Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

A game devs thoughts on skyrim NPCs

I bought skyrim, partly because I did enjoy oblivion, partly because skyrim got great reviews and any decent game dev should know what people are buying and enjoying.

So far, It’s pretty good, but I’m not bowled over. I don’t see it as any major (or even minor) change or improvement from Oblivion. Maybe I haven’t played it enough yet? There are a number of minor things that make me smile, more than disappoint, such as all of the guards sounding like schwarzenegger, and all the women assuming I want to sleep with them. That’s my normal expression, I swear!

More seriously, the game does not seem to have moved on at all, in the field of interaction with NPC’s, which is a big surprise. It’s 2011 now (nearly 2012), so we still need almost static NPC’s that act pretty much like ‘gossip+quest+lifestory vending machines’.
Coding a much more adaptive and context sensitive system shouldn’t be hard. I find it very unlikely that there is a major problem from either a game design or code POV, in having every NPC store some data abut their attitude to you, plus a list of recent events, plus reaction to your appearance.

Almost all games have NPC’s that are staggeringly stupid. You can sneak up to them at midnight, having never met them, with your sword drawn, wearing a black cloak and holding a two handed sword, and as long as you press ‘E’, they will say something like
“My name is zarg, I’ve been farming here all my life, things aren’t so bad really.”
We *can* do better than this. On an indie game, with a tiny budget and one coder, we can do better, so why a game with the budget of skyrim cannot, is beyond me. Unless….

It’s voice acting isn’t it? Lets be honest. We cannot afford to have 500 different lines fo dialog for that character, because the assumption is that all games need to be ‘fully voiced’. This is CRIPPLING to AI. I bet the
AI coders on skyrim grind their teeth like maniacs, knowing that the simplest and cheapest text adventures can have twenty times more immersive character interaction that the trillion dollar AAA hit game skyrim.

Is it *really* so vital to have voice acting for all NPC’s? I find most acting in movies to be tragic, let alone acting in games. I would be much happier if ‘lesser’ NPCs had just text, (maybe some simlish mumbling?) but they actually said something relevant and believable.

Immersion is NOT just graphics and sounds. If it was, who would buy books? Sometimes dialog really matters, and in an epic RPG it is vital. Skyrim has (like most games) prioritised screenshots & trailer clips over actual immersion, at least when it comes to AI.

You probably all thing I’m wrong, the game scored massively highly and sold by the crateload. What do you think? Is it just me that wants to smack the NPC’s and say “I only just met you, you f**king robot!”.

38 thoughts on A game devs thoughts on skyrim NPCs

  1. I’m playing through The Witcher 2 and peasants seem to have no problem with me storming into their houses in the middle of the night sword drawn, kicking them out of a dead sleep to play some dice and then picking up everything that isn’t nailed down and high tailing it.

    Normally, this would be immersion breaking, but I’d like to think that Geralt is just that much of a sociopath that he doesn’t give a crap would people think and most everyone else isn’t stupid enough to complain to someone with a reputation like his.

    Overall, “Fully Voiced” is what put the last nail in the coffin of the Western RPG tradition that gave us the Ultima and Wizardry lines. Prior nails included “the big red arrow” and “fully rendered cut-scenes”.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly.
    It has also affected the depth of quests, very rarely does a quest have more than one outcome, and you can’t speak with anyone other than a few select npcs about your current quest.

  3. Play Fallout 1 and find out what RPGs could and should have been. They dropped the ball a long time ago and they never picked it up.

  4. I’m curious, has a “Fully Voiced” RPG ever handled non humans well? How would you handle the multitude of races presented in a game series like Baldurs Gate without making it sound hooky?

  5. I suppose that improvements in the technology in voice synthesis will eventually be the solution to this issue.

    Once a development tool that automates the ability to create an infinite number of voices from plain text becomes sophisticated enough I think we’ll start to see a new level of immersion in NPCs.

  6. “Is it just me that wants to smack the NPC’s and say “I only just met you, you f**king robot!”.”

    Well, kinda yeah, Of course the game would be better with the suggested improvements, but you can´t have it all, and I´m ok with having a game about exploration instead of choice and consequences. If the absence of the mentioned AI is the reason I for once got an open world game with an interesting game world, where exploration really rewards you, then it was the right descision.

