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Creating empathy for characters in a sandbox game

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Are there any techniques for fostering a connection between the player and their character in an open-world, sandbox game where missions and secondary characters are procedurally generated? I'm currently working on a game where missions/tasks and characters are procedurally generated. This question could apply equally to most games of this type, but my particular idea is based around an Escape Velocity/Star Control type space simulation/RPG with fewer realistic constraints (Newtonian physics and realistic spatial scale) and more emphasis on arcade-style action. The dominance of various factions in space is basically modelled on a grid with a sort of reaction-diffusion system. Where two factions occupy the same part of space, various mission types become available which, in some sense, allow role-playing by providing several methods for dealing with the conflict between the two factions:
  • Aggressive/attack missions - A friendly faction asks you to take out high-profile enemy forces while under their faction's banner. This weakens the enemy faction and increases animosity between the factions
  • Sabotage/infiltration missions - A friendly faction asks you to secretly weaken enemy forces. The enemy is weakened, but animosity between the factions doesn't change
  • Diplomacy missions - Usually escort/delivery type missions, or destroying pirates or some other common enemy. Neither faction changes strength, animosity is decreased and factions may eventually become allies or reach a cease-fire
  • False-flag/"shit stirring" missions - Missions which encourage war between otherwise peaceful factions
... and so on You can see how these choices allow different play-styles, with the latter types geared towards long-term reward (diplomacy may create trade opportunities at a later date, while encouraging war allows you to profit at the expense of both factions e.g. by driving up prices). Also, the first two mission types have only local effects on faction strength, while faction alignment effects are global. NPCs are introduced as a kind of random encounter where they offer the player a mission (the player might come across a trader being chased by pirates, for example). From this point, they become persistent (Their name, home location, alignment etc is saved) and may be randomly encountered again around commonly visited ports to offer new missions (mission blurb templates allow the NPC to refer to past events, hopefully creating some connection for the player, although there is no real impact on the gameplay or missions that they will offer). While I am happy with the amount of freedom and sense of continuity this system can provide (as well as implementation feasibility), I feel that it is rather "cold" - NPCs have some details of their past and personality expounded through the missions they offer and words they use and references they make in mission blurbs, but the "character" of the protagonist isn't really expressed beyond the actions the player chooses to make. Contrast this with something like Mass Effect where not only Shepard's actions, but his attitude and demeanor when making them, help create a better impression of his personality and I believe a much stronger connection for the player. Although player choice and role-playing are important, I like the way that Mass Effect writers still craft a fairly well-defined personality for Shepard through the specific dialogue used. Does anybody have any ideas regarding how to foster a greater sense of the "personality" of the main character beyond the broad decisions (attack/infiltrate/fight for peace/cause trouble) that the player makes? I would prefer solutions which are relatively computationally cheap (like the mechanics I've described above) or can create the illusion of much more depth to the game universe than is actually there. Thanks for any replies.

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There are no hard rules about it, usually they give the characters unique voices and character design, to make them stand out, but that's alot of work (content wise).

A simple technique is to have a personalized avatar (in the form of say a head portrait) which appears when dialog occurs, and this head portrait can reflect subtle changes in the main character or NPC (such as being beaten up, turning evil/good, character growth, or perhaps even what their class/profession is).

Another technique is to create/unlock situations/skills/items which are only available through a particular character path. This serves to reinforce the players outcome to the choices which they've made. These could be special missions, unique random encounters, or items which can be only used by that particular character path.

Also you can subtly reinforce this through NPC reaction to the player, such as NPC reacting favorable or negatively to particular character path or moving away/toward the NPC as they approach etc..

Good Luck!

-ddn

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Thanks for the response ddn.

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Original post by ddn3
There are no hard rules about it, usually they give the characters unique voices and character design, to make them stand out, but that's alot of work (content wise).


This is really the crux of my problem. I'm trying to rely on procedural content and build as little as I have to manually - this is mostly because I simply don't have the time or resources to flesh out these sort of things myself.

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Original post by ddn3
...have a personalized avatar (in the form of say a head portrait) which appears when dialog occurs, and this head portrait can reflect subtle changes in the main character or NPC...


I like this idea and it hadn't really occurred to me as I've been so wrapped up with the implementation of grander concepts like mission generation that I've neglected things like this - little details which give a sense of character as well as overall polish to the game.

Dialog isn't something I've thought about in too much detail either - at first I simply imagined accepting or rejecting missions (with most real choices made during gameplay e.g. firing on somebody you are escorting and stealing their cargo). I think writing dialog for the main character beyond "Yes" and "No" responses is the most basic and probably efficient way to explore their personality. The problem I face then is implementing some sort of procedural conversation system with branching (which quite frankly scares me!) as well as creating enough responses that the player doesn't keep seeing the same ones repeatedly (which in a way can be more jarring for the player than simply providing yes/no responses and allowing them to fill in the gaps in their imagination).

