Imaginary Playmates

DVplPrptwvjNtp_l“Companion characters are a big part of how we do our storytelling,” claims Erickson. “There’ll be a very large variety and amount of companion characters that are available for all of the different classes. Everybody will be adventuring with companions. They won’t be like World of Warcraft pets – they’ll be people you interact with, like in a typical BioWare game.”

Guild Wars has it.  Star Trek and Star Wars promises it.  And players will be divided down the middle by it.

What is it?  Persistent non-playable character (NPC) sidekicks — computer controlled dudes and dudettes that journey beside you, help you out and, ideally, form relationships with your character.  For some, these “companions” are seen as a huge step back in MMO gaming, which is (to them) all about groups of actual people teaming together, helping each other out, forming relationships and being all manner of social.  Yet MMOs have been decidedly turning around in their vision for massive social gameplay by giving players more and more options to play the way they want to.

It’s pretty funny to me that MMO gamers have developed this elitist attitude toward NPC companions, looking down their noses at these “substitute humans” who will only fail in every way that a racist 12-year-old with a spelling impediment would succeed.  After all, haven’t these sorts of companions been a bread-and-butter staple for most video game genres to date?  Not just solo RPGs, mind you, but adventure games, platformers (thanks for the ride, Yoshi!), FPS titles, and so on.  We got them then so we wouldn’t feel totally alone and abandoned in our quest, and that’s a notion that bears merit even in MMORPGs, where other players aren’t always available, dependant or in character.

The latter is one of the best reasons for companion inclusion — NPCs will always, always be in the spirit of the game universe.  They don’t break “character”, but instead they belong to that world, and by associating with you, help you to feel as though you belong as well. I’m totally excited to see what BioWare does with their companions in SWTOR, because those wacky NPCs have been a highlight of their single-player RPGs, where you bicker with them, boss them around, manipulate them, even fall in love with them or have them die for you.

For those who still consider NPC companions silly and detrimental to grouping, consider this: you guys are always complaining about how quests never matter, how your efforts never change anything in the game world other than the gear on your back and your levels.  But what if your adventures had a long-lasting, persistent change in those who travel alongside of you, who are there to remind you of your past heroic deeds or evil dealings?  What if you could do things to them, for them, and they to you — would that be the beginning of an in-game “relationship” that went beyond passing familiarity with NPC quest vendors?  I think so, and I truly hope so.

Some of my favorite memories of BioWare games, come to think of it, involve the NPC sidekicks I got saddled with.  Baldur’s Gate 2 was a masterpiece of this — I vividly remember Imoen’s kidnapping, Jaheria’s flight from the party, Anomen’s redemption to full-fledged paladin status, and Minsc’s famous battle cries (“Go for the eyes, Boo!”) — but KOTOR wasn’t shabby either (although I did want Mission to die a thousand deaths just to silence her).

BioWare’s certainly leading the charge into this area, although other titles are edging toward it: players have raved about Guild Wars’ persistent henchmen that help them overcome group content, others are excited about having persistent NPC bridge crew for Star Trek Online go with their main characters on away missions (sometimes with other players as well), and even World of Warcraft’s hunters know that there’s something special in capturing, training and fighting alongside of a faithful companion for 80 levels.

Kill Ten Rats and Level 1 Human have both been mulling over this topic lately, so I turn you over to their capable hands.

13 thoughts on “Imaginary Playmates

  1. Longasc May 27, 2009 / 7:56 am

    As you mentioned it already… in Guild Wars, people could team up with Henchmen to fill missing spots in the party.

    Later ArenaNet introduced Heroes – your personal henchmen, you could equip them and give them the skills you wanted.

    People love heroes – they are strong and helpful. Often better than random players. But they also made the game much easier and are regarded as the DEATH of random pick-up groups.

    But I think this can be overcome. Design the game with such “companions” in mind, and at least difficulty should be about right.

    I really loved my Baldur’s Gate companions. The thing is, choices did matter. You could not have all companions, had to decide for one and against another one.

    You even have this in Mount & Blade. You cannot have all companions, as some inherently dislike others. E.g. the pious Monk will desert if you play with one of the bloodthirsty warmonger companions. But there are also companions that will thrive if they enjoy the company of other companions.

    I personally think the limitation to ONE companion is a good thing. I think they plan to do this in Guild Wars 2.

    Too many companions are many companions to equip, there is no choice involved. But on the other hand, if you have to pick ONE companion, be sure that there will be 1-2 favorite companions that everyone has.

    I want to bet that this chosen companion will be some kind of support/healer in general.

