Since the dawn of video game RPGs, there’s been nearly one consistent factor that has changed little over the decades: Non-Player Characters have their boots nailed to the floor as some sort of Dante Infernoish punishment, doomed to spend eternity waiting for a mobile player character to run up and converse with it. With a few daring exceptions where NPCs actually moved through towns and had a day/night cycle (Witcher, Fable, some of WAR’s city NPCs), we’ve long since been exploring these worlds where life is standing stock still, and only our own movement provides the illusion that it is “living”.
Is it any surprise, then, that we rarely connect or bond with NPCs in MMOs? They’re essentially vending machines that spit out a couple quests or provide us with a way to offload our ill-gotten goods, then left behind to never be seen again. We progress, they remain locked into place.
Yet it’s interesting to note that there are exceptions to this, and that those exceptions resonate greatly within the playerbase. Take Mr. Hemet Nesingwary, the infamous safari hunter of WoW, who Blizzard has moved (and advanced in levels) from his original spot in STV to Outland and then to Northrend. Because he became mobile in a very limited sense and had follow-up interactions with players, he grew to be a significant and well-remembered NPC. Plus, he was a species-murdering psychotic, but that’s neither here nor there.
One of Champions’ better features is their Nemesis system, where a player-created NPC returns time and again to taunt and attack the player, developing a certain “relationship” over a period of time and space. Cryptic was quite right in assuming that this would resonate with their customers, and I would hope other companies would take a note from this experiment.
It appears as though BioWare is also working hard to include persistent NPCs, at least in the form of player “companions” who join up and walk alongside gamers, developing relationships as the game progresses.
I guess I’ve always wished that companies would realize that NPCs have a potential to be more than a mere quest-giver or armor-repairer. If I’ve done a huge string of quests for a guy, it’d be great to be remembered for that, and perhaps see him or her show up in the future as a follow-up. It’d be spectacular if I could start a feud with a grumpy forgesmith, or woo the tavern barmaid, or help a guy become a mayor of a town so that he would owe me “favors” in the future. If we want to be able to impact the game world in a meaningful way, why not start with the characters in the world instead of the architecture, landscape and mobs?