In Defense of Companions

I want this guy as my companion. I'll call him "Doug".

Keen is perturbed.  Unsettled.  Rankled.  Itchy.

Whatever the emotion, it stems from BioWare’s recent forthcomings about the much-vaunted companion system in TOR, something we’ve deduced would be similar to their RPGs, but a little fuzzy how it might work in a MMO context.  What upsets Keen — and I’m certainly not picking on him, as I’ve heard this in multiple arenas — is that this can be perceived as a move to over-mollify soloers and steer the game away from grouping.  Y’know, the whole second “M” in the MMORPG thing.

We certainly don’t know how companions will look and function fully until we play the game, but BioWare is being pretty up front about their use — that you can develop “relationships” with them, that they can be summoned, that they aren’t necessary but fully optional, and they can fill in for a party role (or the entire party) if one wishes.

It’s unfortunate that he quickly jumps on the bandwagon of attacking BioWare’s inclusion of their signature strengths by telling them to go back to single player RPGs.  This is an easy attack that in many ways echoes what Blizzard went through back in 2003-4 — it’s easy to forget that not everyone was on board with the whole WoW concept back then, that some really felt Blizzard should just stick with the genres they already did best.  And some folks were highly — highly — upset that Blizz was about to release a game that made soloing a viable way to level and catered to casuals, afraid that it would de-emphasize grouping, community, and whatever supposedly made MMORPGs great.  Raids I guess?

But Blizzard took their signature strengths — their polish, their mass accessibility, their art style — and turned it into a successful game.  The parallel isn’t perfect with BioWare, but I hardly think it’s fair to tell them to eschew their unique strengths and interests and to stop making a MMO that has any of the elements of their SPRPGs.

While companions may very well be of the devil and cause the downfall of all MMOs everywhere, here are a few words in their potential defense:

  1. TOR will hardly be the first MMO to offer NPC characters to help flesh out a party or a solo team — Guild Wars’ heroes, any MMO with a persistent pet class, LOTRO’s skirmish system, Star Trek Online’s bridge crew, and even Diablo II’s henchmen.  And guess what?  In the games that have them, people kinda like them — and the communities haven’t imploded.
  2. Will it discourage grouping altogether?  I can’t say.  But it gives players options of how they want to play the game, to be more social in grouping or more solo, and I’m always a fan of more options in playstyles.
  3. The great thing I’ve taken away from the companion discussion is that they will enable players to build and play the characters they WANT to play, not the ones they feel forced to spec a certain way just because they’re capable of it (tanking/healing comes to mind).  I don’t want to tank?  I don’t have to.  I don’t want to heal?  I don’t have to.
  4. And outside of mere combat, companions serve an important purpose of providing an in-game connection to the story and lore.  This isn’t just for role-players, but for anyone who has been crying out for a MMO to notice what they’ve actually done and respond to it — companions can do that.
  5. In the end, a NPC companion will never have the skill of a player, nor have the humanity behind it.  And I don’t think we’ll see a game where nobody will ever want to group, because we do play these games for human contact and connection.  It’s just that sometimes, for various reasons (time of the day, feeling a bit anti-social, play preference), we don’t want to group and feel equally rankled if we have no way around it.  So here’s an option, just not the most ideal option.

33 thoughts on “In Defense of Companions

  1. Grimfire December 3, 2009 / 9:31 pm

    I still have mixed feelings about this. I didn’t mind Companions in kotor or dragon age. But I mist admit I much prefer focusing my attention on a single toon. However in the aforementioned games it would be suicide to go it alone.

    At the end of the day I’m ok with the idea of companions as long as I am not required to bring them along. The idea of a companion that can simply fill open spots in a questing group and to progress the story could actually be quite interesting.

  2. Adam December 3, 2009 / 9:34 pm

    “that they aren’t necessary but fully optional, and they can fill in for a party role (or the entire party) if one wishes”

    I don’t see how this can be so, if the game is to be balanced at all. If they can fill a party role, why wouldn’t everyone have one out always on challenging content? And if they are always out, then either bioware balances for this (and they aren’t optional,) or bioware doesn’t balance for it, and the content is rendered trivial by their presence.

    I suppose any limits on people in flashpoints/instances could include companions (so you’d say be allowed any combination of players and companions up to five,) thought that has its own issues.

  3. Velzic December 3, 2009 / 9:42 pm

    I feel like Keen is just being Mr. Poopy-Pants because that’s been his attitude toward some recent titles. He may just be jaded and not want to be hurt by TOR like those other titles.

    For myself I can see the potential in this and I hope that BioWare does some cool stuff with companion characters. I can see it adding another dimension in the terms of difficulty. And maybe BioWare can tune missions so that they have a varying difficulty based on presence of companions and possibly other factors.

