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Mood Swings & Character development

A study on why something intangible like "mood" can give great depth in a NPC character and open up a great depth of gameplay features.

Imagine you are playing a political strategy game where you set up meetings with NPCs, you blackmail them, assassinate them (or at least you try to!) you make partnerships and so on.

Well I am making a game like that. Oh the excitement! Unleashing Object Orientism to create all the marvelous interactions and classes, hierarchies and whatnot. Character attributes, actions, physical attributes, places in space, positioning, genealogical trees... All the things that make us game developers love our work even if it is 5 in the morning! (P.S. At 5:15 I hate it.)

Whilst I was playing my game though, it felt kinda... wooden. Yeah sure, I have some great assets and my characters look great. They even have a nice genealogical background, with warrior ancestors and vibrant secrets that vary from bastard children to bribing and embezzlement. No matter what I was adding, they kept feeling wooden.

Obviously I was adding randomness in the actions and the decisions (based on attributes etc.) but they did not help much. I could not put a finger on the problem at all. Then I gave the game to an experienced friend of mine. After a week, he gave me 3 lists:

1. Things that I loved. This list (to my surprise!) was the longest one!

2. Things that I did not like. Booo!

3. Things that you need to improve on. "Your characters, lack ... character". That's it. One single item in the list.

I battled with this last item. What do you mean they lack character?? I said. They make decisions, they take actions, they have a nice background! How can you say that??

But unfortunately, I knew.

So after long discussions, copious amounts of coffee and a lot of try and error, I came up with a simple solution. Moods.

I was suddenly more excited about my game than I have ever been! How could I have not seen that?

If one of my characters had an assassination attempt against him/her (and survived(!) No zombie mode in my game :p), he/she is stressed, uncomfortable, panicked etc. So no, if you call him/her into a meeting, do not be surprised if they turn you down!

If a character had a romantic breakdown, they are heartbroken, disappointed and maybe enraged! So, they are good candidates for partnering up with you against their ex lover!

On the other hand, if a character just made a new relationship, well, he/she is happy, quixotic and maybe even feel adventurous!

The list goes on and on and on. It opens up so many unique gameplay features!

- Should I try to bribe this man? What if he get's upset?

- Should I try to assassinate this man? What If I wait to come out of this meeting? Maybe he will be upset, hence more prone to errors...

- Should I try to hit on this character? Well, I am going to wait until he/she gets hearbroken (because this is what all good sports do right?!)

That got me thinking... Why can't we have more of that in strategy games? I mean, virtual characters are far, far, far from feeling like real humans obviously, but evolutionary, one thing that we have that machines do not, is ... a mood. Why can't we try to simulate (even crudely) this very essence of human behavior?

"What do you mean I have only 2 horses left (one of which is deaf) and I am surrounded by 6 nations with Giant death robots? I am calmer than a baby dreaming of milk! I will not give you silk!!!"

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