[MUD-Dev] DESIGN: Personal NPCs

Mike Rozak Mike at mxac.com.au
Tue Nov 15 21:57:07 New Zealand Daylight Time 2005

I recently thought up an interesting way to make quests more
compelling by having them handed out by a player's "personal NPCs",
such as the character's parents, childhood friends, henchmen, or
pet. See http://www.mxac.com.au/drt/PersonalNPCs.htm, or the
attached text below. This technique might even allow virtual worlds
to break away from the hunter/gatherer motif that currently
permeates virtual worlds.


Personal NPCs
or... What The Sims Online could have been
15 November 2005
by Mike Rozak

When you're lying in bed at night, the reading light on, novel in
hand, and reach the end of a chapter, what makes you say to
yourself, "I'll read just one more chapter, and then I'll go to

Likewise, when playing a CRPG or MMORPG, what makes you want to play
for "just another ten minutes so I can finish off this quest"?

Summary of previous articles

As I stated in Sympathetic goals, players play CRPGs, adventure
games, and MMORPGs for a variety of reasons, most of which are
ultimately exploited by the game's design so that players keep
playing. (Novels take the same approach, doing whatever is necessary
to keep readers from putting down the book.)The most common
techniques that games use are:

  - The experience ladder - "If I play one more quest I'll get
  enough experience to raise my character a level." A new level is
  not only a tangible goal, but it provides a player's character
  with new skills that will (temporarily) make the game more fun for
  the player.

  - Mystery and exploration - Completing the quest allows the player
  to enter a new section of the world, or it reveals a new segment
  of backstory about the world. This keeps the players going because
  the player (not just the player's character) wants to know what's
  beyond the next hill, or the answer to a mystery.

  - Fiends, guilds, and enemies - As soon as real people are playing
  in the game, a whole host of socially-based reasons for playing
  the game appear. For example: If a player's friends want to keep
  playing, the player is more likely to keep playing too. If an
  enemy player is nearby, a player may play until he runs the enemy
  out of the world.

Another reason for playing is less commonly utilised by MMORPGs:
Players want to complete quests that affect NPCs which the player
(not just the player's character) likes or dislikes. I discussed
this idea in My current grand unified theory of avatar games, as
well as Sympathetic goals. A few weeks after writing the articles, I
purchased Fable: The Lost Chapters, and discovered Fable practicing
some of the techniques I was theorising about.

Fable, more than any game I've played, went out of its way to make
the player (not just the player's character) like a handful of NPCs,
and dislike the villain. The game did this by creating a family for
the player's character, and integrating the player (not just the
character) into the family. The villain then burns the character's
village in front of the player's eyes, culminating with the father's
death just as the player finds him lying in the burning
village. This creation of sympathy/empathy continues throughout the
game, and is an important technique for keeping the player
playing. See my Analysis of fable.

Translating sympathetic goals to MMORPGs

In GUT, I used an example of an old woman asking for help as a way
to produce a sympathetic goal. While this works to align the
player's goals with the NPCs, it is limited because:

1.  The old woman character can only be used for a few quests. In a
MMORPG, most NPCs hand out only one quest. A few NPCs hand out as
many as five quests before they're "used up". Either the NPC has no
more logical quests left to hand out, or the player's character
becomes so powerful that he no longer frequents the static location
where the NPC stands.

2.  No matter what a player does to help the old woman, she will
always be standing on the street corner soliciting help (from other
players) for her cherry quest. She is too static.

3.  In a problem unique to MMORPGs, other players will also have
completed the woman's quests, which is fine for picking berries, but
problematical for heroic deeds like saving the woman's life. For
one, any NPC whose life needs saving 250 times a day probably isn't
worth rescuing. Second, a player cannot fail to save the woman's
life because that would mean no-one else could undertake the quest
ever again. These limitations weaken the experience, and further
objectify the NPC.

Fable produces its sympathetic goals using a home town, father,
mother, sister, mentor, rival, bandit leader, and arch-villain. All
of these characters, or their memories, re-occur within the game and
produce ties that keep the player completing "just one more quest".

