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Tracy Seamster’s “1001 Faces of NPCs”

Tracy Seamster’s “1001 Faces of NPCs” at East Coast Game Conference


I attended Tracy Seamster’s talk on building realistic and engaging non-player characters (NPCs) at the East Coast Game Conference.

Players, Seamster says, remember game characters who are very helpful or very annoying. I can think of several tutorial NPCs whose text pop-ups drove me crazy, can’t you? We also remember nostalgic characters, and so a beloved character can grow and change in different incarnations and still be beloved. A game writer has a special set of challenges in working with an existing character.

When developing NPC dialogue, Seamster suggests working with the art and animation team to blend visuals like characters idles with the personality expressed in dialogue. This is always creates really engaging gameworld characters. (Unfortunately, most of my dialogue writing experience involves being added to a team long after the characters were built.)

For creating characters, Seamster suggests several sources of inspiration. Most writers probably already imagine characters with who have traits stolen from their real-life contacts, and most writers can’t stop mentally tweaking friends’ stories to make them just a little bit darker or a little bit funnier. She also suggest eavesdropping, a writer’s guilty pleasure. (One of my favorite things when I took the train into work, or rode the subway in Brooklyn, was eavesdropping on other commuters. Quick note to people on cell phones: Others can hear you.)

Tracy Seamster suggests obituaries as an interesting resource for building character histories, because the story of a person’s life, plus what a family remembers and wants to share in the newspaper, is a great inspiration. She also suggests tarot readings and tarot books for interesting character motivations.

Reading Dear Prudence, PostSecret and other voyeuristic feeds are great sources of inspiration as well. I spend a certain amount of time tabbing over to sites like this, and certain drama-filled blogs, and I’ll now be seeing this as Research Time instead of Slacking Time. Thanks, Tracy!

In games, setting can be a non-player character as well, just the way the the book’s setting can add to a great novel. A game set on a gorgeous tropical island or a game set in a haunted house will have wildly different feels, and a good writer engages that. (This is sort of the dream situation for a game writer, but of course not every project has this option, and the writer may need to make the best of the setting and characters they’ve received. If the game’s about scientists or about pirates, then the dialogue and character writer has somewhat limited options.)

Gender in Games

“Write a character first, and then assign a gender” Seamster says, in order to avoid that icky feeling a player gets when all the lady characters are gigglingly helpless or all the men are big, stong and dumb.  Seamster also suggests using just a line or two to reveal an NPC’s orientation. Great advice since a token homosexual character is often gay first, and plot-relevant second.

Tracy Seamster has been a creative write on games including EverQuest II, FreeRealms, and The Agency. She’s currently a writer on The Elder Scrolls Online. (She is also a whiz with the drop spindle.)


One Comment

  1. Avatar Mohseen Lala says:

    Now this some very handy advice, but what about NPC characters that rare silent but essential to the game? Like an animal companion that can hunt food or defend a player? Does the NPC writer become obsolete at that point? Is it purely the programmers’ initiative on how design a silent NPC?

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