  7. I usually skip the voice acting anyhow, so for my dollar, they can go back to all-text and actually provide us with good content. I read fast enough that they usually don’t get through the first word and I generally just find it annoying that they are trying to talk so slow. And those are the ones that did a good job of it. The bad voice actors? Ugh.

  8. If the NPCs speak in some strange language (like Midna in LoZ – Twilight Princess), we can still read and understand the reaction.

  9. You hit the spot there Cliff. What made Morrowind great was the fact that every NPC could entertain you for hours because it was no dialog, it was a book! Likewise Baldurs Gate I and II. But there are those who think that the common folk is too dumb to read. Therefore every bit of text has to be fontsize 30 and dubbed! Oh I hate thy streamlining!

  10. Games have reached a point of fidelity where they are now basically hollywood movies. You’ll notice all the big sellers are basically hollywood movies stuffed into a game – call of duty, Mass effect 2, Skyrim. The game industry has learned if you want sales you have to make it a ‘first person cinematic experience’. The game is being crowded out by really long in-game cutscenes and the bad part about this is – the simple minded are eating it up.

    Most modern games are basically really long scripted cinematics where the player is funneled along a predetermined path. A few games pull of the blend of cinematics without crushing or screwing up gameplay – God of war series is one.

  11. Agreed. I was annoyed with the intro of skyrim. it tried hard to be like half life, but frankly it wasn’t that well written. It was the usual tolkienesque plot, delivered slowly to pad it out.
    I’m busy. I play games to have fun, not listen to someone droning on. Even in an RPG, they should remember that games are about interaction, not just storytelling.

  12. As an MMO player I was looking forward to Star Wars: The Old Republic, right up until I heard it was supposed to be fully voiced. That just killed it for me. The main reason is that I almost always listen to podcasts while playing MMOs. Same is true for most single player games, even Skyrim.

    The thing is I can read quest text and listen to my podcast at the same time, but not so with voice acting. So for me it’s a big turn down.

  13. There’s also the forgiving factor. Skyrim, like most big-budget games, is trying to appeal to a wide swathe of the population. If every village turns hostile and calls out the militia to kill you every time you neglect to put your sword away when you walk through the gate or accidentally click on the merchant’s pot instead of the water fountain, the game will put off everyone except the groggiest of grognards.

  14. @ Will,

    well thats neither accurate nor does it make any sense.

    First of all if you accidently hit a guardsmen he will most likely stop attacking you if you back down a.k.a. put your sword away and say your sorry. If you steal stuff from a merchant you have to pay a fine and no one is going to kill you for that.

    That is reasonable and implemented in Skyrim.

    There is no other modern game out there which punishes the player in this fashion for doing something wrong.

    Of course it would be great if the game would offer a full trail and chopping off hands, taring and feathering (and so on) for offences.

    But be reasonable! Even I don’t ask for such features and I count myself among the most postulating people.

    @ All the other guys

    Concerning Skyrim the greatest contra is a LACK of an epic story. The story is unbelievable boring and unimaginative. To call this game a hollywood movie is plain wrong. This game needs either more cutscenes or more dialog. Planescape Torment or Baldurs Gate II had the most brilliant story there is and it was presented in mere dialoge.

    But the ultimate reward would be of course a cutscene which you “created” with your choices during the game.

    At the end of the day Skyrim is no RPG. It’s an medieval action shooter. There are no choices, there is no dialoge and there is no tension. It’s just a first person Diablo II. So of course you would be disappointed if you thought that Skyrim would be the holy grail of RPG’s.

  15. I remember feeling genuinely scared taking my little wood elf out into the world in Everquest – you never know who likes you and who has it out for you!

    You could have been killing gnolls for half a week only to wander through a human city and get jumped in an ally by Gnoll Sympathizers.

    Or you go to sell equipment in your hometown and turns out your favorite merchant was a smuggler in his youth and he doesn’t like the look of you anymore now that you’ve been hunting smugglers!

    Back in 98 the graphics were boxy and pixelated and the load times obscene – but that game was more immersive than any RPG I’ve played since.

