Storybricks Promises to Bring NPCs to Life in Everquest Next

Details on one of the most exciting developments in MMOs

The Everquest Next hype train continues to chug along, and it’s difficult to not get a little swept up in the excitement (if, you know, we weren’t so professional). First it was the talk of an “open world sandbox”, which immediately gets any acolyte of Minecraft’s blood flowing; then, the promise of a completely destructible (and, presumably, constructible) world by way of the Landmark system. And now, SOE has announced a partnership with Namaste, makers of Storybricks, which, if there’s any kernel of truth to the press releases, might just revolutionize the way we interact with non-playable characters in video games.

A Life of Their Own

The core ambition of Storybricks, expounded on in a lengthy and illuminating dev diary over at Joystiq, is to bring the kind of believable NPCs that a real life game master in a tabletop RPG might create to the world of MMORPGs. Normally this might mean a rich backstory available in text or pre-scripted conversation, but Storybricks promises much, much more.

NPCs will develop unique relationships with each of the player characters they encounter, and their attitudes and aspirations will change according to how those interactions proceed. Each NPC will have an emotional makeup that’s influenced by their memories of the player’s actions and choices, and instead of handing out rote quests or rewards, their interactions will be influenced by how they feel about a player.

The idea, then, is not just that NPCs will change and evolve in terms of the way they respond to players. Instead they’ll have fully modeled lives, dreams, and tasks that affect them whether players are present or not. Imagine Skyrim’s NPCs if they had actual goals that involved more than walking from their homes to their workplaces and back again when the sun set, or if they could take the initiative and go explore the world or attempt to deal with their problems themselves. The potential is staggering, especially when these AI-controlled characters are set loose in a player populated world that can change and evolve in an emergent way.

“Important NPCs should have inner lives, complex relationships, and their own goals that they work toward. They should remember past interactions with your characters and adjust their behavior depending on whether they feel grateful, trusting, envious, betrayed, and they should be able to express these emotions in a convincing manner, each one coloring their day to day activities (e.g., a guard whose girlfriend just left him should act differently from one who was just dressed down by his captain).”

As a design document, the dev diary is very powerful. How much of that potential will actually be realized remains to be seen, and we’ve been fooled before (we’re looking at you, Peter Molyneux). But an MMO is the perfect laboratory to introduce this kind of system, because it allows new ideas to be tested and altered throughout the course of the game, rather than being static on a disk that has to show up on store shelves on a given date. If SOE and Storybricks are able to realize even a fraction of their ambitious designs, Everquest Next could be the most exciting thing to happen to MMOs in a very, very long time.