… At some point I’m sure some games will start using natural language AI and all that crazy stuff. Players will be able to hold pseudo-conversations with NPCs and that’s how they’ll get quests. I’m going to go ahead and say that it will be completely sweet when that happens, but I’ll be on the bandwagon with most other people when they say, “that is totally cool for about an hour, then I just want my effing ‘Accept’ button back, thanks.”

From the comments of this post at MMOGNation, by Ryan Shwayder, who has his own blog as well, of course (nerfbat.com), and actually has a rant up about how quests suck at this moment in time.

There are actually multiple levels of “failure to communicate” here, I think, which is where the title came from.  The first failure is all of us simply failing to communicate what we are assuming when we talk about this, that, and the other thing.

For example, my first reaction when I read the above comment was, “what the hell?”  You WANT quests that read as follows? 

  • Task: Kill 10 foozles.
  • Reward: foozle tail necklace (+1 reaction from foozle-hawks), 5 copper pieces.
  • Accept or Cancel?

We’ve already got that… heck, we’re _buried_ in “quests” like those.  Pick any major MMO out there and have at it, more power to ya.

However, if you’ve ever read the Nerfbat blog, you _know_ that’s not really what the man meant.  Not a chance. In. Heck.  (As born out by the aforementioned “Quests suck” post.)

So, what does he really mean?  My _assumption_ is that he was saying he doesn’t want to have to read a small novella explaining his motivation, or spend 15 minutes listening to a contrived sob story as voiced by a novice voice actor with a head cold, just to end up with the same “kill 10 foozles” quest anyway.

He assumed certain things about Natural Language AI that I didn’t. I assume things that he probably wouldn’t.  Frankly, everyone else who has read or will ever read the comment probably has a different set of assumptions that they will bring to bear… and thus, 100s of different opinions and responses, ranging from sarcastic disbelief to “amen, brother”.  Rather ineffective communication.

Real life example

On to the second aspect of “failure to communicate”.  It really shouldn’t take 25 sentences to ask someone to perform a simple task.  Here’s an illustration of a similar real-life interaction I dealt with earlier today.

  • Accountant: “Need your timesheet today, because of the holiday.”
  • Me: “No prob.”
  • (a little while later)
  • Me: “Timesheet is done.”
  • Accountant: “Yep, saw that.  Thanks.”

Note that there was no discussion of the 231 year history of the United States as a primer for what the holiday is all about; nor any discussion of the entire process of generating payroll here at the World Headquarters of VoiceNet Technologies, Inc., complete with details on the various taxes and insurances that can impact the final totals; nor even a brief tutorial on how to fill out the timesheet.  It wasn’t necessary… I already know all of that from other sources and past events. Task assigned, task completed, and rewards forthcoming, I assume.  (I didn’t even have to drag any carcasses into her office… of course, that probably wouldn’t have went over very well, anyway…)

As opposed to this, or this, or even just something like this, which are far from the worst examples that could be dredged up if you wanted to take the time.  A random stranger tells you a portion of their life’s story or gives you a history lesson, in many cases just to get you to play vermin exterminator, or worse, courier-boy.  Add that you _know_ you’ll never have the slightest reason talk to this NPC ever again, anyway.  Mix well, season to taste…

Context?  We don’t need no steenking context…

Actually, of course, that’s exactly what I feel we do need.  A little subtlety and some vestige of choice would be nice, tho, too.

I think we currently get the 25 line essay on why we should those particular 10 rats right this moment because otherwise we’d be left wondering why we, they, or anyone else would care whether those 10 rats lived, died, or built a yacht and sailed off to Jamaica.  The “reasons” are half of what makes a “quest” something different than grinding by another name.  (The other half is the additional rewards… even ones as lame as they usually end up being, yes.)

You see, my perspective is that a natural language AI would presumably be able to offer the best of both worlds.  Lead with a brief statement of what the NPC wants and perhaps what he/she/it is offering in return.  Then the ball is in the player’s court… they can say “accept”, “you got it”, “no prob”, or they can say “cancel”, “not a chance”, “forget it”…

Or presumably, the player could even ask the simple, one word question… “Why?”

Just a thought.