    And that’s largely due to the reputation systems they had in place.

    For every NPC you create take a moment to jot down a few positive and negative affiliations. Who does he like? Who does he hate?

    As you create more NPC’s you’ll have more groups of people that would have had an opportunity to interact with each other at one point. A rich history can start to emerge as you form links between different social sects.

    Every action the player then takes in your game can affect those affiliations positively or negatively – without the player even realizing it!

    Some will be obvious, but those that aren’t will be delightful to discover.

    Of course this lack of social mechanics in computer and console RPG’s have protected the little niche table top games have been operating out of for the last twenty years.

    If I want to play in an RPG with a rich history and a reactive world I’ll call up a friend for a D&D game.

    No graphics. No sound. Just dice on a table and a whole lot of junk food – and it’s still more immersive than Skyrim 8P

  16. Cliff,

    Because my opinion is the only real definitive opinion out there in internet land (ya, right! – I’m being sarcastic ppl so please don’t start flaming me, it’s a joke), I’ll chime in with my two cents.

    First I should let you know that I own Skyrim on a gaming console, not the PC. This actually does make a difference when playing an RPG of this type. So without further ado, here are the goods and the bads about your criticisms (I’m talking about Cliff’s article).

    A.) Yes, every character in the game should be voiced.

    This might seem minor to some people, but as you stated, this is almost 2012 and there’s no reason why the characters shouldn’t be entirely voiced. This is actually what separates The Elder Scrolls series (from Oblivion on) and the Fallout Series (from Fallout 3 on) from other large RPG’s. That’s right, you would be hard pressed to find another “Open World” (albeit Massive) RPG that contains fully voiced characters which includes the NPC’s. It’s part of the charm behind these series’. Now, it might not be “necessary”, but, have you ever played Morrowind on a gaming console? Well that puppy had piles of text, and when you’re sitting 6 – 10 feet away from the TV you DO NOT want to read War and Peace on your radiation tube. Instead, when you’re sitting at the comfort of your PC where your actually only about 1 – 3 feet away from your Monitor does it make the experience as engaging, and intimate. When playing on a console though, all of the immersion is lost when you start reading text from the distance I stated. Don’t believe me? Play Oblivion or Skyrim on a gaming console for about 4 – 5 hours. Then go play Morrowind on a gaming console. Tell me what you think now. Yes, Morrowind was still a great game at the time, but there’s just no going back. Reading all of that text is not just a case of making the experience monotonous, it actually takes away from the immersion. This is not “as much” of a problem on the PC though since playing on PC virtually means you’re within hugging distance (so to speak) of the characters you’re interacting with.

    B.) Not much has changed, but the menus and UI (at least on the console versions) – are much more intuitive and easier to navigate.

    Again, this isn’t such a big deal on the PC since you have a keyboard and mouse which offer more options to the gamer in terms of hotkeys and quick links. It might not sound like a major difference between the two versions, but Skyrim is far improved even over Oblivion when comparing the UI and navigating the menus. Skyrim does everything that most console RPG gamers have been waiting for. It’s easy to use, easy to get into, and speaking with NPC’s then quickly browsing your inventory, equipping items, and enhancing your character, or selecting spells is much more intuitive than it’s ever been in a console RPG.

    If you haven’t done much console gaming (or played many RPG’s on consoles) then it’s hard to try and further explain why Skyrim is such a great leap of an RPG in terms of console gaming. Yes, the PC has always been able to “multitask” far better than any gaming console out there, but the one great, nay the major factor that makes gaming consoles far more desirable to consumers than a PC that can actually play some games, is the fact that consoles are much simpler, they are far less prone to installation errors, and they are usually uniform in their design. They don’t require a lot of setup time, they don’t (usually) require additional hardware in order to play games on them, they basically aren’t buggered by an operating system. They also do far less than a PC, but at least they do the things you want them to do and that is Play Videogames. There will always be good and bad games, but the only reason I don’t play games strictly on my PC is because of things like meeting minimum requirements, lack of gamepad support (for the majority of games – yes I prefer them over mouse and keyboard), bugs, errors, installation problems, driver problems, PC problems (operating system problems, fragmentation problems, virus problems)… etc. etc. etc…

    I still have love for PC games, mostly indie games, but gaming consoles are so much easier to jump into than fudging around with documentation for hours on end (just to get a single game working – which by the way I did in my youth! – thank god I’ve smartened up!).

