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Remodeling RPGs for the New Millennium
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Remodeling RPGs for the New Millennium

January 15, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Conversing With NPCs

No one has yet devised and/or implemented an artful, compelling, interesting, or believable conversation system in a computer RPG. That includes everything I've done and everything you've done. No one has come up with a system that -doesn't draw you out of the game world and remind you that you're just manipulating pixels on a screen. In the absence of anything better, let's look at some of the approaches that we've tried in the past.

First, there are branching-tree/keyword systems. If you've played just about any computer RPG of the last 15 years, you're familiar with these. Any Ultima game and, more recently, Fallout will introduce you to the concept, if you're unfamiliar with it (Figure 5). In this system, players read or listen to a bit of dialogue "spoken" by an NPC and are then offered a number of response options (or are given the opportunity to type in whatever they want). Picking one of these options or typing in a likely keyword sends the NPC into another speech. Making a selection typically prevents the player from getting the information he or she would have gotten by picking another of the available response options. Eventually, the NPC runs out of things to say along a particular branch and the conversation ends, leaving the player either to start the whole conversation over and make different response option choices in an attempt to elicit additional information from the NPC, or to go talk to someone else.

figure 4 - <i>Ultima</i> VI'S BRANCHING tree dialogue.

Ultima VI'S BRANCHING tree dialogue.

The problem is that clicking through a bunch of conversation options doesn't feel much like a conversation - an interrogation, perhaps, but not a conversation. Additionally, keywords and branching trees turn the conversations themselves into puzzles. Can you guess which branch the designer wanted you to go down? The opportunity and, more often, the necessity of talking to each NPC multiple times to be sure you ferreted out the critical nugget of information or set the one necessary conversation flag is a pain and drains conversations of their emotional impact.

figure 5 - Branching dialogue in <i>Fallout</i>.

Branching dialogue in Fallout

Another way to handle NPC interaction is through linear conversations. This is sometimes called the "NPC as signpost" approach to conversation. It's most commonly used in console RPGs, where input options are limited and storage space for branching conversations is at a premium. Basically, this method boils down to walking up to an NPC and having them tell you something and that's it. No interaction. Talk to them again and, unless the game state has been advanced somehow and/or the designer is particularly sharp, the NPC will simply repeat what he or she said the last time.

Linear conversations typically point you to your next goal, but they can do much more. In the best examples, NPCs can tell you about themselves and their lives. They can describe in convincing terms how you know them and how they feel about you. It's possible to evoke real emotions in a linear conversation, and about all the writer has to worry about is the role the speaker plays in the story.

A third communication solution is the use of binary decision points. This is a compromise between branching and linear conversation approaches. Most often seen in console games such as Suikoden (Figure 6) and just about anything developed by Square, binary decision point conversations are linear except where a yes/no decision (and associated branch) will reveal something about the character, the player, or the NPC speaking. I think this is a most promising approach.

figure 6 - Binary decision point conversation in SUIKODEN

Binary decision point conversation in SUIKODEN

A fourth communication method is reaction-based conversations A few designers over the years have tried a system in which NPCs speak and the player gets to pick the tone of his or her response but not the specific content (wording) of the response. This -doesn't seem to offer much advantage over other, more popular systems, but it is an option.

The last communication option is simply denial. Back when Doug Church and I first started talking about System Shock, we were dissatisfied with the conversation approach taken in Underworld, traditional and conventional though it may have been. And though it pained us to admit it, even to ourselves, we had no idea how to do any better. So the team designed around the unsolvable problem - we killed everyone off. The inhabitants of Citadel station would exist, for the player, only through e-mail and video logs. It was an elegant solution to an intractable problem: if we can't make you believe you're talking to a real human being, we just won't have any in our game world. (In retrospect, I think we may have gone a little overboard - it was the right decision for that game at that time, but we failed to take into account the power of consistency and convention.)

