My brain won't stop...
I was thinking about what I posted yesterday, and I decided to think in the exact opposite direction. Think about this: fun gameplay doesn't necessarily come from complex enemies.
In a game, any enemy - even a boss - is actually pretty straightforward. But they are only a part of the whole situation. In addition to the boss, there is the terrain, what resources the player has, how exacting the skill challenge is (which has nothing to do with the boss himself). Sometimes, these get really blurry. In Shadow of the Colossus, the enemies are also the terrain and a big chunk of the exact skill challenge.
But the idea holds: in most games, the interesting fight is not necessarily against an interesting enemy. A lot of the time, really interesting things can be based on really simple, almost boring components.
Along the same lines, if we're thinking about a game where socializing with NPCs is a major factor, maybe we shouldn't be thinking about how to make the NPCs more interesting and deep. Instead, maybe we should be thinking about the other factors that can make the relationship system interesting to play.
There's always the idea of totally abstracting it out. Turn it into a match-3 puzzle, or a driving game, or something else that has absolutely nothing to do with socializing. That works to an extent, but you're still looking at rewards for playing. In essence, you've made the relationship complicated to use, but it's still a very simple relationship: do X to get Y reward.
I'm trying to avoid that. I'm trying to make it so that there's a point to the socializing itself, in the same way that shooting things in an FPS is the point of the game. You don't shoot things because you get a better gun later. You shoot things, and sometimes you get a better gun. The shooting is the fun part, the rewards are just to add additional spice.
The same is true of every kind of game. The fighting and leveling in an RPG is usually fun on its own, without any of the "do X get Y" rewards such as advancing plot, new characters, or weird new equipment.
The basic loop I'm talking about is the test - accumulate - test - accumulate loop. Just shooting bad guys is only interesting because of the way your experience as a player accumulates, the way your health slowly degenerates, and so forth. When you run across the fiftieth fight, you really appreciate the cleverness of the game designer, who has made this fight still feel new and interesting, building off of everything you've learned and done. Nearly every game works the same way.
But relationship gameplay doesn't. Every relationship game I've ever played is test - test - test - test - lump reward. There's no accumulation of value. It's just a series of win/lose challenges with some kind of stupid reward at the end, like playing Chutes and Ladders. That reward may help with another kind of game play, but it never has any effect on the continued relationship games. It's just... test-test-test-test-test-test-interrupt-test-test-test...
What would be interesting is to make socializing a... tactically complete part of your breakfast. While the characters themselves can remain fairly uninteresting - no need for advanced AI or topical drama engines - the situation should be such that it is interesting to play, and there is accumulation after each bit.
You could still use completely abstract gameplay - in fact, it would probably be easier. So let's go with an old-fashioned deck of cards. Each character has their own deck of cards... but the decks are not even. This is because of how the game is played. Everyone starts with a full deck...
To begin socializing, you draw five cards off your shuffled deck. Both players pick a card from their hand and reveal simultaneously... this first card is the wager. At the end of the fight, you will get your wager back. It is all you are guaranteed to get back. To win the conflict, you need to win the number of hands as the value of your wager card. If you wager a 2, you need to win 2 hands. If you wager a king, you need to win 13 hands.
The person with the lower wager puts down a card, face up. His opponent then puts down a valid card on top of it, face up. Your hand should always be four: draw when you play. If you're out of cards, you'll have to make do without drawing.
The hand is considered "won" when the other player cannot play a valid card (or refuses to play). Valid cards follow this rule:
You can play a card one higher of any suit. So you can play a 9H on a 8D. Aces can be played on kings. You may not play 2s on aces: this isn't circular.
You can play any card of a dominant suit. Suites are D->H->S->C->D. So that 8D could have a 3C played on it, but not a 3D or a 3H.
You may play an ace of a dominant suit, which automatically wins the hand. So that 8D could have an AC played on it, and you would flat-out win.
Lastly, you may play a joker, in which case you automatically lose the hand. However, it changes what happens, as I'll explain in a moment.
The loser gives his four cards to the winner, who has to shuffle them into his deck (he may see them). The loser then picks the top card and three cards of his choice from the stack. (If there aren't four cards in the stack, he takes them all and draws from his deck to four.) The remaining cards are put to the side - they have become "the pot".
If you lost by joker, you still give your four over, but instead of taking from the stack, you take your enemy's four, and the whole stack goes to the pot.
Once someone wins their requisite number of hands, they get the pot and add it to their deck. Deck maximum size is 60, so if they are over the limit, they must give cards to the loser to get themselves down to 60. They may give any cards they choose.
If both players run out of cards, the pot is split between them randomly and everyone walks away. (If one player runs out of cards, he can expect to lose a lot of hands!)
This card game has very strange dynamics, because this isn't a card game that ends and restarts, like Poker. Instead, the cards themselves are long-term cash.
While winning the pot is extremely valuable, strategically losing hands is also valuable. You can foist the crap in your hand off on an enemy while claiming four really great cards from the stack. There is an element of luck, but there is also a lot of skill involved, especially in your initial bid. If you bid a king, you'll need to win 13 hands, basically an impossible number unless you can run your enemy dry and force him to lose hand after hand...
Lastly, when the game is over and you are deciding which cards to give back to get yourself down to a deck size of 60, bargaining is perfectly acceptable, and is where most of the real-world social side effects happen. If you run someone dry, it's perfectly possible for you to give them 48 cards of total suck, basically dooming them forever. They're usually quite willing to do something for you in order to get a more reasonable deck from you. Also, cards can be traded at will outside the game, so there is often bargaining in general.
This is a very confrontational setup. While people can form teams, most of the "socialization" is zero sum.
What kind of setup would you use for a less unfriendly socialization system?