One of the most important things about open-world games, and what makes them believable is the various behaviors of NPCs. It’s one of those things that, if everything goes off without a hitch and works perfectly, it’s not really noticed or celebrated all that much. Good NPC behavior is rarely given the praise or adulation it deserves. The opposite, however, is just as true for bad NPC behavior, or NPCs with irrational movements, odd gesturing, or inhuman appearances. It’s an unfortunate reality of game development that so many well-crafted NPCs have and will continue to go unappreciated, but they do add to the game’s overall authenticity in subtle ways that do ultimately matter a lot. If for nothing else, then to avoid the distraction of illogical behavior.
Creating believable NPCs for open-world games has been a slow climb for developers, and noticeable results of that climb are few and far between, again, mostly because it’s the ones that fail to fade into the background that end up being noticed, but they have come a long way over the last ten years or so, and the calibration of non-playable characters for video games has gotten more complex over the years. Knowing all of that, it should be of surprise to no one that NPC behavior has been getting some more attention on the back-end from developers. Most notably from some of the developers that really need it the most, like Rockstar.
Back in April of 2019, Rockstar’s parent company Take-Two Interactive filed a patent for a new NPC system that primarily focuses on handling NPC movement, routing, and general behavior. The new system is called “System And Method For Virtual Navigation In A Gaming Environment” which might not be the most flashy name ever given to a system of codes, but still nonetheless promises to bring a lot to the table in terms of upgrading what we can expect from NPCs in future Rockstar games. The new system was headed up by Rockstar’s Simon Parr, and David Hynd – two of the higher-ups over at the technical side of Rockstar, and given the pedigree behind the patent it makes sense with how fundamentally monumental it really is. One of the bigger elements of this will be impacting how vehicles behave, which makes sense as a car or boat behaving weirdly is far more noticeable than a random person on the sidewalk somewhere, so it’s easy to understand why vehicles were given such a priority here.
Boats, cars, busses, and other sorts of crafts will be able to, within this system, not just understand where they are going and how fast they’re getting there, but will also have advanced knowledge of how fast to approach certain turns, how long it might take to slow down for a red light, and the ability to judge their own acceleration. All of this alone will result in far more realistic traffic behavior in all areas. Cars slowing down gradually, using logic to turn corners in safe, realistic ways, and just generally having more of a grasp of their vehicle-type what its limitations are, much like you do when you take over a vehicle in Grand Theft Auto 5. The implications of this are pretty vast, as you could also apply this to pedestrian NPCs and it could help them slow down when getting close to another object or person and adjusting their walking or running speed accordingly to whatever they’re doing, whether it be running from a giant explosion or walking across a busy street. If it sounds like it’s subtle, well, that’s because it kind of is. But as we touched on earlier, the entire field of NPC creation is a subtle one to begin with. Great advancements and achievements are rarely pointed out, but rather just serve as a way to lift up the entirety of the experience and add to it’s authenticity. The best-designed NPCs are the ones that you don’t even really think about.
The patent didn’t stop there though. It also mentioned something of a much grander scale. One part of the description of the patent specifically mentioned “virtual navigation and management of objects in a multiplayer network gaming community.” And again, the implications do give the mind a lot to ponder here. Is this referring to online experiences? Seems like it. And if that’s the case does that mean that the next big Rockstar game is going to be multiplayer-focused? I don’t want to make too many assumptions but it’s hard to not draw a straight line from point A to point B on that one. And when you consider how successful Grand Theft Auto 5’s online mode has been, coupled with the fact that we all know Grand Theft Auto 6 is definitely on the way, we could very well be in for Rockstar’s most robust online mode of all time in Grand Theft Auto 6 or whatever their next game is.
There is even more credence added to this theory with the fact that this entire system is purportedly meant to operate through a network connection. game developers have long been looking for ways to supersede the limitations of whatever hardware their game is on. Whether that be through visual tricks like baked in shadows or 2-dimensional objects made to look 3D, or other sneaky means to make games look and act better than you would think that console could allow. It appears the days of visual tricks might be over though if this patent turns out to be as revolutionary as it’s clearly aiming to be. With all of this technology going over a network connection, the relative power of your PlayStation 4, 5, Xbox One, or Series X won’t really matter. All that will really matter is the reliability of your internet connection whatever it is. We still don’t really know if it requires some sort of huge download upload speed, but odds are it’s probably something fairly generous, so the biggest thing to worry about is whether or not the game that includes this system will require an always-online connection to use, and if the system turns out the way this patent seems to imply, that will probably be the case.
So this could basically mean one of two things: either the next big Rockstar game with this NPC system will be an online focused experience, or it will be a regular game with an offline campaign that still requires an internet connection to use this NPC system. So regardless of how revolutionary this new system for NPC navigation is, I think Rockstar needs to tread lightly into this territory. While more and more people are ready for online connectivity, there are still plenty who are not, and still yet plenty of those who are but still don’t like the idea of connectivity for a variety of other reasons. If there isn’t a way to take advantage of this system offline, then it’s going to require an incentive to get people to buy the game that uses it at the numbers Rockstar is used to. With how subtle the advances in NPC development tend to be, it could very well be a nice piece of technology that doesn’t really get its point across if it’s not handled exactly right in terms of its implementation.
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