The character archetypes that Fable employs cannot be used in a
MMORPG because:

1.  All of the above reasons.

2.  Players will find it very improbable that each of their
characters grew up in the same town, all had fathers that died, and
sisters that were kidnapped, etc.

3.  When players group together to help each other with quests,
which is one of the reasons why MMORPGs work, they will end up
rescuing the same sister or killing the same villain over and over.

So how can Fable's use of sympathetic goals be accomplished in a

Personal NPCs

Players need to have personal NPCs. Personal NPCs are NPCs that
exist only when players log on, and that are somehow tied to the
player's character.

Personal NPCs already exist in many MMORPGs; they're called
pets. Some obvious archetypes for personal NPCs are:

  - Pets

  - Henchmen

  - Family - Parents, siblings, spouse, children, in-laws, etc.

  - Villains

  - Rivals

  - Followers and fans

  - Mentors, bosses

  - Subordinates

  - Childhood friends

  - Local hoodlums that find ways to annoy the player (not just the
  player's character)

Some less obvious "NPCs" follow: (Their utility will become obvious
later on.)

  - The player character's house

  - Favourite hangouts (pubs) for the player (although this would be
  shared amongst several players)

  - NPC-run organizations that the player is a member of (again,
  shared amongst players)

  - The player character's race.

  - The player character's job and workplace.

  - The player character's home town.

Each archetype should provide several different "flavours" to choose
from... Not all pets should use Lassie's AI and storyline; some are
rescuers, while others are chicken killers. Providing a number of
flavours gives players choice.

In a MMORPG, multiple flavours are especially important, ensuring
that player A's villain is not the same as player B's
villain. Obviously, the two villains will be given different
randomly-generated names and appearances. That's not enough. They
must also be provided different personalities and methods of

Due to real-world development costs, I suspect most archetypes will
have around five flavours, so there's a 20% chance that player A's
villain will be awfully similar to player B's villain. (Maybe both
villains attended the same school of villainy. :-) )

Quests handed out by personal NPCs

In a contemporary MMORPG or CRPG, if a player purchases a pet, the
pet is used as an extension to the player's combat or travel skills,
nothing more.

In real life, if you purchase a pet you get:

  - A companion.

  - A dependent that needs to be fed.

  - Occasional trips to the vet to take care of your sick pet.

  - Neighbours calling you and complaining your pet has gotten into
  their chicken coop.

  - Taking the pet for a walk and meeting new people (who are
  walking their pets).

  - Worried nights when the pet doesn't come home.

  - Puppies when your pet comes home pregnant.

Think of these extras as "quests"...

Personal NPCs are really quest givers. They provide goals for
players. Grunties (pets in the Hack//Sign anime series) will get
sick and need smiling cherries to heal them. Spouses will want to go
on a holiday. Children will need trips to be dropped off at
school. Henchmen will have personal problems of their own that need
solving, with a player's help, of course. Mentors will need supplies
for their magical experiments. Houses will have gutters that fall
off. Etc.

Personal NPCs are great ways to introduce quests because players
have an ongoing relationship with their personal NPCs. A skilled
writer can use the ongoing relationship to either make the player
like the NPCs, or in the case of villains, rivals, and hoodlums,
dislike the NPCs. These relationships create sympathetic goals:

1.  The player (not just the character) wants to complete the quest
because he likes/dislikes the personal NPC.

2.  Even if the player doesn't have any emotional attachment, they
at least want to keep friendly NPC around and eliminate enemy
NPCs. In order to keep the NPC alive/friendly, players need to
complete the quest. For example: If a player spends a lot of time
levelling up and outfitting a henchman, he doesn't want the henchman
to leave in search of the henchman's kidnapped daughter... who may
have been kidnapped by the player's villain. The player will
volunteer to help the henchman more readily than some Joe off the
street with the same quest. Likewise, personal villains need to be
eliminated quickly or they'll just return later with new dastardly

Having personal NPCs hand out quests also provides other benefits:

  - A backstory can be divulged over time and eventually used as the
  basis for a quest. Perhaps a spouse's mother is slightly ill when
  the spouse is first married. Later in the game, the spouse
  receives a letter from their mother, hears that things aren't
  well, and goes to visit. A short time later, the player's
  character is informed that the spouse needs the player to get a
  special herb from a far-off land to heal the spouse's mother.

