Will NVIDIA’s AI-Powered NPCs Make Games More Fun? This Star Wars Old Republic Designer Has Concerns

You probably saw this  pretty impressive recent demo of NVIDIA’s NPCs powered by generative AI, enabling players to converse in deep detail with an NPC (albeit with a cringey mechanical voice). And if you were to ask an AI evangelist, they’d pronounce it as The Future of MMO Games.

However, if you were to ask an actual MMO designer who led creation of a AAA game like Star Wars: The Old Republic, they might have a more ambivalent response:

“I’m not going to say there’s no nothing there,” as veteran designer Damion Schubert begins in an epic tweet thread. “This is an area of tech tools to keep an eye on.”

That said, he goes on, hard experience suggests to him that it might actually might not be, you know, fun for a player:

On Star Wars: The Old Republic I’ll note that we ended up ripping out a whole bunch of VO quest dialog and turned it into mission board all-text quests because players were confused as hell.

Is the thing the shopkeeper saying here actually result in a real quest? If you go do the thing, will the shopkeeper update? Are the quests generated algorithmically? Do they ever conflict with each other?

And to my initial example, is this the main quest? If every NPC is talking to the player at this much length about a different problem, the player has trouble focusing on the primary questline. If every quest is important, then none are. [Emph mine – WJA]

On SWTOR (an open world MMO where you can collect and complete quests in any order) players were having trouble remembering which quest went with which NPC. So when you turn it, the NPC is concluding a story and you wouldn’t remember which one until halfway in the convo.

This does not mean ‘don’t VO side quests’. What it means is that narrative delivery is incredibly tricky, to achieve that balance where players have a heroic arc, a sense of purpose and an understanding of what the current state of things are.

Storytelling in games is ALREADY much harder than other forms of media because we don’t control the pace of delivery, or (frequently) the order players encounter story nuggets. Hell, we have to deal with players putting down their controllers for a week and reengaging.

As such, narrative design is an incredibly important and incredibly delicate design field. Because it’s about the EXPERIENCE and not the NARRATIVE.

It’s not going to be achievable simply by about firing all your writers and replacing them with robots.

NVIDIA NPCs Damion Schubert

His points become immediately obvious to anyone who’s played many MMOs and RPGs  — unless the writing and voice acting is extremely good (and sometimes even then), you often find yourself skipping through the dialog to get to fucking point (i.e. the actual quest). This happens so often, game designers who want to make sure players don’t miss important narrative beats will put them in an unskippable cutscene. And to Damion’s point, a game where every NPC has volumes of dialog to say will likely soon get overwhelming, and then boring.

For more on this topic, check out this recent GDC talk by Damion.

*And wait, how do you make sure game dialog is extremely good? Oh right: Hiring very talented human writers and actors.

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