Monday, March 30, 2015

RPG Characters: The Obsidian Method

I played some of Obsidian's new game: Pillars of Eternity. Obviously, I haven't finished it. I only spent about 40 hours on it.

It's good, but I'd like to talk about design a bit. I am vaguely creating an RPG engine, so it's good to think about these things, have tools ready to help people do them.

So let's talk about the Obsidian NPC method, AKA the Bioware NPC method. I first ran into it in KotOR, so it's Obsidian's method to me. It was also used in Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and of course, Pillars of Eternity.

This is a very polished formula, and if you follow it, you'll produce good results. That said, it's not applicable everywhere and has its flaws. Well, let's learn it!

Step 1: Pick stereotypes
Your characters are based on stereotypes. You want to pick a variety, because every player will have different preferences and therefore feel happy with certain stereotypes and annoyed by others.

For example, in Mass Effect, Liara is the sexy nerd stereotype, Ashley is the no-nonsense career woman stereotype, Kaiden is the earnest man, Garrus is the brash man, Tali is young Romani, Wrex is the jaded warrior.

The stereotypes can be quite niche ("young Romani" is a pretty rare one, as is "fast-talking uber-nerd"), but they're still stereotypes.

Step 2: Pick facets
Each character has two things that they explain about the universe. Normally, one of these things is their species or culture, and the other is how their job is related to how the universe works. These should hopefully gel well with their stereotypes.

For example, Liara embodies her species (sexy) and the search for the precursors (nerd). Garrus embodies his species (manly) and the lawlessness of the Spectres (brash). Wrex embodies his species (jaded warrior) and explains the non-earth, non-citadel militaries (jaded warror). Ashley embodies earth military but also the racism endemic to the earth military. Etc.

The characters serve as windows, introducing the player to their concepts and, in turn, the concepts that make the universe tick. As the game progresses, they will continue to weigh in on these topics and offer side quests related to them.

It can be difficult to balance these facets. Liara represents her species, and her species is a constant background hum to the game, popping up frequently. So that's a good facet. But her other facet - investigating the precursors - is not a good choice. The precursors aren't ambient noise and don't pop up a lot in the course of play. Instead, they are critical plot points. That means she has to do a lot of exposition and cannot really express herself as a character.

Tali is a really good combination. Her species aren't as common as Liara's, but she has a lot to say about them and it strongly affects her design, so they are present through her. It also supports her being able to comment on the opulence of your civilization. Her second facet of Geth obsession seems like it'd run its course and stop, but it segues nicely into her having things to say about the Reapers as a whole. It also supports her having things to say about technologies in general. She is rarely required to be exposition, because the things she has to say are rarely required to understand the situation. So she is free to comment from her personal standpoint, which makes her seem alive.

Looking at KotOR characters, you can see the same kinds of designs. The Force-sensitive characters have things to say about the nature of the Force instead of their species, and it works pretty well.

Step 3: Audiovisual Design
Each character needs to have a distinct audiovisual design which makes their character unique and appealing while reinforcing their stereotype. If they are another species, then their species design needs to also support their stereotype.

Visual design is important, of course. Color and costume shouldn't be overlooked, either. Audio is often overlooked, but it shouldn't be: Garrus and Tali were popular largely because of their modulated voices and memorable voice acting.

The problem with the first Mass Effect game was that 99% of the unique design came from the species rather than the characters. This really showed in the human characters, which were so blandly designed that nobody could remember them.

In the later games, the human characters were designed to be a bit more memorable - largely through costume choices. It's tough. You get a stark breadth of possibility when you're using different species. Trying to distinguish within a species is always going to be more difficult.

Step 4: Integration into Game World
In order for the NPC to be memorable, they have to make an impact on the player's mind. The best time to do this is during their intro segment - they will typically join up during a particular mission and you will be more or less forced to use them until the mission is complete. During this time, they need to shine.

After that time, it can be difficult to guarantee that they will be in the player's party. If they are in the player's party, they are going to be able to comment on things - even just simple shouting during combat can make a big impression. But if they aren't in the player's party, they might tend to fade out of the player's mind pretty quick.

Performing "impact in absentia" is therefore very important. The way to do this is to have the facets the character represents keep coming up. The player will remember that the representative character exists, and perhaps switch them in so they can get their ambient opinion on things. You can also have them call in with comments, or even be hanging out in the game world when they aren't in your party.

