Friday, February 23, 2007

MMO Core Concept #2: Dynamic NPCs

This is one of those ideas that has been floating around in my head for some time. But this comment on the Broken Toys blog caught my attention because it put an interesting twist on the concept.

Dynamic NPCs are ones who interpret and react to player actions as well as those of other NPCs. There's really two parts to this. On one side, you have the various town-type NPCs; shopkeepers, quest-givers, blacksmith, etc etc. On the other, you have the mob-type NPCs; orcs, dragons, rats and all that sort of goodness. For brevity, this post will focus on the town-type NPCs and leave the mobs for another day.

I've always thought that it would be interesting if NPCs actually reacted to what was going on around them. If they could know what was happening in their local area (or on a larger area if they are the type of NPC that would care about such things) and alter their routines based on that knowledge.

There are several layers to this possibility. The first would simply be location. NPCs would migrate and set up home/shop based on their fears/desires and how the local enviroment plays into those feelings. A jeweler, for example, probably wouldnt make a very good living in a small, farming village. They would likely look for a larger city with a stable economy and plenty of wealthy potential customers. And this also ties in with the comment I linked to earlier.

TPRJones mentioned the possibility of NPCs responding to wars based from, around or in their towns. People tend to flee warzones, and the NPCs shouldnt be any different. Is the town under siege? Those NPCs who formerly farmed the now-ravaged countryside would now want to move someone safer. Or perhaps they even change, turning into beggars and thieves since they can't make an honest living anymore and

This could even be developed into a meta-game feature, where player-towns compete to make their city more advantageous for NPCs, thus drawing them away from other nearby towns.

Eventually, player-towns would come to represent the guilds controlling the town. Is the guild focused on a safe, posperous enviroment? Then the town will attract merchants, entertainers, nobles and the like. Or is the guild warlike, building defensive structures and constantly warring with their neighbors? Well then you might find more mercenaries and drifters looking to take advanatge of the wartime market. Or do the players even go so far as to kill every immigrant that shows up in their town? They'll soon find their village shunned by all NPCs. Or maybe they only kill the elves, resulting in a town populated by everyone except the elf-types.

I would even take this a step farther, and have the town's appearance change as well. Do the players in the town randomly kill NPCs and offer sacrafices to demon gods? Well then, the town will probably start looking more sinister and become more rundown, populated by crazed fanatics, the destitute and desperate, and perhaps even a few unholy minions lurking about in the shadows. Is your town full of do-gooders who uphold the virtues of justice, compassion and truth? Then the town becomes more shiny and airy, sparkling across the vista so that it can be seen by riders from miles away. The streets are immaculate, the poor and lame are well taken care of and every NPC greets you with a heartfelt salutation.

Another layer to this concept would be related to quests/jobs and shopkeeper supplies. Has a rancher been losing a lot of their livestock to wolves on the edge of town? Maybe they'll try to hire players to take care of the wolf population. And the local innkeeper will start charging more for food as the supply of meat dwindles. Then, once the wolves have been cleared out, the rancher no longer needs to hire players for that job, but maybe they have need of someone to deliver their overabundance of meat to the next town.

An important part to making this all work would be to give NPCs some longevity, so that they aren't killed on a daily basis by the more psychopathic players. But thats a different discussion.

Dynamic town-NPCs would not only make the world seem more alive and fluid, but it would force players to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. Shopkeepers for player towns wouldnt just be the drag and drop variety. Certainly there should be options for players to hire NPCs to populate their towns, but ultimately, player actions in-game will determine how successful your town will be.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Horrors of Open PvP

PvP. One subject that is frequently discussed and argued about in the MMO world. It makes developers nervous, sends victms into fits, is associated with 'grief-play', and even gets an article about it in a print magazine.

But I'm here to discuss someplace even darker, where few companies dare tread... open PvP. Basically, this means that anyone can be attacked anywhere. No artifical limitations that magically prevent combat in certain areas. No PvP 'flags' to turn on and off. Once you enter the gameworld, you have the potential to be killed anywhere at anytime.

Many, if not a large majority, of the MMO playerbase cringes at the thought of an open PvP system. And rightfully so. Griefers have made their presence felt in all games that support any form of PvP, and even in games that don't. The life of a griefer knows no bounds. And therein lies the rub! Griefers aren't an outgrowth of the PvP systems. They're there all the time, lurking in the shadows, just waiting to steal your kill or resource, block a doorway, cover the ground with profane drawings, on any of a myriad of creative harassment they can come up with. But players mistakenly associate these pariahs of online gaming with PvP.

The problem isn't in the PvP concept itself. Rather the problem stems from that group of players who enjoy having power over others at any cost, and the PvP systems that dont prepare for this sort of playstyle (or focus on it exclusively, to the detriment of everyone else).

Open PvP doesn't have to be the death-knell for an MMO (I think Eve Online has proved that already). I've actually found that players tend to be a lot more polite and respectful in open PvP enviroments. In general terms at least. You'll have the jerks who always find their way into these open, online enviroments, no matter what the system. But when there are potential, immediate reprecussions for being a jerk, people tend to be on better behaviour.

It is also an excellent tool for promoting strong communities. Nothing brings people closer together better than a strong external threat.

I think there are a few key features that would be vitally important to supporting a fun, open PvP enviroment.

1) No 'con' system for players. If you don't instantly know how strong another player is, you're much less likely to attack them without reason.

2) No levels. At least not as they are currently implemented in MMOs. Levels inherently create huge imbalances between players and are a very arbitrary and non-intuitive system.

3) Territorial control.
a)Bind players to an area. If a player has to travel far to grief someone outside their guild or circle of friends, they're less likely to make the effort. Especially if they get sent back home after they are defeated.
b) Give players the ability to control order in their towns via guards, banishment, black marks etc.

4) Relatively quick power gain. And once you hit that diminishing returns curve, power gains come more from adding new tricks to your arsenal rather than making your old tricks uber.

5) Create opportunities for meaningful PvP. The more reasons players have for engaging in PvP over useful objectives, the less likely it is that they will be preying on the new and weak.

Certainly, it's not an feature you can just throw in. It takes a lot of careful forethought and balancing. But it also opens up a lot of vistas that are currently locked behind instance portals or shuffled off into an obscure region of the world.

Monday, February 05, 2007

One of the Many Perils of the Level-Based MMO

As I was browsing a few blogs this morning, I came across this post talking about what a ghost town Ironforge has become since the release of the Burning Crusade.

And really, it's not just the old world. Even Hellfire Penninsula has seen a major population drop. Gone are those exciting, chaotic first few days as everyone poured through the portal and unleashed their pent-up aggression on the unsuspecting demons and orcs of the land. There was an almost visible aura of energy and excitement in the zone. Now it's reduced to just a small, scattered population, and the initial flood of players has mostly outleveled the zone and spread out amongst the rest of the Outlands.

And as for Azeroth, the high-level zones are just eerily empty. I spent some time in the Eastern Plaguelands and Silithus recently, and I saw a total of one other character in each zone!

This, IMO, is one of the biggest flaws with a level-based game... the level-based segregation that comes with it. Especially when you organize your adventuring areas along level lines as well. This is a major community-breaking 'feature' that is only exacerbated by the expansion of the level cap.

I'm hoping that the next MMO I play isn't so divided and that I have a chance to hangout, adventure and have fun with new characters as well as old.