  4. Julian December 3, 2009 / 9:43 pm

    *yawn*

    Guild Wars has been making the need for other stupid humans completely redundant for 5 years and the ground hasn’t opened to swallow us yet.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love having people to chat, and guild with, mess around. It’s colorful, and games wouldn’t be the same without all those people.

    Just keep people away from my game and action parts, please.

    – a proud soloist –

  5. evizaer December 3, 2009 / 9:49 pm

    The problem isn’t that the companion character is a bad idea. The problem is that people assume that Bioware will do a bad job of implementing the feature. People who had so much faith in bioware and drool over the game now act like bioware can’t even tie its own design shoes… An odd turn of events.

    Or, you know, people could just be making fire to see the flames–conflict for conflict’s sake as usual. Perhaps keen’s numbers aren’t doing so well recently.

  6. morganic December 3, 2009 / 10:03 pm

    “If they can fill a party role, why wouldn’t everyone have one out always on challenging content?”

    Maybe character caps on instances. Max players + companions so that not everyone can put one out.

    Personally, I look forward to having companion characters. It would only add to the game in my opinion.

  7. Adam December 3, 2009 / 10:32 pm

    “Maybe character caps on instances. Max players + companions so that not everyone can put one out.”

    I’ll quote from myself at Keen’s site: Assuming for the moment that instances drop loot, it becomes beneficial to run it with your companion instead of another player to maximize your potential reward. Unless other players are significantly better than a companion. Which opens up other balance issues.

    “The problem isn’t that the companion character is a bad idea. The problem is that people assume that Bioware will do a bad job of implementing the feature. People who had so much faith in bioware and drool over the game now act like bioware can’t even tie its own design shoes… An odd turn of events.”

    This seems like an odd argument. People are concerned Bioware’s focus on one aspect of the game (story/companion,) will have negative consequences on other aspects. They aren’t saying Bioware will be incompetent in implementing it, they’re worried that it shows Bioware’s priorities and vision differ from their own. Only time will tell if this is true, but dismissing legitimate concerns on the subject is silly.

    I just realize I’ve responded to you on two sites. Seems inefficient, but oh well 😛

  8. spinks December 4, 2009 / 12:47 am

    I’m looking forwards to the companions, I think it could work out very well. And it does absolutely solve the issue of how healers can solo etc etc.

    I’m quite enjoying my pet dwarf mate in skirmishes too at the moment, but I want to try a few more before I come to any conclusions. It does work though.

  9. Mesar December 4, 2009 / 2:15 am

    This is just more confirmation that TOR is really KOTOR 3 with the option of having PC companions rather that A.I. driven ones.

    One benefit is that A.I. companions won’t complain loudly if you want to listen to all the cut-scenes. One of my problems with Guild Wars is that many people didn’t want to listen to the cuts for the 27th time and would harp on the other group members to skip through the content quickly.

    There’s also the benefit that you really can play a Jedi and not have to worry about balancing the holy trinity. Groups will be created quickly for PvE play (from lobbies I’m assuming)

    I don’t think this is going to be a strong PvP title though. PvP seems to be in the second tier of priorities for this title.

  10. Stabs December 4, 2009 / 2:50 am

    it becomes beneficial to run it with your companion instead of another player to maximize your potential reward.

    This is a solved problem in DDO. Loot drops separately for each player.

    So if you solo you might get a +4 Battle axe and a Potion of Healing if you take me along you’ll get the same axe and potion but I’ll pick up some stuff too.

    DDO also solves the companion crisis by making them moderately incompetent. While taking a pet healer is a big help for a soloer it’s nowhere near as effective as being helped by a competent cleric player. As I remember Guild Wars was like that too, the hirelings weren’t as good as competent people.

  11. Maladorn December 4, 2009 / 3:05 am

    2 points.

    First, from what Darth Hater has been able to dig up, it looks like each player can only have one companion summoned at a time. I would expect them to be treated just like another party member, much like the Guild Wars model. Those 2 features mean that they don’t make everything soloable, and they also don’t have to be considered as a special balance case. Content too rough, or require three distinct roles? Find a friend to group with.

    Second, people like Keen seem to have this idea that all MMORPGs should conform to his standard of what constitutes an MMO, based largely on some mythical past were worlds were more immersive and all players wanted/were forced to group up. Which isn’t exactly my idea of a good time. Outside of my guild, I don’t want to play with 95% of the rest of the population. I’m glad they are there, making the economy work and the like, but I personally have no desire to group with people I don’t know. I’m a small community kind of guy. 1 companion lets me play my way, in more situations, and with greater enjoyment (at least that’s the working theory at this point).

