Would you swap your guildie for an NPC ‘companion’

So among all the press releases and interviews about Star Wars: The Old Republic last week, one of the features of the game that Bioware has been pimping is the companion NPC. Not to be confused with a pet (oh, who are we kidding?), the companions can be recruited, will have storylines attached to them and can even be romantic interests for characters. We assume they will also fight with you. In any case, the idea is that players will be more involved with the companion NPCs.

And I don’t know about anyone else but although this sounds fun and all, it leaves me with a chill down my spine. I feel as though I am looking into the future of MMOs and there is less and less place for that whole annoying ‘interacting with real people’ thing.

Real people are annoying. They aren’t always there when you want them to be. They don’t always want to do the same things that you want to do. Sometimes they play badly, or not the way you think they should play. They mess up your schedule, they cause drama, they make it difficult for you to do the stuff in game that you want to do. They cause frustration.

NPC companions could solve a lot of that. In games like Guild Wars, you can have a whole party of fairly competent NPC companions which makes the levelling game a solo affair when it may not have been before. And people love them. Guild Wars isn’t my game of choice (difficult to explain why. I like a lot of things about it but I never felt the immersion; maybe because the trade channel is so amazingly horrid. An auction house would have improved that game immeasurably) but I liked having a whole group to control. I think most players would love to be able to grab some NPCs with which to complete all the group content in an MMO up to and including raids! Not only that but the NPC never bitches at you, can be programmed to be a well behaved love interest, and will admire you and pander to your every whim at the press of a button.

The other issue with real people ™ is that it takes time to form relationships and make a community in a game. That means time hanging out and chatting. Time in instances. Even time in scenarios if you see the same people around a lot. You can’t really short-cut it. That means sometimes you’ll be sitting around bored because other people are doing something else. There’s a random factor. A lot of players would prefer to focus their time completely on progressing their character and leave that socialising stuff to other people. The NPC companion/s remove that necessity, they may or may not require time but at least they are decent enough to keep to the player’s schedule. They don’t deliberately organise all the most fun events for when the player is offline or has their mother-in-law turn up for an unexpected visit. They don’t level without you.

There is no doubt that NPCs are more convenient, and no doubt in my mind that if you gave most people the choice, they’d vote for more NPC AI and less reliance on other real people. I was talking with Arbitrary this weekend about why we dislike the term healbot. I wonder if part of it is because we know that most people would LOVE the chance to replace a ‘real person’ healer with an actual bot that would follow them around whenever they wanted, always prioritise them for healing, have a minimal programmed reaction time, never complain, and best of all … never want loot for its alts.

I’m left feeling that this more than anything else is why PvP is such an important element for MMOs to get right (if they do it). It isn’t impossible to use pets and NPCs in PvP but real people are better allies AND better enemies. The PvE bot-based MMO is going to happen and it will be fun for lots and lots of people. But I like the mad drama, the stupid conversations on TS, the daft people you end up grouping with, and the whole gamut of playing with real people. There’s no reason why PvE can’t be a solo experience and great fun, but all my best MMO memories involve real people and I would hate to see that die because producers decided that most people would find it too much hassle.

Are you looking forwards to NPC companions? And why is it that games so rarely give us the option of having healing pets?

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13 Responses

  1. NPC companions are good for solo RPG’s, but in an MMO it’s all about grouping with real people. There is no real need to fill the lack of some skills/abilities of your character with NPCs.

    Nevertheless many people would like NPC companions (e.g. pet classes are always popular, so this raising of the status of the pets to real companions would attract many people), but there would be something missing if everyone runs around alone with his companions with no need for help from other people.
    I think those companions are an artifact from KOTOR…

  2. NPC companions are great for allowing people to solo content that groups probably wouldn’t have formed up to do anyway.

    I don’t think anybody is suggesting that the companions would be so uber as to be able to let you raid solo. They’re just a way to let you clear random quests and such at dead times when you can’t find people to group with to do more fun stuff.

    And if people want to use them to solo exclusively and never group, ah well. Those people would probably not have grouped anyway. You can’t force people to do something they don’t want to do, no matter how illogical their actions seem to you.

  3. We still need to hear about the MMO part of SWTOR, but I’m guessing the NPC companions will mostly be relegated to the single player portions of the game.

    Perhaps a game where we all have 1 or 2 ‘pets’ would be feasible, but in a party of 5 or 6 the screen would soon get very cluttered, never mind a raid! Also, I imagine they’ll only create so many companion models, and it will kind of destroy the romance if everyone is running around with an identical ‘love interest’, because he or she just happens to be the most attractive 🙂

    My best guess is that we’ll see a pretty rigid separation between the MMO bits and the single player bits, much like Tortage in AoC. I’m guessing our NPC companions will stay on the Millennium Falcon/Ebon Hawk/Ginger Rooster whenever we head out to play with the non-artificial intelligence.

    I’m imagining an MMO style combat engine that also works pretty well for single player, maybe like in Final Fantasy XII where you can ‘program’ your companions to do certain things at certain times, i.e. use a potion when below 25% health.

    Perhaps such a system will have positive benefits. If those crazy DPS types are forced to manage tank and healer NPCs in order to progress in the single player portions, they might learn a few things about the subtleties of aggro management for when they group with real people! That’s if Bioware even go with a the holy trio approach, of course.

    I also suspect that the single player portion of the game might be optional, for those that can’t be bothered with it, but this is all pretty much just wild speculation at the moment.

