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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What is Blizzard thinking with WoW PvP?

I’ve been keeping vaguely up to date with the Wrath of the Lich King beta. And because it’s in beta and a lot of decisions still aren’t set in stone, I never thought there was much point pontificating too much on their plans. But what they are planning with PvP and the PvP gear right now puzzles me a lot.

Currently you can run battlegrounds (like scenarios in WAR) and earn honor points from them which you can spend to get gear. You can run arena (a totally separate ladder system based on 2/3/5 man group deathmatches in small arenas) and get a different set of arena points which you can spend to get better gear. Some pieces can only be bought with honor gear.

Arena can be much more of a hardcore prospect, battlegrounds can be queued for solo (like scenarios, you get put into a raid group when you zone in) so can be more casual.

They had originally planned to wipe all of the honor and arena points when the new expansion hit so that people couldn’t save them up and use them later to buy level 80 PvP gear. The idea being that everyone started with a blank slate and would be running battlegrounds together. Which is not a bad plan. Then due to screams of overreaction, they decided instead to leave the existing points but heavily inflate the prices for the level 80 gear, whilst giving out more points at level 80. So effectively doing the same thing but letting people keep ‘their’ points, even though they’ll be mostly worthless.

So far so good. But then Kalgan (one of the Lead Game Designers) posts this on the forums. And here he sets out their plans very clearly. There will be craftable gear for people starting out in PvP to use in battlegrounds. But all the better quality gear will require both arena points and battleground points. So the casual players who ran a few battlegrounds for fun will be pushed into arena if they want to upgrade, and the arena players will have to run battlegrounds.

See this is exactly what I mean about giving players the illusion of choice. If I hate arena (and a lot of people do, it’s very different from queueing up for Alterac Valley when you’re bored and have a free moment) then why force me to do it? And in PvP, the quality of your gear directly affects your survivability which affects your FUN. It really isn’t fun to be rolled the whole time by people with better gear. In the current system, although the arena gear is better, the stuff you can get from battlegrounds is still good. So there are effectively 2 upgrade paths. They don’t plan to do this in the expansion.

Kalgan’s comment:

That aside, it is important for me to point out that the arenas were never really meant to become quite as much of a focal point for the overall pvp game as they have (part of why we set the system up so players could get the full benefit from the system with only 10 total games per week), it’s more of a natural consequence of the fact that because we have a way to measure success that feels reasonably balanced against pve, we’re able to put high-end items there, which on its own creates the focus of importance.

So arenas weren’t planned to be so dominant but they’re going to go with it anyway. He has no answer for people who hate arena and liked battlegrounds for their casual-friendly nature except ‘get skills, noob!’. I’m reading this and thinking about how much fun I’ve had with PvP in WAR, and I’m sad to see a good game like WoW deliberately make itself unfun in that aspect.

You’re never alone with a clone

Now it’s the EU servers’ turn to get some clones! This means that some of the servers are going to be copied (right down to every character and every content of every bank vault) and players who had a character on the old one can then decide which of the clones they wish to play on, without losing their characters.

Details are here.

The cloned servers will be as follows:

Karak Eight Peaks will be cloned to Tor Anroc
Karak Azgal will be cloned to Zhufbar
Karak Hirn will be cloned to Yvresse
Eltharion will be cloned to Tiranoc

Amusingly, my test Witch Elf from yesterday’s post is now going to be a clone. I hope the Order guys are as scared as I am.

European server list announced!

English servers listed in full:

Core

Axe Bite Pass
Karag Dron
Karag Orrud
Karak Eight Peaks
Karak Ungor
Karak-Azgal
Karak-Hirn
Karak-Izor
Karak-Norn
Karak-Vlag
Karaz-a-Karak

Open RvR

Dragonback Mountains
Eltharion
Finuval Plain
Mount Silverspear
Sea of Dreams
Shifting Isles
Tiranoc

Role-Play

Burlok
Makaisson

Open RvR Role Play

Alarielle
Ellyrion

The full list of European servers can be found listed here, including all the foreign-language servers.

And a bit of further explanation from Magnus, which made me laugh…

So the German servers are based upon the Empire, the Italian based upon Tilea, the French based upon Bretonnia, the Spanish based upon Estalia. We were considering basing the English servers on Albion, but we soon realised that having dozens of servers which in one way or another relate to fog and rain would be quite depressing, so we went with Dwarf and Elf names instead.

Personally, I like the notion of being able to see which language community a server belong to just by its name. Regarding the many Karak- based names, I think we will soon grow to learn these names by heart, and I further doubt that the first half of the name will be mentioned in every-day conversations. Gamers are renown for their ability to abbreviate pretty much anything.

Mythic Updates: Changes to Open RvR Rules

Yup, you read that right. Following feedback, Mythic have decided to change the chicken rules for the Open RvR ruleset.  Instead of being chickenised whenever you go into a lower tier zone, you will now be able to enter a zone one tier lower and gank the lowbies without any chicken penalty. Hurrah!

I think it’s a good call and should do a lot to assauge the concerns of people like Keen and Snafzg (sorry, can’t find the link for this one, I’m half asleep this morning) who like their RvR a little more unrestrained. It will mean more of a race to level on the Open RvR servers though, since higher levels now have more of an advantage. Whether or not people will mostly bother with the lower tiers is something we’ll just have to wait and see. Unlike other MMOs, there aren’t a lot of reasons to go back.

Also it gives me an excuse to post the chicken picture again.

