I want to preface this idea by acknowledging that NPC implementation is always going through changes, and that in general a lot more work is planned to improve their behavior. I’m writing this post looking far ahead, in hopes that it may be added if (once!?) the needs-based
AI is complete and functional.
Collapsed for Space
For a while, I’ve felt that the default rate of encountering other random survivors is far too low. Even when turned up to 0.6x I’ve not seen a single one in my half-year-old world. It seems so strange that my own player character was completely alone in a moderately large town that is now somehow fully infested with a population of undead and not a one other living scavenger.
Especially after weeks of staying alive, becoming a distinct presence in the area, and leaving plenty of signs of my survival a la piles of pulped corpses, I think more encounters with other survivors is almost necessary. That got me thinking…
Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup has a pool of unique monsters that wander its procedurally-generated dungeon. They always spawn with the same loot, pose the same threat, and behave the same way even through different playthroughs. What might be a challenge for one game might become a piece of cake in another, depending on your situation and abilities.
Since things do exist in the Cataclysm multiverse that are deterministic, such as the existence of a refugee center full of static-spawned NPCs, and especially given how many groups of survivors you begin to encounter in the mid-game by completing quests, I think there’s a case to be made for pre-determined survivors that enter the world at a certain time post-Cataclysm having survived their own slice of hell and with their own goals.
I think it would be super cool to have static characters with a chance of appearing that possess their own agenda, not being affiliated with (or perhaps being a representative of) factions, and that pose a unique threat or boon to anything encountering them. I’ve always wondered if there is a leader to the Hell’s Raiders akin to The Walking Dead’s Negan. Or if I could encounter that one survivor who wanted to sail to Canada (guy’s gotta be pretty stacked). Or any number of potential player-tier survivors: whoever were those elite survivor zombies before they died, and how did I not manage to encounter them beforehand?
Encountering a unique NPC means both a calculation on whether or not it’s a good idea to stay in the area, to engage them or not. A particularly aggressive unique could seek out the player, hunting them. A stealthy one may make little sound and thieve high-value items. An arsonist could only care about destroying buildings. Perhaps you’ll encounter a persuasive NPC with a silver tongue who tries to recruit you for some group? Perhaps there’s a ranged shooter in the distance you’ll need to stay privy to unless you want to keep your head?
I don’t think adding these static components will alter gameplay much besides adding another layer to encounters. There’s already a strong meta for out-of-character knowledge that presupposes successful playthroughs, such as knowledge of science lab turret locations, or prison layouts, or how to access map extra secrets. I feel like the excitement of saying, “Oh man, Danger Ranger Rick has showed up, how am I gonna move around this town now with him on my tail?” is more of an improvement to the game than it is a detriment.
Plus, look at the success of Escape From Tarkov’s randomness, and how the chaos of unpredictable engagement spurs on creative action and tactics. It also feels incredibly real, inasmuch as it is sometimes frustratingly brutal – just ensure the more powerful uniques don’t stroll onto the map by day 2 and I think most of the foreseeable issues will be largely avoidable.
TL;DR: More random NPCs, please. Add a very small chance for an NPC to spawn from a pool of ‘uniques’ that have consistent gear, behavior, dialogue, and goals across worlds. These NPCs can begin to spawn after a certain time, with more days having passed before extremely dangerous appearances. Uniques may have a special motive, such as hunting the player, destroying terrain, or seeking a specific item. More NPCs means a new layer of depth and thoughtfulness to exploring areas and wandering around places that may have been previously ‘clear’ or safe to the player.