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Adding AI NPCs as onboarding agents to boost player retention

Inworld Team
January 26, 2024
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This is the fourth part of our four part series on game UX in game onboarding experiences. See the first posts on best practices in video game onboarding, onboarding UI design, and game tutorial design. 

Increasingly, game devs are trying to solve the problem of player retention by designing better game onboarding user experiences. According to Gameanalytics, many game developers have room for improvement. The gaming analytics company found that top-performing titles have an average retention rate on Day 1 of 40%, on Day 7 of 15%, and on Day 28 of 6.5%. But there are many games and genres that severely underperform with Day 28 retention rates as low as 1.5%.  

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to create a great onboarding experience that helps teach players how to play your game while not turning them off by being too didactic. One of the biggest challenges is trying to design games with gamers of all skill levels in mind. You want your onboarding user experience to help new players learn the skills they need to play so they won’t become frustrated – but you also don’t want to turn off players with high skill levels who won’t tolerate intrusive tutorials. 

That’s where AI NPCs come in. AI NPCs don’t just allow for more interactivity with players, they also can help game developers better customize their game onboarding flow and game tutorials to every player. By adding AI NPCs, you give your players more agency around what their onboarding experience will look like – while increasing the interactivity and adding more player agency to game onboarding.

In this article, we’ll explore all the ways that AI NPCs can be used to improve video game onboarding and drive higher player retention numbers. 

How AI NPCs improve player retention

When it comes to player retention, AI NPCs can affect it in a variety of ways. The most obvious is that many players want to engage more naturally with NPCs. In research we conducted with 1,000 gamers, gamers expressed enthusiasm for the inclusion of AI NPCs in games:  

  • 99% felt AI NPCs would enhance gameplay 
  • 78% felt like they would spend more time playing
  • 79% would be more likely to buy a game

One indie game studio found that adding AI NPCs to their game increased playtime by 5%. AI NPCs also help boost a player's sense of agency, which research shows also increases playtime. 

Using AI NPCs as part of video game onboarding

With generative AI transforming how gamers interact with NPCs, there are a number of new possibilities for creating more immersive and effective game tutorials. AI NPCs can be given information about players, game play, the game state, or the game world’s lore that they can pass along to the player in various ways. They can also provide a much more personalized game onboarding user experience. 

Customized and adaptive learning

AI NPCs offer an opportunity to provide customized learning support during game onboarding for gamers of all different skill levels, interests, and play styles by providing on-demand onboarding support.  

  • AI NPCs can help gamers with verbal, written, or demonstrated tips that are customized to the difficulty level the player selected – or even designed to intuitively adapt to the player’s skill level. 
  • They provide help either automatically or only if the player calls on them for help. This ensures that gamers who don’t want hands-on tutorials don’t have to sit through one while those that would benefit from one are able to get the support they need.
  • An AI onboarding character could dynamically modify their guidance based on the player's pace, adapting explanations and challenges to the player to ensure they understand.

Answering questions

One of the challenges of video game tutorial design is having to anticipate and answer in advance via the game onboarding design any questions a player might have since they can’t actually ask their questions to the game developers or the characters in the game. But that’s no longer true with AI NPCs. Game tutorials can now be much more streamlined since players will be able to ask questions at any time should they need to.  

  • Game devs can connect AI NPCs to the game state so a player can ask an AI NPC onboarding agent about anything in the game. If they want to know the name of a creature that crosses their path or attacks them, an AI NPC can be given that information to share. 
  • AI NPC onboarding agents can be the main authority on the game world’s lore, answering any questions that players might be curious about. That means players who love learning about a world’s lore can find out everything they want, while players who would prefer to skip to the action can do that. 

Advice and warnings

AI NPC onboarding guides could offer players tips or demonstrations when players encounter new game elements they’re struggling with – or when they’re about to encounter a new enemy. This could be accomplished seamlessly by casting AI NPC game onboarding agents as a companion character, merchant, sage, or advisor. 

  • An AI NPC could offer warnings about approaching enemies, aiding players during the tutorial phase or the full game. 
  • An AI NPC could also provide quest and game play advice to characters that’s customized to their game play level or interests. For example, the NPC could tell players about different quests depending on their skill level.  
  • An AI onboarding guide could explain or answer questions about game mechanics and game dynamics as players learn how to carry out the game’s core game loops.

Sparring partners

In playable game tutorials, AI NPCs can act as virtual sparring partners or cooperative allies and guide players through interactive gameplay scenarios. 

  • You could cast AI NPC onboarding agents in the role of well-known NPCs like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed did with Darth Vader to make it even more exciting. 
  • In a fighting game, an AI-controlled character could assist players in practicing combos or understanding combat mechanics by engaging in controlled duels or training sessions – while engaging in witty dialogue with the player.

Invisible tutorials

AI NPCs can also subtly guide players without explicitly revealing their role as part of the game tutorial but coming across as just another fun part of the new player experience. 

  • AI NPCs can give advice or tips in a way that’s conversational and fun. 
  • An AI companion could accompany players, subtly influencing their choices or providing hints without breaking immersion.
  • Bystander AI NPCs can also offer guidance, warnings, advice, or direction when they think the player needs it or is struggling. 
  • AI NPCs can provide more customized invisible tutorials by adapting to the player’s abilities. For highly skilled players who find tutorials a waste of time – that will make tutorials something they can skip entirely.  

‘Replayable’ tutorials

AI NPCs can facilitate learning throughout the course of the game by being there for gamers to ask for insight, guidance, or to practice a skill with at any time. This particularly helps if players take time away from the game and need a refresher.  

  • Rather than players needing to go find the replayable tutorial and experience it again, they can just ask their companion a question or for a refresher on how to use a game mechanic.
  • A player could ask an AI companion in a game for a quick refresher on combat mechanics before going to fight the big boss.
  • A player could ask to practice new or old skills with an AI NPC onboarding guide at any time. 
  • AI NPCs can also provide refreshers on the world’s lore or important tips or advice that other characters gave the player earlier in the game if they forgot it. 

Customized onboarding game play

What if you could customize the first hour of play to each individual player based on their interests, curiosities, and preferences? 

  • AI NPCs allow you to create multiple quests for the first portion of your game and have the AI NPCs recommend the one they believe the player will most enjoy. That would ensure that all players get a first experience with your game customized to their interests, improving player retention. 
  • AI NPCs can have their personalities customized by players so that the way they behave and address the player can change from player to player based on their preferences – making their game onboarding experience much more fun and interactive. 
  • AI NPCs can change their behavior to match the player profile of the gamer they’re interacting with. For example, if the player is from the same faction as the AI NPC, they might be more friendly and helpful. 
  • AI NPCs can help create game play experiences during onboarding that players feel they have more agency around – by doing everything from answering questions to suggesting parts of the world they should explore based on their interests. 

Personal connection

Players who forge a personal connection with the game world are more likely to revisit that world. AI NPCs can build a relationship with your players over time and so are able to more quickly forge that connection. 

  • AI NPC onboarding guides can be customized to create and deepen personal connections with your players by using things like Relationship and Player Profile features. 
  • Make your AI NPC onboarding guides funny to ensure that, despite teaching something to your players, they’re also fun to talk to. 
  • Leverage long-term memory features to ensure that your AI NPCs remember important details about past conversations with your players. 

Example: An AI NPC as an onboarding guide

Wondering what it could look like to use an AI NPC as an onboarding guide? Here’s a great example showing different ways that AI NPCs could be deployed to increase engagement and player retention by building relationships with players and customizing their interactions to every player. 

PEA in Cygnus Enterprises

NetEase’s Team Miaozi made their companion character a sassy and sarcastic AI NPC. While PEA is there to help players throughout the game, she also plays a critical onboarding role.

  • PEA gives players warnings about upcoming dangers in their environment, replacing other types of tutorials like tooltips or pop-ups. 
  • PEA can answer questions about the game like what kind of creature is attacking the player or what to do with a specific resource. 
  • PEA’s sarcastic personality helps draw players in and creates a personal connection to the game. 
  • As PEA is a companion throughout the game, she functions like a replayable tutorial. Players can ask her for a refresher at any time in the future.  

Leverage AI NPCs as game onboarding agents in your game

The possibilities are endless for adding AI NPCs as onboarding agents to your game. Whether you want to add more support for gamers who need it or provide a more personalized and customized experience, you can leverage AI NPCs to do so. 

Curious about AI NPCs? Check out our case study of how NetEase integrated AI NPCs to their game - and get started in our Studio today!

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