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about conversation in computer gaming is that players have grown accustomed to inelegant, unrealistic, basically unbelievable systems and cardboard cut-out NPCs. Until someone comes up with something better, you can always fall back on convention, a fact that Doug and the System Shock team didn't consider very seriously. Players "get" branching-tree/keyword systems - they're so familiar with them that they -don't even think about them much anymore. And that's about the best that you can hope for - that conversation --won't drag players out of your carefully crafted alternate world too badly. I await the day when voice recognition, natural language processors, basic knowledge databases, and speech synthesis become realistic options.

Exploration Vs. Action

Having dealt with combat and conversation, there's only one defining characteristic of role-playing left to discuss: exploration. In the typical RPG, you can fully explore a huge, contiguous world in real time. Every Ultima, both Underworlds, Daggerfall, and countless other games have taken this approach. Uncovering all of a world's secrets is fun.

Clearly, the exploration model works in RPGs, but it's both a blessing and a curse. It's great to be able to say it takes a player hours to traverse your game's world (and that's if you don't stop to interact with anything), but that begs the question of whether it's any fun to walk around for ten hours. Additionally, game players are increasingly pressed for time or anxious to finish one game so they can move on to the next. As a result, many seem to want smaller worlds, shorter play times, and more frequent pats on the back. I know there are still hardcore game players out there who always want more, but you must decide whether there are enough of these consumers to support your development budget.

Recent trends favor smaller, deeply simulated worlds over large, contiguous spaces an inch deep and miles wide, at least in terms of depth of simulation. Further, many RPGs these days - my own Deus Ex, Thief: The Dark Project, Diablo, and others - are adopting a mission orientation. They break the world up into more manageable sections to minimize walking around and maximize fun. Mission structure also goes hand-in-hand with linearity and, together, they allow us to tell the best stories possible.


Now that we've discussed the defining characteristics - the rules of role-playing, if you will - what of the variables? There are certainly characteristics of role-playing that are not universal, that you can adopt or ignore, as you wish. Here are some of them.

CAMERA POSITION. I'm the last person qualified to address technology, but camera positioning is an important enough issue to cover briefly. There are several ways to approach camera positioning and player point of view in role-playing. The most common perspectives are: first-person, three-quarters-overhead third-person (as in, an isometric viewpoint), and top-down third-person. For the purposes of this discussion, and for the sake of brevity, I'll treat the third-person perspectives as the same.

figure 7 - <i>Ultima</i> VII uses a top-down, third-person perspective.

Ultima VII uses a top-down, third-person perspective.

In a genre that, at some level, boils down to providing the player with the Ultimate "I did this" experience, what could be more compelling than entering a new world and seeing it through your own eyes? The Underworld and Might & Magic series (Figure 8), not to mention many others, offer fine first-person role-playing experiences. If what you're after is simulating a world, a first-person view goes a long way toward making the player feel as though he or she is "there." You're reducing the distance between player and character to almost nothing.

figure 8 - Standard game play window in MIGHT & MAGIC VI, showing the first-person gaming experience.

Standard game play window in MIGHT & MAGIC VI, showing the first-person gaming experience.

One drawback to the first-person perspective is that it puts players at a tactical disadvantage by limiting their awareness of what's going on behind and to the sides of their characters. And if you're committed to turn-based, tactically challenging combat, convoluted conversations that take place on a separate conversation screen, and the video equivalent of paper game character sheets crawling with attributes, skills, and numbers, first-person could be the worst choice for your game. If you're trying to recreate the paper gaming experience or the experience you get when you read a great novel or watch a film - the fiction experience - a third-person view may be just what you need. To capture that "fiction feel," it's good to let players guide their characters rather than be their characters. You want a bit of distance between player and character.

A third-person perspective is also ideal for tactical decision-making, particularly when combined with a turn-based combat system, a character sheet, and a separate conversation screen. Each of these elements contributes to the player's ability to make informed decisions about how to develop his or her character. The trade-off is that it's tough to care much about NPCs that are obviously nothing more than bunches of pixels an inch high when you're looking at them from a bird's perspective.

Lone Adventurer Or Party?

If you're working on an RPG, there's one question I guarantee you've been asked: "Is there gonna be multiplayer support?" Everybody seems to want to go exploring with a party. In a papergame, where players gather around a table and engage in collective acts of imagination and push lead miniatures representing their characters around on tabletops, the party idea works just fine. Certainly the case could be made that allowing a party of adventurers go through your story together, linked via modem, LAN or the internet, is a worthy pursuit despite the problems of communication and coordination among party members.

