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A Casual, Cornered: Why Are NPCs So Robotic?

Columns By Beau Hindman on January 06, 2015

Why Are NPCs So Robotic?

When I play an MMO, I love the feeling of walking through a virtual world. Sure, it’s fun to kill great beasts and to find epic adventure, but in the end I mostly look forward to meeting new virtual people that fill those virtual worlds. The problem is that crafting a living, virtual world is hard. Players generally seem to demand satisfaction in the realm of combat or grind, so crafting realistic NPCs that have a personality is not as important as maybe it once was.


So, how can developers make NPCs more realistic? Here’s some ideas I had that might help create “livelier” NPCs.
First, give them a job to do. NPCs might seem perfectly content to stand around giggling, dishing advice, passing out rumors, repairing gear or giving out the same quest over and over, but have we ever considered that, to them, nothing else would satisfy them more than being able to clock out? NPCs are often referred to as “The Butcher” or “The Blacksmith” but how is it possible for them to chop wood or cook food all day long with no rest?

I say we allow NPCs to stop working for part of the day. Just have them sit down, or go to the local tavern or even have a bite to eat! Have you ever viewed a baker who actually tries her wares while on break? Nope. Goodness knows these poor souls are burned out but are keeping up appearances for fear of being patched out of the game. It’s pathetic.

Second, let them take a rest. I say we let NPCs go to sleep for a bit. They can turn around, set down their tools, walk into their pathetic hut (with no door, much of the time) and lay down to sleep. They close their eyes and cannot be woken up by any player, even if a quest needs turning in. Since when were we more worried about irking a handful of questing players over those of us who want a more immersive game?

Developers need to give their NPCs a way to sleep, even if for a little while. It happens in some games already, so why not in most MMOs? I’ll bet the reason stems from the “But what about players who have a short time to play and they go to the NPC to do something and the NPC is asleep and we can’t have that and..” school of thought.

Next, make them part of the story. Normally, it’s not hard to find NPCs that are part of the lore of the game, but these NPCs are often the heroes, leaders and untouchable personalities that we look up at as they rule. I want to see Genny the Shopkeeper in the desert one day. I go up to her and it turns out that she is the undercover agent, and she has the next step of my quest.

Or, better yet, let Genny remain a humble shopkeeper who decides to break away from the confines of keeping shop so that she might find adventure! After all, it worked for us, why isn’t it good enough for Genny? Let her rise up and become something bigger or more powerful.

Following that, we should allow NPCs to them change their look. After all, many of these NPCs are standing around all year long. Why aren’t they outfitting themselves for different weather types or, if the game or zone doesn’t offer variable weather, how about we let the NPCs switch clothes because that’s what the players do and, well, wouldn’t those NPCs smell something awful?

Unfortunately, changing clothes sort of pulls attention to the fact that many of the same NPCs stand in the same spot – think about it; literally the same square foot of ground – sometimes for years, through nightfall and rain. That means they would probably need to change into pajamas at night, but would need to then lie down for a nap and… well, you get where I am going.

Last, let’s give NPCs a spot of drama. As it is now, NPCs are often happy folk, more than excited to sell some crappy tin cup or to buy (literally) pocket lint from players. Do these NPCs have anything bad happen to them, ever? Sure, we’ll occasionally see some soldier who whines because he just came back from the front lines (the lines you happen to be on your way to visit!) or we’ll meet an NPC that goes through a /cry emote while describing her lost horse, but we need some real drama to make those NPCs stick out.

Why don’t NPCs die? Heck, it wouldn’t be hard (I am a part-time game dev so I can say that without sounding like an armchair designer) to make an older NPC get replaced with a younger version every once in a while. Change the story a bit and BAM! you have a new generation of NPC. I would even be willing to sacrifice the sheer number of NPCs for a smaller number of more realized NPCs, ones with complete backstories and dramas.

We stare at these NPCs all day. Heck, there are some MMOs that I can log into, go to a particular location and stare at the exact same NPC – in the same clothes – that has been there for literally over a decade. Why aren’t more developers attempting to create realistic NPCs?

I would wager that it’s a matter of team size versus project importance. If an MMO is mostly geared towards grinders or level-chasers, why spend valuable developer time on crafting realistic NPCs?

Still, I’d like to see it. I’ll gladly hang out with an NPC, provided they can hold my attention. As it is now, most NPCs I find do not have that ability.

Beau Hindman / Beau is a writer, artist, PR/CM, game designer and pro moderator, and he's been blogging since 2002. He lives it up in Austin, Texas with his community manager wife. He's also the author of Anna the Powerful, a sci-fi book about the world's only superhero. Buy it here: