I started discussing this a while ago, but I plan to implement a system of “relationships” between player characters and NPCs in Atma. Instead of having quests that open up based on a character’s level (a phenomenon which never made too much sense to me), quests will instead become available as your level of connection with the appropriate character increases. Today’s post is intended to serve as a bit of an overview regarding the various nuances of a relationship-based system.
The most basic element of this system is merely a “connection value” that each player character has with every non-player character in the game world. As a player carries out tasks for a given character, they build a relationship with that character, resulting in an increase to their connection value. Of course, a system relying entirely upon the linear opening up of new quests through the completion of old ones would be a bit dry, and treating the idea of relationships in such a straightforward manner would simplify the system far too much. On this note, we can achieve a more natural pacing of quests by adding various complex conditions to any given character’s relationship values.
For instance, if we have a character with several children, their relationship with you could be heavily based around building up a relationship with their children; as you befriend the children, you increase your relationship with the parent. Perhaps of the children, there’s one who is particularly aloof, calling for you to befriend his siblings before he’ll be willing to talk with you. This system could be abstracted out even further; perhaps some characters have no friends at all, and are entirely misanthropic, and the only way for you to open up a quest line with this character is to send them mail on a regular basis. By focusing heavily on a smaller cast of well-developed characters, my goal with Atma is to take full advantage of such a relationship system, altering the traditional MMO dynamic of a large cast of characters that nobody cares about into something a bit more personal, a world populated with characters that are genuinely different, on a level that goes beyond shallow aesthetics and witty banter.
Now, there are some interesting applications involving the opposing process; having your relationships with certain characters deteriorate as you associate with specific other characters, or take specific routes of action could potentially lend a bit more gravitas to each player decision. Should you build a friendship with a master blacksmith, at the risk of upsetting his rival, an accomplished pharmacist? Should you deliver a suspicious package from a shady fellow you met in an alleyway to the mayor of a large town? By treating the actions of players as something with not only the power to unlock, but the power to seal off, you allow players to put a more personal touch on their own experience in your world, and introduce the potential for a fair bit of thematic complexity into your game.
Granted, you must maintain some caution at this point to keep such a system balanced, otherwise your players might end up shutting themselves off from veritable reams of content without meaning to. Putting in safeguards, in the form of additional content, is one way to approach this: the town apothecary might not be too thrilled about your burgeoning friendship with his long-time nemesis, but perhaps he has a friend of his own who agrees that the two are really just being petty. Now, not only can befriending this third party win you the pharmacist’s trust, but it can open up an entirely new quest line dedicated to patching things up between the two, who, it turns out, were fast friends several years ago until they had a falling out over some silly misunderstanding.
Obviously, it’s not realistic or viable for everything in the game to tie up so cleanly, and a world where everybody turns out to be good friends in the long run would probably smack a bit too much of narm. You need your irreconcilable differences to generate conflict between various parties, as it’s conflict that’s really at the heart of story. Again, however, a reversal of the aforementioned process can be applied to add more interest to the game’s plot. Perhaps in the process of befriending two characters who were initially on good terms, you’re asked to carry out some mutually exclusive tasks, the end result leading to these characters eventually becoming bitter enemies, with you forced to either pick a side or abandon the situation entirely.
The point at the heart of today’s post is that a transition from the traditional MMORPG paradigm of dime-a-dozen quest dispensers can go much further than “Oh, what compelling characters you have”, and can add some real depth into the decisions your players must make while playing your game. Tomorrow’s post will continue this train of thought, exploring a few of the player expectations that this system might potentially violate, and the ways in which I plan to deal with these problems. I’ll see you then.