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  • Forging Bonds Between Players & NPCs Via Group Conflict

    - Jonas Pastoors
  • In Short:

    Making it easier for players to form emotional connections with NPCs, both positive and negative, helps player retention. This article explores how we can use psychology to strengthen players' emotional bonds with NPCs in a singleplayer, team-based setting, including practical tips at the end. Through using intergroup empathy bias in NPC design we could give players a more fulfilling experience and keep them playing for longer.

    How many games can you think of that portray conflict between two equal teams with individual, recurring characters? The genre of multiplayer games is full of these types of experiences, but to find a game like this in a singleplayer setting should be much harder. Sure, games that portray conflict between groups of Non-Player-Characters exist, yet examples like XCOM and RimWorld both feature opposing forces that vastly outnumber the player's team. A game where the recurring NPCs of the opposing team have similar strength should be hard to find, because the benefit is not directly obvious. Nevertheless, introducing this type of intergroup conflict into a game could make it easier to reach certain design goals:

    Creating even stronger bonds between players and NPCs, and in turn, enhancing player-enjoyment and retention.

    The Value of Intergroup Bias

    A core part of forming a parasocial relationship (i.e. a perceived relationship with a media character) is the creation of emotions in the player. This is both true for handcrafted characters in linear story-games like The Witcher 3, as well as in semi-procedural squad-based games like RimWorld and XCOM. Forming such a relationship can manifest itself as empathy and even counter-empathy (i.e. feeling good about someone else's misfortune). Both feelings can lead to different kinds of connections, but also to a stronger fulfillment of a player's need for relatedness. 

    This, according to the PENS-model (Player Experience of Need Satisfaction), should increase player-enjoyment and -retention. Scott Rigby, a game researcher, and his colleagues developed it to study what player-needs should be fulfilled in order to make games more enjoyable. If that model is accurate, then fulfilling the player's need for relatedness through NPC bonding will improve their experience within the game and keep them around for longer.

    XCOM 2 uses customizable, randomized, mortal NPCs for the player to bond with

    Group empathy bias, where players may like or dislike other characters based on their group affiliation in a conflict situation, has been widely studied in non-game contexts. For example, people tend to show more empathy towards their own group compared to another (e.g. fans of different sports teams). At the same time, people appear to display a higher degree of counter-empathy towards members of a competitive group. There's a lot here that can be useful to us, but one of the really fascinating parts is that this intergroup bias even seems to appear in groups that have only just formed. Participants in some of these experiments had just met and had no history with one another whatsoever. The only condition for bias to appear seems to be that the groups find themselves in a competitive situation.

    Through carefully developing intergroup conflict we can make the player more likely to care about gameplay scenarios than they were before. By applying it we could strengthen the feelings of empathy we are aiming for, as they are what will have players coming back for more. Likewise, we get to use counter-empathy to our advantage, too. There are many examples of games that have introduced foils for the player, rivals to fight against, or ‘nemeses' if you will. Using mechanics of intergroup conflict between equal teams with recurring characters should be even more effective at creating relatedness. Intergroup bias provides a powerful framing-device to create more emotionally impactful experiences in the short term and loyalty in the long term. Conflict between our friends and rival NPCs should build sustained engagement through a push and pull of emotions.

    This should all sound very good. But as with any good-sounding claim in any context ever, there remains one crucial question: Does it actually work? Short answer: Yes! Long answer: Let's talk a bit about my data...


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