I'm considering adding a few fixed story missions, which would allow me to write some proper dialog - the problem then becomes that there are 10 conversations in the game and the other 99.9% of missions which are procedurally generated work in a different way with a one-sided proposal from the NPC and a yes/no response from the player.


Quote:
Original post by ddn3
Another technique is to create/unlock situations/skills/items which are only available through a particular character path. This serves to reinforce the players outcome to the choices which they've made. These could be special missions, unique random encounters, or items which can be only used by that particular character path.

Also you can subtly reinforce this through NPC reaction to the player, such as NPC reacting favorable or negatively to particular character path or moving away/toward the NPC as they approach etc..


Excellent. I'd love to include something like this, probably more for the gameplay variety it offers than for any depth it adds to your character. I can imagine missions which would only be offered to a generally "honest" player, as well as conspiracies a more underhanded player might become involved in.

I suppose the main example of NPC reaction to the player is the behaviour of security/police vessels around the player - they might skip a cargo scan of a heroic player, or avoid a feared and respected player entirely.

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Original post by ddn3
Good Luck!


Thanks for the advice and encouragement.

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Original post by WavyVirus
The problem I face then is implementing some sort of procedural conversation system with branching (which quite frankly scares me!) as well as creating enough responses that the player doesn't keep seeing the same ones repeatedly (which in a way can be more jarring for the player than simply providing yes/no responses and allowing them to fill in the gaps in their imagination).


What about a half-way measure? Create enough templates for conversation text and then vary the responses themselves within the limits of what makes sense.

Let's say you have a hostile response from an NPC. You're not trying to pass the Turing Test, so you just need to store variants in dialog for similar canned responses. Here's an example I've just started experimenting with:
"We [don't like|don't care for|don't appreciate|don't take kindly to] [your kind|[[people|folks|individuals] like you]] [in this town|in these parts|around here|in this place][, pal||, mister|, bub|, son|, boy|, kid][!|.]"

Everything inside [] is basically a list of possibilities separated by a logical or symbol. Nesting allows for greater control in terms of creating specific variety at specific points, like possibly ending the conversation with a diminutive or colloquialism. You could blend in things like insults, honorifics or titles (deferential or sarcastic) as an added touch.

And although there's probably little difference between this and writing out a ton of sentences, this has the minor advantage of not FEELING like you're writing out a ton of sentences.


Quote:

I'm considering adding a few fixed story missions, which would allow me to write some proper dialog - the problem then becomes that there are 10 conversations in the game and the other 99.9% of missions which are procedurally generated work in a different way with a one-sided proposal from the NPC and a yes/no response from the player.


This is true but consider the approach of other similar games like the old venerable Starflight. Communication in that game served to deliver the flavor of the world (I still laugh remembering one alien describe another race as "not even tasting good, the squishy things..." which told me everything I needed to know about them.)

Maybe you could set of an expectation of limited dialog by using story and interactivity conventions: Perhaps you rightly only expect to talk to a few characters because you're part of some select group, like the Rangers or Illuminati (or they're hounding you to be). In keeping with a procedural universe, maybe they've got insight you need and therefore act as wells of dramatic meaning scattered throughout the game universe. In some ways you might make them literal wells, giving them services or functions no other NPC can provide. This way the player doesn't expect the world to be full of gabbling characters-- in fact maybe he's supposed to avoid getting in to deep with anyone!

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Thanks for the response Wavinator - I must say that I have been following your posts for a while and some have definitely provided inspiration for certain aspects of my own game.

Quote:
Original post by Wavinator
What about a half-way measure? Create enough templates for conversation text and then vary the responses themselves within the limits of what makes sense.

Let's say you have a hostile response from an NPC. You're not trying to pass the Turing Test, so you just need to store variants in dialog for similar canned responses. Here's an example I've just started experimenting with:
"We [don't like|don't care for|don't appreciate|don't take kindly to] [your kind|[[people|folks|individuals] like you]] [in this town|in these parts|around here|in this place][, pal||, mister|, bub|, son|, boy|, kid][!|.]"

Everything inside [] is basically a list of possibilities separated by a logical or symbol. Nesting allows for greater control in terms of creating specific variety at specific points, like possibly ending the conversation with a diminutive or colloquialism. You could blend in things like insults, honorifics or titles (deferential or sarcastic) as an added touch.


Actually, this is pretty much how my current system for generating mission "blurb" text works. There is also a higher level in the hierarchy this creates where entire templates for mission types (e.g. fetch, kill, courier, escort missions) can be switched out for various alternative wordings. Also, certain things can be randomly selected once and then referred to repeatedly during the mission (e.g. an item may need to be delivered to an NPCs [mother | boss | commander]) - this choice becomes persistent for the duration of the mission.

I hadn't really thought about doing this for player responses. I suppose it might be enough to have "yes", "grudgingly yes", "no" and "hell no!" responses to each quest proposal. I have previously been worried about making this fit in the context of the mission, but perhaps these responses can be general enough to be universally applicable.