    Anyway, hopefully these are understandable and legitimate arguments (not really an argument but opinions and a different point of view).

    Take care!

    And Happy Holidays everyone!

  17. @ Jason

    I think you may have hit the nail on the head with your comments on Console vs Personal Computer games.

    I hear a lot of reminiscing and those of us who grew up on computers as opposed to early consoles think fondly back to the days of an RPG which required as much typing and thinking as actual stick action.

    My first RPG I was immersed in was with Ultima IV on bootlegged flippys (Floppys with cut outs to make them ‘double sided’).

    Cliffski is obviously biased as his gaming experiences. “I am Guard, I Guard” from Err Mid 80’s to voiced “I am Zarg…..” is a lot less impressive than lets say the graphics. I mean – even the C64 had voiced characters in Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

    I cannot compare to Consoles. I do not own one and probably never will. I did play hours of text adventure of old CRT tubes with no problems.


    Online anywhere?

    Below the Root

  18. Fully agree with what Cliff writes about AI and voice acting! Voice acting is such a special medium that limits gameplay variation greatly. But it can’t be synthesized (at least not yet in a satisfying way) so you need voice actors who do the acting and they cost and good voice actors are rare. Even worse is if a game get’s badly done voice acting (like Skyrim and tons of other triple-lame titles out there). Oblivion on the other hand had great voice acting. If voice acting, do it right or don’t do it at all!

  19. IDK, Cliff. I’ve been skimming Flavor-text since Zork Trilogy, and it hasn’t hurt my entertainment value.

    blah blah, go EAST. blah blah blah, k. go NORTH. Cant? Right; blah blah blah. go SOUTH. You’ve beat the game.

    Ditto Wizardry I-III, Wasteland, or more recently, Baldur’s Gate.

    I’m loving Skyrim, but only because I’m strictly playing “roles.” such as traditional thief/acrobat (no magick, light armor, small arms), shaman/witchdoctor (CC + dual wield, no armor!), or paladin (Sword & Board, Heals, StaminaPoisons(Holy Water)). I skip 90% of the canned Voice-over work — money well spent, IMSarcasticO.

    As a coder, I can think of one VERY easy AI tweak that would help solidify their “minds” in this world… “Random Merchant Non-purchase.” That is, the merchant HAS the money to buy your good(s), but just fails a roll and says, “Sorry, don’t need it!”

    If this happened even 5% of the time, my thief would do a double-take everytime a merchant (randomly) refused to buy back his own, recently stolen, magic items.

  20. If you’re going to do this, how about splitting out story NPCs and utility NPCs. If I want to sell the junk I’ve picked up on my latest sortie, I want to select it all, dump it in the shop, pick up my coin and go. I do not want to chat to the shopkeeper. I do not want him to react to my appearance, tell me about his day, or anything. Make it a vending machine, or a pot of magical appraisal or whatever fits your theme, but don’t make me talk to it.

    For side quests, have a job board where I can read through what’s available and the rewards on offer. Jobs could have details of the NPC that’s offering them, but talking to them about the job should be optional. It might be advantageous in some cases, but still optional.

    Once you’ve got the utility out of the way, then you can do immersive chatting on other NPCs for those who like that part of the game. Like the books, if you want to find out more about the world you can talk to people, but if you don’t care and just want to hit a dragon with an axe, you don’t need to skip through the dialog about why it’s a really important that the dragon be axed as soon as possible, and how great you are for making it happen.

  21. I think there is still hope for truly complex RPGs – without going back to text only. When prerendered cutscene became the big thing games had to be dumbed down but now cutscenes are usually engine based and these limitations are far gone. I think complex dialogs will come back as soon as voice synthesizers become mature. When they will, they will be used – marketing guys will take care of that – and there will be no reason for limiting the dialogs.

