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?