Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Addenda to For the Win review

In my review of For the Win a couple of weeks back, I suggested that there was something about Doctorow's description of online  games which felt off, but I couldn't pin it down. After some thought, I think I've isolated at least part of my problem.  Doctorow (and Stross, too - who I referenced) describe a situation which seems to be central to his plot, but which never happens in the games that I've played.  He describes players interacting with the NPCs (non-player characters) in games; having conversations with them. Because the player might ask questions that the NPC is not programed to respond to, this necessitates a hired player to monitor NPC interactions and provide dialogue which suits the questions being asked by the player. These behind the scenes players are paid for their services, and they end up getting recruited into the union (the IWWWW - International Workers of the World Wide Web) which is central to the story. The only problem is, players, as far as I've been able to see, never interact with NPCs that way. When you speak to an NPC, you have a few, often only one, pre-scripted responses. Generally, it is possible to arrive at the desired end point of the conversation (usually either the quest that you are trying to begin, or the mercantile interaction you are attempting to engage in) regardless of which of the pre-scripted responses you offer. There is certainly no free interface between players and NPCs.[1] Indeed, I think it likely that the AI is not sufficient, at this point, to allow for such a free interface, wherein the player types in something and the NPC responds. The only situations where I've seen such an interface being used are in novelty advertising ploys, where the AI attempts to simulate conversation while constantly cycling back to the central sales pitch. Those conversations are easy to subvert, and there's only one NPC involved. MMOs have literally thousands of NPCs - being able to have even semi-coherent conversations with them strikes me as unrealistic, given today's computers. So, if Doctorow (and Stross) are writing predictively, perhaps the role playing elements of MMO RPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) will improve over the next decade or so. But I'm not holding my breath.

[1] since the release of Baldur's Gate, and probably before, there has been considerable complaint among the table top, or Pen and Paper (PnP) community - those of us who play RPGs with other live human beings - that NPC interactions have started to sound pre-scripted, even at the table. Partly, this may have something to do with the players expecting to get to the meat of the game (wherein that constitutes killing monsters) more quickly - this seems to be most true in games like Dungeons and Dragons, where killing monsters does constitute the meat.
There are other responses, however. Games where very few NPCs exist are not new - Live Action Role Playing (LARP) tends to replace the NPCs, handled by the Gamemaster (GM), with a horde of players. There, the interaction between players is the meat, and the GM generally acts as a coordinator and judge of rules.  I've also seen the development of games where NPC interaction IS the meat of the game, and where combat tends to be a minor consideration.