A bawdy tavern – full of NPCs

I’ve been thinking about characters in games a lot more recently, and specifically, the problems with NPC (non-player characters) entities in MMOs.  Your typical MMO features hundreds of characters – quest givers usually – who come and go on an endless conveyorbelt of sob-stories and XP rewards.  It’s hard to care for the 10th, 50th, or 100th NPC mother with a missing son, or someone needing their precious supplies gathered from the bellies of wild animals.  So, with that in mind, here’s my police-suspect-inspired checklist for making a character work in a game.

Means, Motive and Opportunity…

Means – Spare Brain Space

First off – to care for a character, they need to be more than just a two dimensional cutout of a person – they need to, on some level, feel ‘real’ to you.  Now, that doesn’t mean that you go around believing that goblins and space-aliens are as real as you or I – but it does mean that you understand them well enough that you can reasonably predict their behavior.  That you can have a ‘mental model’ of the character in your head to match against things.  However – you can only keep so many mental models in your head at once – probably related to Dunbar’s Number (or Monkey Number).

Thus, to have the Means to care for a character, means you need to have some spare Emotional RAM in your mind – some imaginary slots in your head to fit people – otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed and be unable to see them as a real person with hopes, dreams, pains, and angst.

I believe that you use, and free-up, these brain-slots when you encounter characters in media.  While you watch a movie, you invest in the characters and vicariously feel their wins and losses – but after the movie is over, you can go back to thinking of them as simple characters.

So, to have the Means – you must have some spare Emotional RAM.  I’d say that TV, films, etc. have shown us that people generally have about 7 slots free at any one time.  Have a lot more characters than that, and you may have trouble getting most people to care.

Motive – A Reward for Caring

Secondly, to have the Motive to care, you need to have some reason or benefit.  Now, this doesn’t need to be a benefit in terms of in-game money, mechanical advantages, or loot – after all, most characters in TV and movies aren’t going to reach through the screen and hand you a folded bundle of 20s.  Instead (or in addition) you can think of the emotional rewards that investing in a character can provide.

One example is mentally modelling a character’s behavior, and then testing that theory against events.  If, say, there was a character who had been kidnapped as a child and sent to live with another tribe – and that character is soon to be visiting their original tribe – our mind may start whirling with theories on how the character will react!  Will they feel like they’ve come home?  Will they blame them for not rescuing them.  Will they feel a terrible sense of loss, or will they be glad they were taken away?  A good reaction that shows us a new element of the character, while reinforcing what we already know – is really satisfying!  A particularly simple character, however, will be boring and predictable – there’s no reward to guessing what they’ll do.  An overly random character, or one that we’ve been prevented from learning about, doesn’t give us enough to work with either – and it just feels unpredictable.

Another example, is vicarious experiences.  It’s basic human psychology that when we see people we care about in pain – then we feel a mirror of their pain.  When we see them happy, or triumphant – we also feel a version of those feelings.  It’s why we cry at movies, or roar with the crowd at sports matches.  And experiencing these things is a reward unto itself – we, for the most part, like feeling the emotions of characters in a safe environment.  Thus, it is rewarding to care for characters who are going to go through a satisfying emotional journey – and to feel their journey with them.

The player needs to feel rewarded for their investment in the character – to have a Motive to care.  So ensure that they have reason to do so.

Opportunity – Expectations of Encounters

Lastly, we have Opportunity.  You could write the best character in the world – with incredible voice acting, motion capture – the whole nine yards – and if the player never meets them, then it didn’t matter.  Of course, even if you only meet them once, then you’ve got no chance of making a lasting impression.

Instead, you need to meet them multiple times and most importantly – have a reasonable expectation of meeting them again!  That last bit is important – if you meet them twice (quest gained and quest complete) and wander off, then they’re just another cookie-cutter dude on the conveyor belt.  If you meet a character 5 times, and you know that they’re going to send for you the next time you level (or that they’re at the end of a dungeon) then you have a reason to keep thinking about them.  The Opportunity to become more than just a roadbump.

Together, this isn’t enough, of course – but it provides a quick and easy checklist to measure an NPC against.  If it fails one of the three things, then you’re making things difficult for yourself.

As yourself these questions:

  • Are we overwhelming the player with too many new characters?  (Means)
  • Will the player feel rewarded for giving a damn about this character?  (Motive)
  • Does the player believe they’ll see this character again?  (Opportunity)

Note;  Feeling rewarded is a subjective measure.  Similarly – it doesn’t matter if the player will or will not encounter the character in the future – what matters is that they believe that they will.