The Illusion of Life

For years now I’ve thought of MMO’s as living breathing ever changing worlds. Yesterday I came to the harsh conclusion that this is a completely false statement. Lets see if I can organize my thoughts into text here on this matter.

In an MMO the NPC’s do not remember you. If you decline a quest and come back later they have no reaction what so ever except to offer you the exact same quest in the exact same manor. There are no relationships even though you may have spent a LOT of time working up faction for these people. A good example is that when my defiler (a Freeport resident) walks through Qeynos, the guards cheer for her. I don’t have any idea why but I’m pretty sure there’s no reason for the people of Qeynos to be cheering for my Freeport character. You can’t emotionally interact with anyone and you very rarely feel as though YOU are making a difference – except for one small area.

PLAYERS bring a world to life. Players are the one area of an MMO where actions (and reactions) matter. They remember you, your interactions with them actually count. If your game doesn’t have players it’s considered “dead” because running around talking to NPC who don’t care whether or not you actually talk to them, is boring. No, I’m not talking about grouping here I’m talking about seeing other players around, watching chat channels, and the ‘illusion’ of life and an ever living world.

My thoughts on this matter came after spending a day playing Sims 3 and trying to figure out on a very basic level why the game (and any RPG for that matter) appeals to me. It’s because it feels alive to me. Now, some games try methods to make their worlds appear alive. LotRO for example has their very sound story line built into the game. However, if a player decides NOT to follow that story path for whatever reason there isn’t a single NPC out there who would notice. The world itself would not notice. It is up to the player to approach and find the proper NPC and interact with them to find out where to go next. We may as well be talking to cardboard cut outs lining the streets for all they seem to recognize or interact with us.

I realize what I’m describing here is an RPG and single player games have these interactions in spades. It’s one reason why they’re so popular. I would LOVE to see MMO companies try to come up with inventive ways of bringing their games LIFE without relying on a heavy player population. I know that’s something that’s easy for me to say since I don’t design video games and I can’t even fathom the amount of time and work and money that would go into a project of that size, but I still don’t think it’s something that’s out of our scope of imagination completely.

Hopefully I’ve explained that well enough. It’s 7am and my thoughts tend to be a rambling disaster. Happy gaming, no matter where you find yourself!

6 Responses to The Illusion of Life

  1. Dusty says:

    There’s almost two posts here, and both of them are great fodder for discussion. The first notion is the very important realization that a game without players in it (human players) feels dead. And the second is the discussion about what can developer’s do to make a game feel more alive with the in-game NPC’s, events, world changes, etc. The unfortunate thing is that these two goals — both of which are desirable from a developer’s standpoint, work in direct opposition to each other.

    Here’s why. When you’re building a world for an MMO, you are building a world that you hope will allow for lots of players – human players – to participate in it. You of course want your game to be popular, you hope players will come, and you realize that a world populated by players makes everyone want to stay. So you build your systems to support a large quantity of players. In order to support a large number of players, you have to reduce the amount of load in the rest of the simulation. So that means less NPC’s, simpler NPCS, and systems that work well under a heavy load of many players.

    Coincidentally, this is a huge part of the reason that so many MMO’s are realizing how beneficial it is to make your MMO free to play. Because so many of the systems were built around the idea of having lots of players — even if those players aren’t paying a dime, by being there they improve the experience for everyone. Groups get formed, public quests can be completed, the economy wokrs better — so many systems work that much better when their are people to support them.

    Conversely, in a single player RPG, we can devote all the resources of the computer to the experience, versus the players. So player’s feel like the world responds and caters to them. Or even if it’s not catering to them, but just the idea of NPC’s with activitites, and schedules, and going about their own daily lives, because we have the resources to simulate those daily lives in the single player RPG. But the important thing is that in order to devote more resources to the simulation – which can make for some totally believable worlds – you have to trade off computing power devoted to supporting masses of people.

    And as Sharon indicated above, developer’s are constantly trying to come up with better ways to distribute computing resources away from supporting 500 people standing in a single area and towards providing a rich environment for a few people. Instances were the first attempts at this and still are heavily used, and WoW’s phasing tech attempts to do the same way in an even more smoothly integrated way.

    None of this is to suggest that more couldn’t be done and shouldn’t be done — I totally agree with the sentiment of this post. But only to offer a bit of perspective on why developers have to make the resource decisions — that of computing power and bandwidth resources – in the manner that they do.


  2. Sharon says:

    I think this is one of the things that I like about WoWs phasing technology. Of course, I’m still clicking to accept or decline quests, and there’s no dialogue with the NPCs. But it has been neat to see the subtle ways they’ve used phasing in the “new” old world.

    You’re absolutely right though. People make the games come alive. It’s why I disliked games like Oblivion. The world feels empty without other people there. I also think that’s the reason I tend to roll on RP servers. Even though I’m not much of a roleplayer, I love seeing them around because they add so much to the organic feeling of the world.

  3. Arkenor says:

    There is no fundamental barrier to giving NPCs in MMO more complicated AI. Except that it would be rather time-consuming and expensive, and could quite possibly be impossible to get to work in a way that the majority of players would like.

    When you want a quest or shop, you want that NPC to be standing where he always is. You don’t want him to be in bed, or off taking his kids for archery practise, down the tavern exchanging rumours with his questgiver and merchant pals, or attending a secret meeting of his dark cult. While I’d love a living world like that, I suspect I’d be in the minority.

  4. Rebecca says:

    I’ve thought now for *years* (ever since I first played Sims 1) that the perfect game would be a combination of RPG and Sims. It hasn’t happened yet, but I keep hoping.

  5. Scopique says:

    It’s not just the NPCs that react to you, it’s you reacting to NPCs. In MMOs, you only interact with NPCs by clicking on them and accepting or declining their quest. In Te Sims, if a neightbor sneaks into your house at night, your plans need to change to accomidate your reaction to them. You’re no longer just plowing ahead with your original, single-minded goal.

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