  22. The real source of this ‘problem’ is $$$. No one (except the very foolish) can deny that quality voice acting makes NPCs seem more real and raises the quality of the overall experience. Now that Skyrim has made about a half billion dollars, perhaps we will see the next big Bethesda RPG with NPCs that react to more situations than they do now.

    Check out Dark Souls, most of the dialogue there is interesting and in context, and there is plenty of lore to read in the items descriptions.

  23. “The real source of this ‘problem’ is $$$. No one (except the very foolish) can deny that quality voice acting makes NPCs seem more real and raises the quality of the overall experience.”

    I deny it.
    Given a choide between the same text with and without voice, I agree with you, but this is not the choice. The choice is 100 dialog options text vs 2 with voice. That makes voice by far LESS real and the quality far LOWER overall.

  24. What do you expect Cliffski? Modern consoles (where games like Skyrim get their primary sales) are so starved for computational power that AI is a distant fourth in the mind of companies like EA and Ubisoft. So much of the modern consoles power is pushed toward graphics fidelity, physics and the ever present limits of texture and poly budgets, that AI has the last scraps of memory left.

    You talk Skyrim but list a single game with decent AI these days that is primarily a console game? There isn’t one! As I exampled above AI is left to the wayside in favor for shear graphical prowess (which itself is ten generations behind the potential PC curve). Frankly if you wanted a Elder Scrolls style game with break out AI, it would use such a huge portion of the modern consoles CPU that the graphics quality would be that of Morrowind at best. And we all know that would have a hard time breaking one million copies sold on consoles.

    This may sound like a PC vs Console rant but at it’s heart it’s about limited resources and where they have been shunted in the last decade+. Consoles need to move forward if there is ever even the slightest hope of getting beyond Skyrim quality AI in console games. I decent solution would be an add in card with it’s own CPU that is dedicated to AI. Somewhat like the old add in cards for physics, that was until modern GPU’s became so powerful they were absorbed and overshadowed.

    Inevitably the best AI I see these days come from strategy games, or indie titles where a lot of the focus is on said AI and not the graphics. I do hope that changes in the future. But with the current generation of console hardware and a fanbase that cares more about how amazing the graphics are than the actual gameplay, I don’t see it shifting at all until the PC becomes more popular again or the console generation grows up a bit and starts enjoying actual complexity again.

  25. I would suspect that there are many good reasons for the state of the voice acting and NPC reactions in a game like this. As stated previously, a major upgrade to the library of responses would be very expensive not only economically, but from a memory standpoint on the consoles as well.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were a plan in place for a more robust NPC system that was cut because the cost to benefit ratio wasn’t high enough to justify the effort. It would be cool but how would it make the game so much better that it would sell more copies? It would certainly please diehard fans of the series but I suspect many people wouldn’t notice.

    That isn’t to say that pleasing diehard fans isn’t important nor that it is necessarily important for people to recognize why they’re enjoying what they’re enjoying. The average player could certainly appreciate the enhanced NPC reactions without ever stopping to think about what it was about the game they liked so well. That said I think it is still important to focus on providing a quality product within a certain budget and timeline, and in that regard I believe the company and the game have done an excellent job.

    There are still a respectable number of dialog lines in the game and I would say that the reuse of voice actors does more to detract from the feeling of immersion than the number of lines does. It would, in my mind, perhaps do more to use unprofessional voice actors from around the office for flavor dialog wherever possible and save the talent for more important characters. They certainly did this to some degree but I would have liked to have heard more variety. As a side note whenever they had to redub Von Sydow’s lines it made me twinge.

    I would also draw an allusion to the Uncanny Valley. I suspect that part of the reason for the feeling of unease appears is that, at a certain point in playing a game one must draw upon one’s own imagination to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, and the imagination is a powerful tool in that regard. As we approach a totally realistic experience our imaginations turn off and we are left with only what we see. In this regard, text responses from NPCs rather than voice acting might allow our imaginations to create a more believable world for us, but the technical limits of this lead to many of us just ignoring NPCs altogether most of the time.

    Realism and immersion are not synonymous. There are quite a few degrees of separation between us and the action, which is part of the reason, for example, that music can be so powerful in games. Although orchestras don’t follow people around in real life, the music can add to the emotional response a person might feel from actually being put into a depicted situation.