  12. victorstillwater December 4, 2009 / 4:53 am

    I think I’d like the company of an artificail intelligence sometimes, so I would actually like to see how they implement it If it makes the game more meaningful or somewhat more accessible to a potential trooper like myself, then so be it.

    Besides, what one Trooper can’t handle, a firing squad of trooper goodness will. 😀

    UNLESS…

    Can I have a Miniature Giant Space Hamster as my companion, with an attack called GO FOR THE EYES?

    Because That, would be awesome.

    *cheers to whoever knows the reference.*

  13. James121 December 4, 2009 / 5:10 am

    STO are doing the same thing with Away Teams and Bridge Officers, you even get Redshirts to fill any unfilled spaces that either you, your BO’s or your party members don’t fill

  14. Tdubs036 December 4, 2009 / 5:52 am

    Really I don’t see what the big deal with this?

    If someone wants to play with their companions and not interact or group with others then that is their choice.

    People should not be forced to do things in a group if they don’t want to – by all means make it more attractive to do so but shoehorning them into a set role will just make me as meh as I have been with any other recent MMO.

  15. pitrelli December 4, 2009 / 6:44 am

    Meh I seem to be one of the only bloggers that just dont care about SW:TOR. Dont get me wrong im interested in seeing what Bioware comes up with at the end (I’ll probably not play it though) but all the announcements so far have been fairly so-so, nothing jumps out as amazing.

    Probably the reason Im not excited is I dont expect it will play like an MMO and will be far too story driven and instanced, its all fine and well if you like that sort of thing but i like to be able to make my own path and story. I would have preferred if they stuck more to SWG but actually made it a decent game.

  16. ermansup December 4, 2009 / 7:18 am

    “In the end, a NPC companion will never have the skill of a player, nor have the humanity behind it. ”

    That sounds good at first but if you think about it, it’s clear it can’t be that simple. If the content is doable solo with AI help then that same content will be absolutely trivial for real groups.

    They will either have to balance players with AI controlled characters. Which is practically impossible. Or balance the content with the form of group being used. In this case some form of reward will be needed to justify dealing with the harder difficulty. Or maybe they just have something really clever planned that will totally surprise us.

    I really hope they work out the problems because I love this idea! Mostly due to time constraints I find myself feeling anti social rather often. So every opportunity to advance in the game without the trouble of grouping up is highly appreciated.

  17. Dickie December 4, 2009 / 8:57 am

    I’ll just state it here: I feel like
    bashing this concept is just a blatant flame for hits tactic. Bashing something you have yet to see in action, much less hear the full details of, is utterly pointless and makes you look like a nay-sayer. And besides, it’s Keen: he’ll love the game for a month, maybe two, when it comes out then spend two weeks after that saying how it’s the worst game ever and move on to the next.

    Also, I’d say think of the opposite for tanks and especially healers. It’s hard leveling healers in most games, which is why people don’t do it. Now you tell me you’re going to make being a healer a viable quesing class? Yes please, I’ll take two.

  18. g30ff December 4, 2009 / 10:17 am

    Somewhat unrelated…

    I’ll totally group with you if Doug comes.

  19. Magson December 4, 2009 / 10:45 am

    @victorstillwater — I can’t imagine anyone here *doesn’t* get that reference.

    ***

    And my opinion of the companion character is that it will help with soloing a little (if people choose to use it), it will enable groups missing “the last toon” to form, but at reduced capacity, so a full group of PC toons will still be preferred.

    Seems to me that all it does is actually allow for the game to be a little *more* challenging, while still streamlining group creation.

    Not really seeing a downside.

  20. Tesh December 4, 2009 / 1:25 pm

    I still find it funny that there are cries for innovation and options in the MMO market, but when devs find ways to allow soloists to play, suddenly the cry becomes far more, shall we say, elitist. That “second M” is “multiplayer”, not “grouping”.

  21. killergnomie December 4, 2009 / 4:21 pm

    Keen mentioned in one of his last comments that he didn’t want this to become a debate about Solo play vs Grouping but when you simplify this rant, it basically does come down to group vs solo play. Because the only type of interaction companions are going to take away from is group oriented dungeons/raids/quests. They shouldn’t affect PVP much nor should they affect crafting or gathering or just shooting the *)$)@ with some fellow guildies.

    Btw, if it is true that you can only have one companion per player, that makes this whole topic even more moot. You will still have to interact with people — instead of a 24-25 man raid, you will now have a 12 man raid + companions.
    It seems like they are just reducing the amount of people required for raiding which is a trend we have seen in many MMOs before TOR (WoW coming from EQs endless numbers to 40 then 25, EQ2 going with 24 etc…).

