Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Characters that feel like Characters

I'm trying to trim this down to readability...

There are more and more games that try for an open world with some level of social play. Fable II, for example, lets you do any pose to anyone. But though the world has many NPCs in it, none of them feel like a character. They all feel like cardboard cut-outs.

There's something to be said for better play involving characters. In fact, I've said tons on the subject myself. So I'll skip that stuff.

I've come to believe that's only half the issue. I think the other half lies in how you interact with the character.

Most games of this sort give you generic interaction options that can be pointed at any character. For example, in Fable II you can "dance" at anyone, you can "yell" at anyone, etc. Other games featuring open-world (or character-gen) social systems use the same idea, although they often use a different set of generics. Even I have, in the past, done this for nearly all of my prototypes.

But I think that's the flaw. I think that's the big flaw.

The idea behind it is that the characters will react to your generic action in a specific way, showing off their personality. But that's a crippled framework because it depends on the generic message. It's a reply to a generic comment. It's like this: you want to get a feel for how interesting a photograph is. But you're only allowed to ask a few specific questions: how big is it? How red is it? Is there a person in it?

Even if the photo is very interesting, you'll be hard-pressed to tell because your questions are so shaky. And if you have enough generic, pre-defined questions to tell you, then you have thousands of generic questions, 99.9% of which are useless in any given situation.

Social gameplay is the same way. Even if the character is interesting, you won't see that in how they respond to your thumbs-up or your yell. You can't really get to know a character because your AVATAR can't get to know the character. Your avatar's behavior doesn't change to be more specific to the character.

What if it did?

Let's pretend that instead of generic responses like thumbs-up and laugh and so forth, we have four "social action slots". The slots are filled by the places where your character's personality, the other character's personality, and your relationship collide.

The idea is that there could be hundreds, thousands, even billions of potential interactions that could be loaded up. They could be built out of sub-interactions, for example, or even made with a numeric scale involved.

A simple example is a hug. If you can hug someone in a game, they use the same animation no matter who you're hugging. But you hug people very, very differently depending on your relationship, your current mood, etc. And they hug you back (or punch you in the nose) very, very differently. Not just big differences like bum-grabbing or carefully maintaining inches of air between you, but small differences like how long they hesitate before returning your hug, exactly where on your back their hands fall, etc.

Calling it a "hug" is a crime caused by the limitations of our language. There are a billion different kinds of hugs. Instead of trying to make a big list of them, it would be much better to create a hug generating system.


I should stress that this is not an always-on thing. You cannot simply walk up to anyone and hug them. You only get the option to when your avatar thinks a hug would be appropriate (or, well, whenever he wants to).

This is a breach of common game design philosophy. We've grown very used to the idea that the player should be permitted to do any legal action at any time. If you take away a player's ability to jump "because his character doesn't feel like it", the players will probably crucify you.

This is really no different, and I expect the players would be irritated that they can't simply choose to try to hug (or whatever) their favorite character whenever they like. However, if it's built fairly transparently, getting that option would be one of the fun gameplay challenges.

But, as with all this week, this relies heavily on the player's avatar having a personality.

What do you think?


Ellipsis said...

I agree that this would be more interesting than what you have in, say, Fable, but at some point you need to consider the costs and benefits. I mean, the time you spent making an elaborate hug generation system could have been spent on something else, and really, how long is the player going to spend studying the nuances of the hug NPC X just gave him?

But limiting your options to the ones that seem appropriate for you character and the situation could work. The truth is that even though the philosophy of open world games is to let the user do anything, they really still are strongly limited, and some of the open-ended elements don't accomplish much (like the fact that I can spend hours customizing my face in Fallout 3...only to never see my face again). So removing options for a principled reason doesn't seem like a problem to me.

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, I was just taking it to it's (illogical) conclusion. In a "real" implementation, I would probably have two or three kinds of hugs, along with three or four kinds of waves, etc.

Greg Tannahill said...

Is it possible that the sin of shallow interaction isn't the sin of it being shallow, but the sin of it being unfocused? Rather than a broad set of shallow interactions, shouldn't there be a set of specific interactions entirely focused on the particular gameplay being offered?

For instance, Fable 2 couldn't decide if it was an RPG, a social sim, or a hack-and-slash action game, and it suffered from trying to be all three. And then it had interactions (fart, belch) which really added nothing to any of those three gameplay areas.

Surely thousands of different hug interactions would only be something it was desireable to add in a game that was entirely focused on building relationships with a small number of individuals? It's something that The Sims would benefit from enormously but would have ultimately added little to Fable 2.

It's the same way that rag-doll dismemberment physics are a great idea for Dead Space, but would be a huge waste of time in (to return to my example) The Sims.

Or another example: we can scrutinise the minutiae of our economy in a 4X game that prioritises economic management, but we don't need to see an annual budget in Fable 2.

Detail is created by the lens of gameplay, and the real sin is having too much detail where the player doesn't need it or too little where they do.

Craig Perko said...

That's definitely true, but it would be nice to see some games with decent social gameplay.

Patrick said...

We talked about this years ago in Chris Crawford´s back yard, the Facade guys were saying you should have a consistent verb set, you can kiss, hug, walk around, and say things that boil down to thirty or so semantic verbs at any time. They might not amount to anything, (in practice, they didn´t very often at all) but so it was. Chris was saying, per Storytron, you have to constrain verb options to only a handful at any given time. I suggested that maybe inconsistent verbs were ok as long as they´re consistently inconsistent, which is what you´re on about personality, right?

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, although I don't like the idea of thinking about them as verbs. That's a limitation that will bite back later.

Tom Hudson said...

I'd like to spend a while thinking about your However, if it's built fairly transparently, getting that option would be one of the fun gameplay challenges.

That transparency seems like a tricky design issue, to me. I'd think it requires exposing a very explicit model of the relationship to the player; in order to visualize it, we probably need to keep it to only a couple of dimensions, and then give them some idea of "Well, I can hug when I'm in this quadrant, and so I need to figure out which actions will move me in the direction of that quadrant." This really mechanizes the relationship, but it may be an affordable way to build lots of character interaction in, with a richer model than Oblivion or Fable II.

Since I regularly grumble about dialog trees having either completely predictable or completely unpredictable results, maybe I should be happy with this kind of explicit model.

Craig Perko said...

I don't know where the sweet spot is between transparency and feeling like real social interaction. I think it will probably shift as people get used to the idea...

The basic problem is that you don't want to reduce the situation to a tactical one, because then the socializing feels less like socializing. Each game would have to decide exactly where it lies on that spectrum on its own.

maria v. said...

hey craig! i just dropped in from shawna's blog while surfing aimlessly. this is an interesting post -- i was actually thinking about something like this a few days ago while playing world of warcraft. it would be great to have some nuance in emotes--even in context it's can be aggravatingly difficult to figure out what people really mean in-game (without having to resort to voice chat, which i hate).

Craig Perko said...

I'm not sure that's possible without having your avatars have a specific personality, though. It's too varied, too many details for a player to do on the fly with only a keyboard and mouse.