    In the end the game is very fun, and if you’re playing it on PC, you might be able to make or convince someone else to make a mod that will fulfill your wishes. If it is popular enough Bethesda might very well take it into consideration for future projects.

  26. agreed on the uncanny valley. No voice at all would be an improvement, to my mind.
    And yes, the problem is entirely due to the game being a cross platform console-led title with an afterthought PC port.
    Consoles are really dragging PC gaming down :(

  27. Who’s doing better then skyrim? Ok their NPC’s are knobs, like all the rest. But at least they have the most depth in their quest branches. How one quest can have a large affect on others etc. There isn’t even a close second. I wish for better things, but no one is doing well here at all. It’s all if/then decisions. No real AI going on yet in the gaming world. It’s a series of if/then’s, some more nested then others, no more nested then Skyrim.

  28. NPC’s that can join your party (like Lydia) should have more dialogue, at least some custom dialog for the main quests. They ARE sworn to carry our burdens…

  29. I totally agree. What’s more they could have at least provided companions that have a back story to make them more than extra damage and carrying capacity. Dragon age level would be better than nothing. What’s more I hate that every single I meet tells me his/her life story. I keep telling them “shut up”. Even the npc I “married” keep saying the same lines over and over again. Planning to make my character a widow to see if I can start over again. ( Dark Brotherhood hey!) Every time she says a line I’ve heard hundred of times I have to tell her to shut up. It’s the first video game where I actually talk to the people on screen!
    The worst is when we just leave a cave and she says “look a cave! I wonder what’s in it.” It’s all cosmetic I wish it was more clever. A guard can see I am carrying the azura star in my bag but I am wearing a dragon priest mask with assassin clothes but kids ask me to play with them! I can be seen entering someone’s house for dark brotherhood work but as long as I am in stealth mode when I backstab I am untouchable.. But if I pick up an apple I’ll be beaten up to death. But if something in someone’s house is not marked as property I can take in front of that person without asking with no problem. hieve guild npcs address me like their valet although I am the guild master. Guards recognize thieves guild armor but don’t arrest me etc etc
    All the things I mention don’t strike me as requiring science fiction technology. to be fixed. An example: A npc introduces himself as if I didnt know him every time I start a conversation even if it’s the third time I trade with him today. It would be easy to record a first meet line that would be played on first click and a casual greeting or two for the next times. Why not a “remind me who you are” speech choice if the player needs it afterwards.

  30. Agreed – also something like a blacksmith liking or disliking the armour you have just made at thier forge

  31. Obviously, what we need here is procedurally generated text-to-speech for NPCs. It’s one thing to write dialogue, but to pre-record it all into handy sound bytes just waiting around on the HDD for a reference call to begin playing is a huge waste of space. Seriously, can’t we make a program that synthesis voices in a halfway passable manner at this point?

    Also, where’s my damned flying car?!

  32. Nobody I know buys games because of their great voice acting.

    It is the single biggest waste of development capital I can think of.

    Text is 1,000 times more effective and emersive, heck, stone stock open source text to speech with a huge database of responses, would be preferrable over voice acting.

  33. Fully agree.

    I remember a LOT of memorable dialogue from BG2. But was every NPC voiced, or even every line from every main NPC? No. Generally only particular flavour lines shouted in combat and the first line of a paragraph would be voiced.

    Amount of VO in games has been increasing, but has it become more memorable, made more of an impression? I don’t think so. Rapidly spiralling costs, miniscule gain, even harm (because, like you said, it limits what the AI coders can do).

    Honestly, I think it’s the consoles’ fault. Text on a TV screen, when you can’t guarantee how far away the viewer on his couch is, is going to be a problem. Not so PCs, where you’re generally guaranteed that the viewer is within text-reading distance.

  34. I put alot of hours in skyrim but couldnt finish the game because of bordom. And yes consoles are the issue of stripping RPGs. They cater to the younger crowds. Take a look at most of the Spiderweb software games . Great stoty descent graphics lots of exploration but ten year olds dont even know they exist. They want action.

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