Quote:

This is true but consider the approach of other similar games like the old venerable Starflight. Communication in that game served to deliver the flavor of the world (I still laugh remembering one alien describe another race as "not even tasting good, the squishy things..." which told me everything I needed to know about them.)

Maybe you could set of an expectation of limited dialog by using story and interactivity conventions: Perhaps you rightly only expect to talk to a few characters because you're part of some select group, like the Rangers or Illuminati (or they're hounding you to be). In keeping with a procedural universe, maybe they've got insight you need and therefore act as wells of dramatic meaning scattered throughout the game universe. In some ways you might make them literal wells, giving them services or functions no other NPC can provide. This way the player doesn't expect the world to be full of gabbling characters-- in fact maybe he's supposed to avoid getting in to deep with anyone!


This is an interesting suggestion - the only problem is that I can't see an obvious way to shoe-horn such a convention into the plot, as the feeling I'm going for is more of a freeform one, with the player not being strongly tied to any particular faction or group. To be honest, I'm still debating the inclusion of any kind of overarching plot, especially since the player will have the ability to potentially destroy entire races and this could lead to some serious problems in creating a coherent story robust to the player's actions... Perhaps only a few self-contained set-piece missions associated with reaching some kind of high status with each faction is enough.

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Original post by WavyVirus
Thanks for the response Wavinator - I must say that I have been following your posts for a while and some have definitely provided inspiration for certain aspects of my own game.


Glad to hear that! I always complain that there aren't enough sandbox space games, so I'm really psyched to see the approach you're taking, especially with both generating content AND trying to create strong player connection.

Quote:

I hadn't really thought about doing this for player responses. I suppose it might be enough to have "yes", "grudgingly yes", "no" and "hell no!" responses to each quest proposal. I have previously been worried about making this fit in the context of the mission, but perhaps these responses can be general enough to be universally applicable.


I think a challenge here is identifying the ways your player base is going to need to identify with the game. If you can sprinkle missions with some notion of context and then map this to player text I think it would help. If, for instance, a faction has just incinerated a hospital, it would be nice for the mission giver to reflect some opinion of this in the mission briefing and in the player response. Referencing the act, letting slip an opinion or even framing the response in language are great ways an NPC could show you that they're more than just a pez dispenser for waypoints and objectives.


Quote:

To be honest, I'm still debating the inclusion of any kind of overarching plot, especially since the player will have the ability to potentially destroy entire races and this could lead to some serious problems in creating a coherent story robust to the player's actions... Perhaps only a few self-contained set-piece missions associated with reaching some kind of high status with each faction is enough.


You may not need a plot at all, and that may throw into question who your audience is. You mentioned ME and I suspect ME players get much of their reward out of the shooting and the movie cinematics as well a bit of RPG. But to me the point of a sandbox game is to project your will into the world without the personality of a set main character getting in the way. This makes the need for a strong leading character go away.

In terms of a coherent story are you going for a set ending or can you play indefinitely? What do you think will happen once the player gets all the cool gear and reaches max level?

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Original post by Wavinator
I think a challenge here is identifying the ways your player base is going to need to identify with the game. If you can sprinkle missions with some notion of context and then map this to player text I think it would help. If, for instance, a faction has just incinerated a hospital, it would be nice for the mission giver to reflect some opinion of this in the mission briefing and in the player response. Referencing the act, letting slip an opinion or even framing the response in language are great ways an NPC could show you that they're more than just a pez dispenser for waypoints and objectives.


I suppose a few sub-categories for missions relating to their motivation (e.g. revenge for a terrible act, a selfish land-grab or a precautionary strike against a military target could be motivations for attack missions) might allow such a system to embed some sense of context and opinion into the responses.

Quote:

You may not need a plot at all, and that may throw into question who your audience is. You mentioned ME and I suspect ME players get much of their reward out of the shooting and the movie cinematics as well a bit of RPG. But to me the point of a sandbox game is to project your will into the world without the personality of a set main character getting in the way. This makes the need for a strong leading character go away.


I think I see what you are getting at - really I'm trying to create some sense of the character's "manner" or style of interpersonal interaction (formal/informal, aggressive/persuasuve etc.), because I don't think there is a feasible way to provide fine-grained enough control over this to the player. This is opposed to defining their motivations, goals and broad methods, which I think should be up to the player. In some sense the player is like a movie director, providing motivation and goals but allowing the actor to inject some "personality" into the character.

Quote:

In terms of a coherent story are you going for a set ending or can you play indefinitely? What do you think will happen once the player gets all the cool gear and reaches max level?


I suppose that the player could continue to play indefinitely (trading, doing escort and delivery missions), but the long-term goal is to make peace with all factions or to destroy all enemy factions, excluding pirates who always exist (or some combination of war and diplomacy - ie. when there are no warring factions left, the player has "completed the game"). I think this goal should be feasible for the player in a reasonable amount of time (probably a long time, but definitely finite =P) and I should be able to tune this by altering the impact of attack missions on faction strength and of diplomatic missions on alignment etc. When a faction is weak enough, I plan to introduce a single mission to give the player the option of wiping them out for good.

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