You can also force or strongly insist the player take specific characters - for example, if you go to Wrex's homeworld, taking Wrex just makes sense.

Ongoing updates/unfolding backstory are also a good way to do this. Chatting in the safe zone, getting quests, unlocking new costumes or powers, pursuing a relationship, etc. Just keep in mind that if a character isn't in the party, the player probably doesn't like them very much, so you have to write with that possibility in mind.

Note: Things Not Included

A lot of typical character design concerns are simply not important in this scaffold.

First off, you don't have to worry about character arcs.

The player is probably going to want to earn the NPC's trust and allegiance. This is normally done through some dialog options and side quests, and while you can make that a character arc, it's not necessary. The character's important change is in how they interact with the player, not what their fundamental personality is. If you do decide to make it a character arc, be careful not to alienate the player with the "before" half of the arc, as with "Ashley the Space Racist".

Second, you don't have to worry about softening or hardening their stereotype.

They are integrated into the world through their facets, so they should feel like they exist already. Their personality should feel like it naturally arises from their situation, so you don't need to go out of your way to alter their personality. The stereotype will soften naturally because of the nature of the structure.

Conversely, don't try to play up their stereotype. Liara and Tali are borderline offensive stereotypes, and if either one had been played up even an inch, it would have been obnoxious. Because their personalities seemed to flow from their situation and didn't feel forced, they were largely accepted.

If a character seems iffy when you don't try to adjust them, their core stereotype is probably bad. Don't use it at all. Don't try to "soften" an offensive or ill-fitting stereotype. Just don't use it.

The Numbers Game
As you might guess, not all characters appeal to everyone. Because of this, there is one last piece of the puzzle: having the right number of characters.

The Obsidian/Bioware approach is to have 5-7 NPCs, but only have a party of three people total. That is, two NPCs. You need to choose two out of the seven.

This percentage is good: there are going to be two stereotypes you can generally get along with. But there are also going to be at least that many that the player can't stand, because they hit sore spots. And then the rest will probably strike them as too bland to bother with.

You need to carefully balance your combat/skills to allow for flexibility. If the player ever feels forced to take a specific NPC due to a skill or combat role requirement, they're going to be annoyed. Being forced to take an NPC because the NPC is actually involved in the situation is a lot less obnoxious.

Fundamentally, playing the numbers game is actually a numbers game: you need to be sure that every given player will feel comfortable and happy with at least two of the characters, and not so offended by any of them that they stop playing immediately.

This shouldn't be considered "weakening your vision". Considering your characters from a variety of diverse viewpoints is pretty reasonable, and the result should feel like your universe is full of people with a lot of different viewpoints.

IE, realistic.

Final Thoughts
This NPC method is not always the best. There are a lot of times this fails. In fact, I think it fails in the new Obsidian game. But it's worth understanding and it's a pretty good formula if you don't know where to start.


Tom Hudson said...

Why do you think it fails in Pillars of Eternity? (I'm not as far in as you, but certainly have a few early misgivings...)

As far as character stereotypes being offensive, I think that's a large part of why they allow you to create your own faceless minions?

Craig Perko said...

The big flaw is simply that the numbers game doesn't work out. You need to like 5 of the NPCs, and there are tremendous combat pressures that force you to take a lot of the ones you don't like.

However, the way you can create your own characters also shines a light on one of the biggest limitations in this approach. Creating your own characters forces you to miss out on so much of the game!

I don't think Pillars of Eternity has bad NPCs. I just don't think it's served well by this approach.

Tom Hudson said...

OK, sounds like that's confirming my misgivings. Unfortunate.

(As of late Act I, I've only found 5 companions, so am using all of them to fill out my party. My main character is the same class as Kana, and having both of them in the party seems redundant. However, I want to explore his sidequests, so I haven't dropped him for something more directly useful - I'm guessing another front-line combatant, since I'm throwing both him and Durance in alongside Eder. I'm revolting at the idea of parking him at home and micromanaging side adventures to keep him caught up in level with the rest of us for the times I do want to dive into the Endless Paths.)

Craig Perko said...

It looks like characters gain levels at the same rate whether they're in the party or not. At least, they always seem to in my game.