31 Jan 2012

Replacing the Superficial Intelligence

I have an opinion on Non-Player Characters. It emerged in the days of the first escort quest I attempted, when the computer-controlled NPC I’d be chaperoning would sprint ahead to certain death at the hands of hungry skeletons. If they weren’t sprinting ahead they’d probably stopped to admire a particularly intricate pebble and forgotten all about me. Either way you’re probably looking at death or failure, or more usually both.

At that point my opinion of NPCs was cemented: dumb as a bag of bricks.

Since that day we’ve had Warlocks and Hunters in World of Warcraft trying to order around pets and minions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Spin the artificial intelligence roulette wheel and find out if your trusty sidekick is going to help or just stand there like a lemon. And although things have improved over the years, the lemon is still on that scoring board.

Star Wars: The Old Republic aims to improve on the largely superficial AI by coating it in a Choose Your Own Adventure, allowing you to shape the relationship you have with your companions. Unfortunately it doesn’t always go according to plan, as Sypster recently found out.

That’s largely the shape of NPCs for the past ten years. They might talk a lot more than they used to but they still spend their time standing under the same canvas tent waiting for players to turn up and help thin the overflowing rat population. Other than providing animated scenery and a tiny bit of world colour, they have a handful of lines to deliver and a reward to hand out. That’s it.

While this is an issue in standard theme-park MMOs it becomes more of a frustration in sandbox games where the game has to teach you the intricacies of the interface and how to interact with the game world before you can be unleashed on an unsuspecting universe/continent/village. Wouldn’t it be better if the NPCs could help with passing you advice, or if your sidekick could do more than just tell you how upset he was about your conversation choices.

Due to their own limited programming and scripted responses, most NPCs remain nothing more than superficial intelligences. Their responses are limited. Building a proper artificial intelligence is hard work, especially when you look at the relationships between NPCs as groups and individuals. It’s something that StoryBricks eventually hopes to crack. But are there other options?

Why not cheat? Instead of using superficial intelligences with limited responses, why not use directed player characters controlled by real people?
As far-fetched as it sounds, this exact process is already done in the kids-focused MMO Club Penguin. During an interview with creator Lane Merrifield, Eurogamer revealed that the developer now uses a 250-strong moderating team to “play with and encourage the children of Club Penguin to try new things” alongside their other duties. This is a bit of a revelation, as almost every other MMO relies on NPCs,  in-game tutorials and the kindness of other players to help newcomers get started.

The concept has also been described in For The Win, Cory Doctorow’s book exploring the near-future of MMO gaming (and available to download from his website for free). In the book Doctorow describes games publishers extending their support teams through systems similar to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, with armies of remote workers performing directed player character duties where the scripted dialogue eventually fails.

Beyond the utility of having an extra creature fighting on your side, companions, pets and sidekicks are there to help root the player’s character to the game world. In SWTOR they help to make the experience personal to the player. But they are still superficial intelligences, running off and pulling extra mobs or staring at the ceiling when they should be healing you.

But while the combat AI is always likely to be a sticking point, evolving the story of an MMO beyond the Choose Your Own Adventure limitations is going to become crucial if developers maintain this mantra of delivering tailored experiences. Part of that tailored experience has to be supporting and interacting with players from inside the game, if only to encourage them to keep playing.

After all, that’s what it’s about. Keeping people playing. Everything else is secondary.

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