Series Info...Storms on Cloud Nine #6:

Evil and Wickedness

by Scott Holliday
March 21, 2003

Several years ago, I took a trial account on a MMORPG that I had never heard of before. As a good player, I decided to read up beforehand so I wouldn't be totally lost. I was quickly pleased with the interesting world-setting and the factionalization of players into good and evil. Next, I went to a few forums and guild-sites and poked around. In short, I learned that evil was almost always on top. So... I decided to build a truly good character. By that, I mean good to the point of "do no harm."

Very pleased with the concept, I leapt into the game and found myself in the tutorial. In the second room, as a requirement to pass, you were required to kill all of the bunnies in the room. Kill the cute little bunnies? I tried for about an hour to figure out a way past that room. I even tried to contact the staff, but they weren't very interested. Thinking about it, I realized that every single player in the game HAD killed these bunnies. What did that say about the players? Disgusted, I left.

On the other hand, when I see a good-centric game, I often try to play evil. In other words, I try to build a character (or concept) that can make friends with the "monsters" or whatever the "bad guys" are. In fact, for one game I remember, I tried my very hardest. During character creation, I took all the abilities that I thought would ingratiate myself to the bad guys. I even took a spell that was supposed to strengthen monsters. What do I learn? They still attack me anyway... but now stronger. What's the point of that spell? The only use I could figure is to PK other players indirectly. How disappointing!

I remember back in the early 80s, there was a simple text game that I really liked. It was called "Dragon" or something like that. The idea is that you were a poor soul that had just stumbled into a dragon's lair. The dragon is hungry, but he's also lonely. The goal is to keep him interested as long as possible. Mention food... chomp. Mention gold... he might talk a while. It was critically important to listen to him and respond intelligently, or he might just decide you were rude. This was in the 80s... on those pitiful 80s computers. How far have we regressed?

Unfortunately, computer-run NPCs are not just simple to program. For Orphan Crown, I'm trying to avoid computer NPCs whenever possible. Not that I can't do them. Rather, I don't think that I could do them well enough that I would be happy as a player. It's easy to build ravening killers. A talking, expressive personality that you can interact with is quite another story. A few mindless killing machines might be interesting, a world filled with them would be boring. And yet... that seems to be the model of most of the online games out there.

The dream of course is to have CNPCs that a player mistakes for real players. Depending on the nature of your game, this is often directly related to the good versus evil question. So... since I like lists, here's my list of NPC design thoughts:

  1. Names: An 'orc' is quite clearly a computer-run NPC. 'Thurm' is not. 'Thurm' may be a special character run by the staff. There shouldn't be any easy way to tell the difference.
  2. Occurrence: If Thurm always appears at the same place at the same time, then the conclusion is obvious. "Hey! It's Thurm again, get him!" If he must appear in the same spot, perhaps his name could be different each time?
  3. Activity: If Thurm stands in one spot for hours, waiting for something to activate his reflexes, he isn't very interesting. Thurm should always be doing something. Travelling from spot to spot? Fighting other CNPCs?
  4. Speech: If Thurm never says anything, he's either a very non-talkative player, or an obvious CNPC. How do you tell them apart? Imagine the difference if Thurm runs up to players to say, "Hi!" then runs away. I know that I would be intrigued.
  5. Behavior: If Thurm always walks in perfectly straight lines, or follows distinct paths, he gets old quick. What if sometimes, he jumped for no apparent reason? Or suddenly stopped to admire the sky-line?
  6. Interaction: If Thurm can respond halfway-intelligibly to any statement, he's several steps above the usual CNPC. In several games that I've seen, CNPCs respond only to the specific phrase they've been keyed for. For instance, "Do you have a quest?" Otherwise they sit there like furniture. Imagine the difference if Thurm responds to each and every thing he hears. If you say, "I wish I could find a potato," Thurm replies. He doesn't have to be smart. Perhaps he just has a set of random "Hello" scripts. Even better, his scripts could lead you to other key phrases so that he CAN talk intelligibly. Of course, the smarter he is, the more interesting he will be to talk to.
  7. Faction: If Thurm is good, he shouldn't attack people he knows are good unless he is confused. If Thurm is evil, then perhaps he should sometimes try to make friends with people he knows are also evil. He might even tell these people certain secrets that only they can get to. Of course, many games have more factions than just good and evil, but the idea still stands.
  8. Memory: If you killed Thurm's friend Barufio, and Thurm has some way to know this, Thurm shouldn't be very friendly. On the other hand, if you gave Thurm gold yesterday, he should remember that too. Admittedly, he should tell his faction (if he can), but certainly he would remember if you attacked him earlier!

Naturally, all of this can get quite complex. The work involved in building a word recognition library can be quite extensive. This is doubly true when you consider how individual words must be taken in context. Likewise, tailoring personal friendship as opposed to faction-based relations is something I imagine most developers don't even want to think about. Games lately have been coming out with more and more backstory. Deeper and deeper plots. How better to support the feeling they've generated than to have NPCs that fit into their world rather than detract from it?

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