Keep yourself busy

EA tests new marketing by offering £20k of free petrol at a petrol station in North London to celebrate the launch of Mercenaries 2. Chaos ensues at the petrol station involved – locals whine. Gets reported in The Telegraph’s motoring section. It got a lot of news space, the game was mentioned in each. Free petrol was limited to £40 per car (the game costs £27-£40 depending on platform).  Gets called a smart campaign. We agree – but have spent many happy minutes contemplating a similar-style campaign for WAR where Marble Arch is turned into the Gates of Ekrund and tourists fight Londoners!

Hurrah, Spore finally got released. Cue more Spore articles! While we’re waiting for the sporn to take over the universe and me to figure out the tribal phase, here’s an interview with Will Wright about the launch. And here’s a cute article about the world’s tiniest billboard – advertising Spore, of course.

How to break into the Industry! Any Industry!

US Politics has been in the news a lot over here this week.  Seems there’s some election going on in the US. Not sure who to vote for? Luckily, the Edge has examined the candidates’ gaming credentials. Meanwhile, Daniel O’Brien at cracked.com cuts to the chase because there’s only one issue he thinks Sarah Palin must address.

Tobold is one of our favourite bloggers, and he notes for the record that Mythic (US) have given him a free WAR account. Yay for freebies, and congrats Tobold! I find this amusing because like us, he’s planning to play in the EU anyway because of timezone issues. Naturally, other bloggers have reacted in a variety of ways. Wall of Text wants to know how he can get freebies, and Syp ponders the ethics of freebies/pay for bloggers.

Thanks to PixiePalace for finding this picture of a badass female warrior in fantasy-style heavy armour. She’s right in that it’s quite difficult to find images like that which aren’t showing a lot of skin.

Would friendly fire work in an MMO? I know the people I play with, so am glad there is no friendly fire!

Killed in a Smiling Accident mourns the loss of some secret classes, last seen in the super secret alpha stage of the game; the Scion of Slaanesh, the Dwarf Beer Master, the Orc Negotiator, the High Elf Conscientious Objector, the Dark Elf Emolator, and the Human Bloggerer (thankfully not quite extinct yet.) Kept us smiling, for sure.

Keen and Syp weigh in with thoughts about the chicken mechanic staying on the open-RvR servers. It’s an interesting debate, and apparently Mythic are now surveying feelings on it, via the preview weekend+ players.

Laws of the playground

Regis had some comments to make earlier this week about his dislike of instanced PvP. I was thinking about this myself. Instanced PvP is a very different creature to it’s uninstanced counterpart, and has developed through different games into an interesting sandpit type of minigame. Just looking at the sheer numbers of scenarios available in WAR, it’s clear that the designers have embraced the notion with rather more vigour than WoW, which has four and may not be adding any in the next expansion.

I can never get the same feel from a battleground as from world PvP. I think it’s to do with the sense of scale. All my most exciting PvP memories are from world PvP. But it’s undeniable that battlegrounds do have some very real advantages, and they play to how the playerbase has developed.

In a battleground, you are guaranteed a fight. Think of them as being like the Big Brother House. It’s an environment designed to make people fight pointlessly over made up objectives! But not only that, it also guarantees even(ish) numbers of people from both sides. So not only do you get a fight, but you get a fair fight, numbers-wise. Think about that. So if you log on in the evening and just want to go fight stuff, you have the choice of standing around a keep for 2 hours hoping the other side will turn up, or you zone straight into an instanced PvP playground and go mess around with king of the hill, murderball, or holding random objectives and you are guaranteed a load of other people to fight. And if it’s a game like WAR where you can level via PvP you will get some xp out of it too.

I do think of it like a playground. It doesn’t mean anything. You can zone into the same battleground again and again and again. You know where your starting point is, you know where the other side’s starting point is. It doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun fights or play around the scenery but it is a very smallscale type of game. (That’s why I called it a minigame.) On the bright side, it does mean that you could (in theory at least) use the instanced part to make some very unique and interesting setups. We haven’t seen any scenarios that took place underwater, on a glacier, on floating islands connected by bridges that can be built or blown up, but you could do it! The possibilities are there, just as in instanced PvE you can create unique and scripted events that might not work so well for world PvE. But no one has really pushed the limits yet.

World PvP compared to that somehow feels grander and more involving. At least if you take a keep in DaoC you can hang your guild colours on it and know that they will stay there … at least for awhile. Keeps in WAR will be similar. So really my issue with instanced PvP is that one of the big attractions to me of a MMO is playing in a persistent world. Battlegrounds are not persistent, only the xp/renown points that you get stay with you.

That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun and they certainly do pass the time. But it isn’t the same and it isn’t the reason that I play. Having said that, the days when people were happy to spend all evening hanging out at the Albion Milegate without seeing much action are pretty much gone. Players don’t have that kind of patience, we expect a game to keep us busy and occupied.

PvE is affected by this also — people don’t want to spend hours and hours queuing up to get into a group at some prime levelling spot. Sure, we used to do that and it was great for the community spirit but designers have decided, not unreasonably, that it wasn’t very fun. Sometimes you just have to shrug and say “those days are gone,” and I don’t think any modern game shows signs of going back. WAR certainly gives you the options of both world PvP and instanced. It will be largely down to the playerbase to decide what it wants to do.

Maybe sometime a really unregulated sandbox game (like EVE maybe) will be made again. Until then, we better get used to playing in our sandpits and playgrounds.