    Companions also seem to support the “soloplay” concept, something I actually enjoy and do not condemn.

    But this can also lead to you playing with your virtual buddy, focused on achievements and all that. Something gets lost, too.

  2. Longasc May 27, 2009 / 7:57 am

    Oh and by the way, am I the only one that found the Fallout companions to be detrimental, always in the way, requiring me to babysit them and just an annoyance?

    I was a lone wanderer from Fallout 1-3 so far… 🙂

  3. ashleyray May 27, 2009 / 8:08 am

    “It’s pretty funny to me that MMO gamers have developed this elitist attitude toward NPC companions, looking down their noses at these “substitute humans” who will only fail in every way that a racist 12-year-old with a spelling impediment would succeed.”

    This is probably the most profound quote I will read all day. So true, yet thought provoking. Thanks Syp!

  4. tarisai May 27, 2009 / 8:09 am

    i think it’s safe to assume that these companions, though more likely to have some sort of combat role, are not the hunter pets from WoW.

    they will have been included for immersion and to progress the plot.

    i’d imagine that they will have their own personalities which will allow them to agree with your actions and develop a friendship/wingman style relationship, or will take a stance against you if they don’t like the way you go bantha tipping after a long afternoon in the canteena.

    i would also imagine that the KOTOR influence mechanic will be introduced for you to convince or manipulate your companions to think different ways, which could bring up some interesting scenarios…

    e.g. your companion loves nothing more than baking and pressing flowers. you convince them that it’s all gravy to mug a few republic pensioners cause you’ll use the money to fight the good fight against the sith.
    your companion could then start to spiral out of control and lust for wealth by illeagal means leaving you to either morally ground them, or just go with the flow and have your companion influence you.

    i don’t know if it will go that far, but the fact these characters are page turners rather than stat and CC mules is pretty exciting.

  5. Maladorn May 27, 2009 / 11:22 am

    If you have T3-M4 you don’t need Mission… just sayin’.

    BTW, I’m blaming you for pulling me back into KotOR again. Picture this: blaster-wielding Jedi.

  6. Sharon May 27, 2009 / 12:20 pm

    Oh yeah, Mission irritated me to no end as well. So did Tomi Undergallows in NWN and Ashley in Mass Effect.

    Minsc was one of my favorite all time henchmen though! HK-47 is up there too. He had some of the best lines… “While it is true you are a meatbag, I should refrain from addressing you as such.” 😉

    While I’m hoping for more, I’m a bit worried that in TOR, the companion NPCs will be little more than glorified WoW hunter pets, with some new chat options every few levels, occasional random banter, and some helpful skills.

  7. spinks May 27, 2009 / 1:12 pm

    Thing is, you can’t really build up a relationship with a code-toy. Not like you can with real people. (That’s why I dumped MUDs for MUSHes back in the day — NPCs in games are just odd and very programmed.)

    I like the idea of a cool NPC pet though. The worry with the storylines is … well … does everyone else have sidekicks with the same stories then? The appeal in games like KOTOR or Torment is that the NPCs have stories that are designed around the main character. Can’t help wondering how that can possibly work in an MMO.

    I guess we’ll see 🙂 But I’d still rather hang with real people. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that players would see NPCs as mere code toys, because they are!

  8. Syp May 27, 2009 / 1:24 pm

    @ Spinks – That’s absolutely true. However, you don’t always have the benefit of real people’s company, especially someone who is always at your side for most of your adventures.

    I am interested to see how BioWare’s going to handle the “I have the same companion you do” factor, although they’ve said they have a solution.

  9. spinks May 27, 2009 / 1:30 pm

    True, esp for the romantic parts.

    “What do you mean Juhani’s cheating on me with you???!!”

  10. Melf_Himself May 27, 2009 / 9:12 pm

    The fact is, nobody groups all of the time. Since RPG’s are balanced for team play and not for solo play, if you want solo play to have any tactical component then you need to provide NPC’s to fill in the remaining classes.

    For the people who whine about NPC’s taking away their groups… these are clearly people who didn’t want to group anyway. They’re paying their $14.95 a month so they’ll play however they want to, not like you think they should play.

    However, LFG systems should be expanded to include multiple activities, across the entire game world, so that groupers can always find somebody to do a particular task even if the local quest hub appears devoid of life.

    That way everyone can be happy.

  11. Azy May 29, 2009 / 11:26 am

    Run, Boo, run!

    I’m just saying. There are some funny moments to be experienced with NPC companions, be they human or hamster. =P

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