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NPCs as Books and Bookshelves

March 14, 2008

NPCs are expensive assets in games. In many cases, they have animations, recorded dialog, distinct textures and scripting all their own. All of these things takes someone’s time – time that might be spent polishing the core mechanic, refining the game’s balance or adding a new feature that would make the core mechanic even stronger.

They also take the player’s time. After walking over to an NPC, I expect more out of them than a brief history lesson or an item. I want to interact with them, because that’s what games are for. That’s what they’re really good at. In my fantasy world, NPCs serve as spokes on which we build massive weaves. They are as integrated into the whole world as anyone else is, and by the end of the game, I feel like I know them as well as I knew a character in a book.

When NPCs are relegated to the role of bookshelf (hold this item) or book (hold this information), we’re not at all using them to their full potential. Junior/associate/intern designers have a tendency to use NPCs in exactly this way. Often, this is done for one of three reasons:

  • We can’t figure out a way to convey information that we feel certain we must convey.
  • We can’t figure out where to put an item, so we’ll put it on this NPC whose job it is to keep checking a fact over and over again every time you meet him until it holds true.
  • Text is evil.

More on that last point in a future post. At some point, we figured the player didn’t like to read and maybe even hated it. So, we balled up the stuff we wanted to say to the player, and we gave it to NPCs in the form of dialog.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2008 6:27 pm

    Knowing some possible solutions to the 3 problems (glad you at least said you’ll be doing the third) would be interesting 🙂

    Down with bookshelf NPC’s!

  2. March 17, 2008 4:35 pm

    What kind of improvements would you like to see in NPC implementation then? Obviously it would take a lot of time and money to turn every NPC into a character you care about, but I couldn’t see a game adaptation of “War & Peace” done in any other way. So let’s keep this small-scale. Instead of having an NPC standing around waiting to deliver an item to you like some kind of in-game loiterer, what do you think would be a better way to implement them? Is it better to just have books and bookshelves instead of book and bookshelf NPC’s?

  3. John Sharp permalink
    April 19, 2008 10:04 am

    “Text is evil.” I couldn’t agree more. A different spin on this discussion is “show, not tell.” Instead of telling your players about the world, show it to them. If it is really so important, then they should be able to learn about it through observation and play. Not through being told.

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