A NPC To Call My Own

mankrikSince 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?

10 thoughts on “A NPC To Call My Own

  1. Telke October 20, 2009 / 9:22 am

    I think half of Westfall’s named NPCs turn up again in Wrath as well, in Grizzly Hills – all with shiny new armor.

    the now-Captain Gryan Stoutmantle can’t remember if we took the chest, the staff or the leggings (if we’ve done those quests, else he just says hello) but he does remember your face.

    The first quest to talk to him is called “Report to Gryan Stoutmantle… Again”
    I thought that was awesome, and agreed, it’d be great to see more of that.

  2. Genda October 20, 2009 / 9:36 am

    Love the Mankrik pic. Classic.

    Hey, do you know where his wife is?

  3. g30ff October 20, 2009 / 10:57 am

    I had my first encounter with a nemesis last night. I know it’s been a month since the game was released, but my altism has been horrible. Anyway, it was very cool and a lot of fun to see my created villain causing chaos. I can’t wait for her to pop in and stir things up again.

    Thinking about it, I don’t know why this hasn’t been embraced more by MMOs. I mean, SPRPGs time and again have party members and companions that accompany the player throughout the game. And as the story progresses, NPCs in the world are moved around because of the plot.

    I guess the problem then is that MMOs don’t have storylines. They just have quests so that you can cap your level and start your gear grind.

  4. CirdanX October 20, 2009 / 11:34 am

    I´m realy that curious how the companions will work out in TOR, from what they have said they sound more alive then some of the NPC´s i have seen in single player games. (Baldurs Gate or KotoR anyone?)

    I hope they can get the technical aspect of these NPC`s right, as in pathfinding, combat responses etc. Makes me also wonder how huge the impact of them will be in pve (and maybe pvp???), guess these will be a balancing act.

    Can´t ealy remember the time i have been that excited about an mmo in the last 11 years, well maybe WAR because i´m a fan from the IP, but that didn´t work out unfortunaly.

    As far as i understood, influence on individual NPC´s and not just a faction, they are already trying that system out with Dragon Age companions. Guess i will see how great that works out in ~2 weeks.

    Waiting is truely the hardest time 🙂

  5. Julian October 20, 2009 / 12:47 pm

    “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?”

    Because teams usually have 1 billion managers, 500 million artists, 200 million programmers, 100 million bad QA people, 500 thousand producers, 100 thousand network engineers, 1000 sound people, 500 CS reps, 10 good QA people and one writer.

    Sometimes the writer is optional.

  6. FraidOfTheLight October 20, 2009 / 2:06 pm

    I guess there has to be a balance between NPCs being conveniently available to buy or sell stuff, or hand out quests.

    I would certainly like to see what might happen if the occupants of in-game settlements were made more alive. For instance, would it change the game much if you turn up at your favourite shop, only to find it closed until the following morning? Or have to search all around town for a particular quest giver, because he’s out for his afternoon stroll?

    I agree with Telke that having NPCs’ behaviour affected by your past actions would add a sense of immersion. We’re used to it in single-player games, where of course the world revolves around the player. It would be nice to see it in MMOs too.

    FotL

  7. Julian October 20, 2009 / 4:45 pm

    “For instance, would it change the game much if you turn up at your favourite shop, only to find it closed until the following morning? Or have to search all around town for a particular quest giver, because he’s out for his afternoon stroll?”

    Yup.

    This is the same reason why things like, for example, that quest to kill the three bandits in LOTRO where they would only spawn during the night (game time) was turned into a simple quest with normal, timed spawns; it messes too much with the player’s RL schedule.

    If a player can only log in in chunks of 1-2 hours at a time, and this time coincides with the game time in which the stores are closed or the NPCs are out and about who knows where, then that player is effectively locked out of content and progression through no fault of his own (because we can’t tell him to adapt his RL schedule to the game’s, ffs 🙂 )

    There’s a ton of things you can do to enliven NPCs, but you have to be careful.

  8. Sunny October 20, 2009 / 11:58 pm

    No bond with NPC’s? Untrue, Syp! Terl Arakor from WoW and I have had a long relationship with each other.

    For nearly 5 years now I run past him and wave, and he stands there. Sometimes I’ll blow a kiss, and he’ll stand there. One New Years Eve I got drunk and… well. (He just stood there.) For a while after I thought he’d be all weird about it, but the next time I ran past I took a chance and waved at him – and he stood there.

    It’s this thing we do. Funny guy, that Terl Arakor. Funny guy.

  9. Syp October 21, 2009 / 8:28 am

    @ Sunny – And that is in no way abnormal! I praise such one-sided relationships!

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