But what of the single-player RPG? Does the party make sense in that context? Many classic RPGs indicate that it does. The early Ultimas and recent Krondor games (among many others) allow a single player to take control of a party of adventurers. However, I think controlling parties in single-player, story-based roleplaying game is a bad idea, particularly when it's a real-time game. There are several reasons I feel this way.

First, if one of the primary goals of role playing is to allow players to create an alter ego, you should do everything possible to increase a player's identification with his character. When controlling a party, player identification with a single character is history - as is roleplaying, in my opinion. At that point, you're playing a boardgame. Second, AI limitations mean you're inevitably going to be slowed down by teammates who can't think quickly on their feet and, even slowly, can't respond the way real people would.

If you subscribe to the ideal that players should describe their adventures by saying "I did" something rather than "Lara Croft did" something or "The Avatar" did something, controlling a party is a problem. In recent years, more and more designers seem to be coming around to this mode of thinking. (Recent Ultimas, Underworld, Diablo, and Daggerfall have all adopted the solo model, often to the chagrin of fans.) Solo play is simpler to implement, speeds up game play and fosters a direct connection between player and character that seems critical to RPG success.

If you choose to include full party control in your single-player game, recognize that you'll reduce player involvement and turn off people who value tactical thinking in games, and use it in conjunction with turn-based combat and a third-person perspective. A real-time, first-person party-based game is just asking for trouble.

Computer role-playing games are no longer just an infant medium learning to crawl. They've been around for a while, and now we, their designers, must start figuring out what we are, and what we can do to make the most of them. {Edit OK?} I've got no beef with folks who want to continue recreating the past. Just don't count me among the people who think that's good enough. Our goal should be to create games that are simple to learn and play, accessible to the broadest possible audience and yet with enough depth that hardcore gamers will flock to us.

The RPG Commandments

  1. Each player's path through the story must be unique. This -doesn't mean a branching-tree structure with winning and losing paths but, rather, that players will have the freedom to decide how they'll overcome game obstacles. A world simulation must be deep enough so that each game problem is open to a variety of solution strategies, from the most thoughtful and low-key to the most obvious and violent. And the solution you choose to any given problem must have clear consequences, both immediate (killing a guard sets off an alarm, attracting more guards) and long-term (killing a guard may result in "wanted" posters being posted, causing civilians to fear you and be less cooperative).

  2. Players must always have clear goals. Though free to stray from the storyline at will, players must know what they're supposed to be doing, minute to minute and, if appropriate, mission to mission. The fun of the game is in overcoming obstacles and solving problems; the fun is in how you solve a problem, not in guessing what problem you're supposed to solve.

  3. The level of interactivity must be high, with NPCs about whom you really care and with a densely populated, object-rich world that looks and behaves like the real world (or, at least, a believable, internally consistent world of your own creation). A big, empty world is boring. Players must be free to explore a cool and instantly understandable world.

  4. The central character must grow and change in ways that matter to players in an obvious and personal way. During the course of play, you'll become more powerful, acquire more items, and develop new skills, of course. However, you'll also make unique friends and enemies, accomplish tasks and missions differently, overhear different conversations, and see different events unfold. By game's end, each player must control an alter ego that is distinct from that of all other players.

  5. The game must be about something more than killing things, solving puzzles, and maxing out a character's statistics. Remember all those hours you spent in school analyzing the underlying meaning of novels, poems, and movies? Guess what: RPGs lend themselves to the same kind of analysis. Games can and must have an impact on players. That impact may be the simple adrenaline rush of Diablo, fleeting and soon forgotten (nothing wrong with that), or it may be the never-to-be-forgotten (and, in some cases, life-changing) experience of becoming the Avatar in Ultima IV. If all you're doing is throwing wave after wave of monsters at players so that they can kill lots of stuff so that they can increase some arbitrary statistics so that they can feel powerful, you're doing yourself, your players and your medium a disservice.

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