  - As per the above example, some of the "quests" aren't really
  quests. They're just things that happen, or small anecdotes, such
  as a child's first words.

  - Personal NPCs can interact. The player's villain could be behind
  the mother-in-law's illness.

  - Choices are relevant. If the player doesn't try to save his
  mother-in-law, his spouse will be upset, not only because of her
  mother's death, but also because the player (her husband) didn't
  lifting a finger to help. Ultimately, quest failure might lead to
  divorce, loss of the player's house, etc.

  - Branching is also possible. Successfully rescuing the
  mother-in-law might make for a big party, to which the player's
  friends (other players) are invited. Or, if the player is too slow
  in retrieving the herbs the mother-in-law might be permanently
  paralysed and have to move in with the player and his spouse...

  - Personal NPCs could lead to other personal NPCs, such as spouses
  introducing children or mothers-in-law.

  - Players can work together to help each other with quests given
  by their personal NPCs... "I'll help you rescue (or dispose of)
  your mother-in-law if you help me find my lost dog."

  - Can other players interact with a player's personal NPCs? Could
  player B kill player A's spouse? Take the spouse captive?

Some implementation details

For those of you who are technically minded:

  - Each world could have around 10-20 personal NPC archetypes
  (father, mother, sister, friend, rival, villain, house, etc.) Some
  NPC archetypes are not strictly characters, such as the player's
  house or village.

  - Personal NPCs are loaded from a database when the player's
  character is loaded, and saved to the database when the player's
  character leaves.

  - Archetypes are gradually added to a player's list. A new player
  might begin with parents, siblings, and a mentor. After a few
  hours they might purchase a pet, then acquire friends, and then a
  spouse. Nine (virtual) months after a spouse is married, children
  archetypes are introduced.

  - The player somehow "chooses" his personal NPCs. Obviously, a
  player choses what pet to purchase, what wife/husband to marry,
  who his (character's) mentor will be, where his (character's)
  house will be located, etc. The NPC's description hints at what
  types of quests a player will get (a "sick puppy" for sale will
  probably need medical attention), but the description doesn't
  guarantee that a player gets what they want. Some other
  archetypes, such as rivals and villains, are "chosen" by the
  player based on the player's actions; if you foil the local crime
  syndicate's plan to take over the town, they're not going to like
  you very much.

  - Each archetype has about 5 flavours (sneaky villain,
  string-pulling villain, kidnapping villain, etc.) More would be
  nice, but resources are always limited.

  - Each flavour has 10-20 quests that they hand out over the
  "lifetime" of the NPC's relationship with the player.

  - Some "quests" are just narration designed to enhance the
  emotional tie between the player and his personal NPC... The
  player comes home and is lovingly greeted by his spouse, or once
  in awhile a pet rolls on its belly and begs to be petted.

  - This comes to 500-2000 quests (excluding narration-only
  events). A typical player will only encounter one flavour of each
  archetype for his own character, producing a game of 100-400
  quests, in addition to any quests handed out by shared NPCs (ones
  that aren't personal). However, aiding friends with their own
  personal quests could easily double the number of quests a player

  - Quests are doled out logically. A player's spouse won't hand out
  a new quest until the player next visits their house. If quest B
  must follow quest A, then B won't be handed out until A is
  completed. Some quests will be handed out at the beginning of the
  relationship (such a spouse's desire for a house to live in). If a
  quest doesn't need to occur at a specific time, then it's handed
  out in any order, such as a pet's illness.

