted whatever information is important to the plot, and their main goal is to pass that information on to the players in a reasonable manner. The ST creates whatever information the player of the NPC will need in order to properly play it, i.e. background, alliances, etc. A balance must be struck in order to avoid revealing too much information to the player of the NPC which they could accidentally or maliciously spread and ruin the plot. If the game uses a stat system for combat, for example, the NPC’s power level should be appropriate to its character. Decide from the beginning if it will be ok for the NPC to die or get shoved around in the game. Players will start to feel abused if every NPC that comes their way is brutally powerful, so save your unkillable NPCs for extraordinary circumstances.

If people-powered NPCs are to be used, there must be a system in place to recruit them. This system should allow players to prove their reliability and trustworthiness through playing minor NPC roles at first – such as a newbie greeter type character. As they continue in this vein, they can be granted the opportunity to play larger and more vital roles. Playing a powerful NPC who is vital to the plot takes a lot of responsibility and maturity. Depending on the role, it can also require a large amount of time and dedication. You don’t want to hand these roles out to someone who is going to abuse their newfound power, or disappear before the story is complete.

If live NPCs are going to be utilized in your game, it is important to be able to monitor these players and provide channels for general player feedback. Despite your best screening efforts, you will run into players who will abuse their NPC privileges. At this point you want to have a system in place to catch and stem the abuse as early as possible. Two common and very annoying types of abuse are using a powerful NPC to kill player characters with little or no provocation and using the NPC's abilities or information to benefit their own or friends' PCs. In the online world, steps can be taken to keep NPCs from killing PCs. Certain actions for the NPC can be disabled, such as attacking PCs or using combat related abilities on characters involved in combat with PCs. Less severely, the actions of the NPC could be tracked and monitored in the event there is a report of abuse.

Keeping NPCs from abusing their abilities or information to benefit themselves or their friends (we call this "meta-gaming") is much more difficult. You could track all their in game conversations and assign someone to read through every line, but they still have other tools at their disposal for passing along information outside the digital boundaries of your game world. The best way to control the spread of information is to not give the NPCs more than they need at any given time. The same holds true for abilities. Only give your NPCs the bare minimum they need in order to do their jobs. For example, it might seem like giving an NPC the "baking" skill would help flesh out its character, but if baked goods give any kind of benefit in your game then including "baking" in the NPC is handing over a tool for abuse.

Abusing an NPC can have extremely harsh consequences to the game and therefore punishment for the abuse also needs to be equally harsh. You are putting a lot of trust in these people, after all. Feel free to ban players from playing NPCs in the future, or even expelling them from your game depending on the severity of the crime. Make these consequences public knowledge in order to discourage cheating and stick by them so players know you mean it.

If used properly, player controlled NPCs can potentially add depth to your world and enhance player immersion. They can be utilized for everything from helping newbies get oriented to being key supporting characters in long term plot lines. When deciding to incorporate live NPCs into your game, however, careful thought must be given to how you will prevent, uncover and stop possible NPC abuses. While player controlled NPCs can provide services to your game that no computer controlled bot can touch, if you are not prepared to implement a complete system that considers recruitment, screening and moderation then you might as well stick with the stupid bots. They definitely aren’t as interesting, but there’s less chance of them ruining your precious game.

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