  4. We still need to hear about the MMO part of SWTOR, but I’m guessing the NPC companions will mostly be relegated to the single player portions of the game.

    Perhaps a game where we all have 1 or 2 ‘pets’ would be feasible, but in a party of 5 or 6 the screen would soon get very cluttered, never mind a raid! Also, I imagine they’ll only create so many companion models, and it will kind of destroy the romance if everyone is running around with an identical ‘love interest’, because he or she just happens to be the most attractive 🙂

    My best guess is that we’ll see a pretty rigid separation between the MMO bits and the single player bits, much like Tortage in AoC. I’m guessing our NPC companions will stay on the Millennium Falcon/Ebon Hawk/Ginger Rooster whenever we head out to play with the non-artificial intelligence.

    I’m imagining an MMO style combat engine that also works pretty well for single player, maybe like in Final Fantasy XII where you can ‘program’ your companions to do certain things at certain times, i.e. use a potion when below 25% health.

    Perhaps such a system will have positive benefits. If those crazy DPS types are forced to manage tank and healer NPCs in order to progress in the single player portions, they might learn a few things about the subtleties of aggro management for when they group with real people! That’s if Bioware even go with a the holy trio approach, of course.

    I also suspect that the single player portion of the game might be optional, for those that can’t be bothered with it, but this is all pretty much just wild speculation at the moment.

  5. I suggest everyone get a house mate who plays WAR, even better make it a twin who has the same interests, what are you looking at? It worked for me.

    On the healbot pet thing, well you’d then have to make the class fragile as heal pet+character would have to equal another character. Which would lead to situations when the heal pet was dead you wold stand no chance, its really too hard to balance.

  6. Guild Wars Tactics; Tips and Tools for Guild Wars; Forum, Charactercreator und vieles mehr.
    http://www.gw-tactics.de

  7. IMHO, NPCs can be a good thing, so long as they are nerfed compared to a regular PC. And I think that is what is happening with GW (I’ll tell you later, once I HAVE a Hero with me).
    Sometimes you need someone to complete your group, you want a specific character and ther is no one available. At least, with a NPC, you’re good to go. True, he will not be as good as a real player, but it’s better than nothing.

  8. I ❤ Guild Wars bots. Once they came out I did 100% of my PvE solo, and the brief period where my roommate and I were able to repeatedly reach the Hall of Heroes with the two of us and 4 bots was the most fun I had in that game.

  9. Y’know, I love pet classes. I’ve not played with GW Heroes yet, but I’m looking forward to it. Thing is… why bother with an MMO? At that point, it’s effectively a single player RPG. GW is OK, since its business model isn’t subscription based, but few things in gaming these days bother me more than charging a subscription for what is effectively a single player experience. (*glare at WoW*)

    This Bioware thing is especially bothersome in my mind. They are great at making single player RPGs. If they go the GW business model, I can see maybe picking up the game. If they go the subscription route, I’m just going to wind up very, very ticked that they effectively turned what should have been a series of great single player RPGs into a flavor-of-the-decade MMO mashup.

  10. Ah, sorry for the double post, but if it’s not obvious, I love single player RPGs. I wish I could play WoW as a single player offline game. GW is great, since I can effectively play it solo. In my mind, WAR is the closest thing we have to a real MMO, where it’s massive, multiplayer, and does things that only an online game could do. To me, WoW and GW could function just fine as true single player games, maybe with optional online multiplayer. I suspect that Bioware’s SWTOR opus will be in the same vein, especially given its pedigree. That’s why the idea of making it a subscription MMO rankles me so much.

  11. nobody said anything about healing pets in comments so far so I Will! Healing companions would be great! But it would drive people nuts in pvp. You would actually have to kill the pet first (gasp) Personally I think its a great thing, and making healing players optional since it seems its not so glamorous no matter what you do to attract people to it, and just make healing players a bit more effective at it (some math-minded percentage to make grouping still possible without but preferable with)

  12. I believe FFXI did it first. So its not “that” amazing in a mainstream mmo. One would hope that 4-5 years ( by the time it comes out) that the system can be improved upon, but the general idea of a NPC companion you can level up with and power up via quests and such isn’t exactly new.

    I only used the system very briefly and I may be misremembering slightly. but the FFXi one had a fairly strict time limit on it, but it was pretty smart, pretty strong, and was in general not controllable like a normal pet, and the abilities it had//used was based largely on how you leveled it up with a bit of options for something akin to a rudimentary ff12 gambit system ( that is tell it to focus on your target/weakest/attacking allies, or use healing spells ar 50%, or cast debuffing spells type stuff)

    In general given the like ~1hour duration 3+ cooldown or some such the “companion” was mostly used for and designed for allowing players to solo while waiting for a group to form up, and by and large given the necessity of grouping for leveling it worked ok.

    I’m not knocking bioware just because someone else did it first, but I do think its important to know and appreciate what other companies did first and what worked for them and what did not.

  13. Does one really need to remind you of ‘buffbots’?

    Otherwise known as people dual-comping a main character and another character there specficially for the buffs. This ran rampant during the latter half of DAoC’s lifespan. As far as I’m concerned, most NPC companion ideas would end up about this way.

    Unwise, I’ve never found pets to be a great handholder for learning aggro management unless the person will DIE if they pull, and the kind of class it would take for that to be true (or the kind of content) would almost be unreasonable.

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