  - Quests are spaced out over the expected lifetime of the player's
  relationship with the personal NPC. If the player is expected to
  be married for 20 hours of game play, a spouse will hand out one
  quest (on average) per hour of game play. If a personal NPC
  doesn't "think" it's the right time to hand out a new quest, it
  won't, even if the player just completed a quest for the personal
  NPC and is "asking" for more.

  - Quests will not be handed out if they would overtax the player's
  queue. As a reasonable limit, if a player already has five quests
  in their un-completed list, then personal NPCs won't hand out new
  quests. This is a user-interface design issue to ensure that
  player's don't have so many choices (for what quest to work on
  next) that they're overwhelmed.

  - Each quest involves some narration and a series of sub-games,
  like I described in GUT. Realistically, most quests will fit into
  the typical molds: Slay monster X, acquire item Y, explore land Z,
  or escort NPC A. (Although, more sub-games allow for more
  interesting quests. See Stop the buffet.)

  - Quests also involve choices that affect follow-on quests, the
  personal NPC, other personal NPCs, or the player's
  character. Failure to accept and/or achieve a quest might result
  in the personal NPC leaving the PC, the personal NPC dying,
  further relationship difficulties with the NPC, or even the NPC
  switching archetypes (spouse to villain).

  - Some quests are caused by interactions between personal
  NPCs. Spouses divorce PCs and run away with their pet, while
  villains kidnap spouses. However, a villain can't kidnap a spouse
  if the player's character isn't married.

  - If the "world" realises that two players hang out together,
  their personal NPCs could interact. For example: One player's
  villain might kidnap the other player's mentor.

  - When a player somehow finishes with a personal NPC and seeks a
  new flavour of the archetype, the world should ensure that the new
  flavour isn't the same as the old one. After all, when/if a player
  finally defeats his villain, a new villain should be created. If
  the new one is a clone of the old, all the game's magic is lost.

  - On the whole, players must find it more fun/beneficial to take
  on a personal NPC than not; if a player's virtual spouse is always
  nagging, or their pet always has fleas, players will opt to stay
  single. To weight in their favour, personal NPCs in a
  sword-and-sorcery setting might act as combat companions (pets and
  henchmen), storage (house), extra/saved income (children to cut
  the house's lawn), or provide "mates rates" on goods and services
  (childhood friends).

Another way to think about the implementation

You can think of each NPC as coming loaded with a series of quests
with choices. The choices end up producing a branching narrative
(like a Choose Your Own Adventure book) that's interspersed with
sub-games (like combat or travel).

By producing a system where several NPCs are "assigned" to a
player's character, you have just created a pre-emptive multitasking
system. Or, in literature terms, a threaded storyline. Basically,
players are following several branching narratives concurrently and
can chose which narrative to interact with at any given
point. However, any particular narrative is sparingly doled out over
a long period of time, ensuring that the player doesn't "overdose"
on one personal NPC to the neglect of others.

Ensuring that multiple plots/NPCs are running at once also allows
them to affect one another, such as a childhood friend running off
with the player's spouse.


As I stated earlier, personal NPCs aren't entirely new; many aspects
of what I describe have been around for awhile:

  - An early Infocom game had Floyd the robot, a companion to the
  player, sacrifice itself to save the player's character.

  - In Baldur's Gate, I had two NPC henchmen squabbling with one
  another throughout the game, and eventually come to blows.

  - One of Chris Crawford's games, described in his book, On Game
  Design, included NPC companions that had their own agendas. The
  game even used pre-written text narrations with fill-in-the-blank
  slots for NPC names, a useful approach to the branching narratives
  I described.

  - Pets have been a common feature of MMORPGs, CRPGs, and
  Rogue-like games.

  - David Freeman's book, Creation Emotion in Games, almost touches
  on some of the personal NPC ideas. He seems more interested in
  taking the player on an emotional roller coaster ride than using
  the player's like (or dislike) for NPCs to retain the player's

  - The Sims is largely a pet simulation where the "pets" are
  human. Maybe The Sims Online would have been more successful if it
  had taken the personal NPC approach instead of becoming a chat

Mike Rozak
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