  22. Loire December 4, 2009 / 5:06 pm

    @tesh: And if there no “grouping” what do you consider multiplayer? The chat box? Open MSN while playing KOTOR.

    You have grouping and the market (if the game actually has a economy) those are the only two aspects of “multi” and “player” in an MMO.

    That’s not to say I disagree with companions. They can be a great addition. I just disagree with solo players in an MMO. That is to say those who always want to solo, not your average player who doesn’t have time for a group tonight.

    P.S. I’m pretty sure most people who cry for innovation in the MMO market are referring to the WoW model and its subsequent clones.

  23. Julian December 4, 2009 / 8:24 pm

    It’s not just a trend, it’s common sense.

    What Keen et al fails (let’s say fails) to acknowledge is that this, even if it’s 1 companion or a million, doesn’t take anything from whatever other grouping options that will be present.

    Yes, people can choose to go out with companions -OR- they can also choose to replace those companions with guildies, friends, random players, Bob from down the street or any other human being to “keep the magic of the MMO alive”.

    But it’s like the mere presence of that choice ticks them off sometimes.

    *shrug*

  24. Tolthir December 5, 2009 / 4:10 am

    To me the problem isn’t companion characters in the abstract. It’s companion characters + 100% soloable + heavy instancing + personal story. If you take all of the game’s features together, it sounds like a single player game being marketed as an MMO.

    And given that Bioware has said the game will be nearly entirely soloable, it doesn’t sound like the companions are intended to fill in when other players aren’t available for a group. They’re simply designed to support a solo-focused game. I’m still hoping Bioware has some secret sauce features that will promote grouping, but if they do, they’ve been awfully silent about them.

  25. We Fly Spitfires December 5, 2009 / 7:19 am

    I’m going to reserve judgement because I have no idea how it will turn out. Maybe it will be an amazing addition to the game but then maybe it will just kill all grouping and interaction dead. I’m on the fence.

  26. Salaryn December 5, 2009 / 8:04 am

    Exceptionally well written and thought out. I agree on all points.

    I’m still playing through DragonAge and don’t see that npc party members in any way take the place of people.

    They are as useful as any “pet” that can currently be used, but you can build skill sets for them, and thus for yourself, which can only add to your own character and how fun they are to play and potentially how useful they are in a group.

  27. Randomessa December 5, 2009 / 12:42 pm

    @ Loire:

    I don’t presume to speak for Tesh, so my answer here is on my own behalf, but for me “multiplayer” is different from playing a single-player game with AIM or another chat program open because the other players inhabit the same game world as me, are visiting the same locations and making reference to the same universe at the same time.

    I used to MUD, which is in so many ways *literally* just a chatbox, and since I could only see those who were in the same room as me, the presence of others “chatting” about their experiences in that universe were what made those worlds inhabited and real for me.

    Chatting with my friends over AIM while one watches TV, one plays Peggle, another drinks, and I play a single-player game is not even remotely near the same experience.

  28. Abaddon December 6, 2009 / 4:14 pm

    I have to agree with Dickie, idiotic thing to start crying about when you havent seen it implemented or even heard all the details.

    And as he said Keen will probably pick it up and claim it to be the best game in the world then a few months later sob in a corner about how it is just completely awful like he seems to do with every MMO he picks up.

  29. tarisai December 7, 2009 / 4:43 am

    Why would I want “ketchup” on my chips!? I already have seasoning with salt and pepper. It’s fine the way it is and all this talk of “ketchup”, which is essentially just tomatos (A FRUIT!) and sugar, messing up my chips just does not sit right with me.

    The whole point of chips is the fried potato which is a vegetable. Sure, salt brings out a little flavour and pepper is great for those who like a little kick to their side dishes. Ketchup? Please, gimme a break.

    —-

    This is what this debate sounds like to me. I wonder what would happen if the MMO community decided to collectively say “Hey! Developer! Looking forward to what you have in the works, let’s see how it turns out.”

    All this debating and theory crafting may have a negative effect if the devs are listening. They browse the blogs and behold, everyone is worried about the mechanics they are putting the final touches on.

    PANIC! We are going to WTFAIL!

    So they patch together some BS they think hits the mark and the MMO community collectively screams “they had a good idea, so much potential. These days, however, you have to launch a game that is polished and has all mechanics well implemented. Therefor, I regret to inform you all that I have retired from this new venture and will be returning to World of Warcraft, where they have a clue. Good day.”

    I fervently believe everyone has a right to express their opinion and would have it encouraged. However, uneducated verbal vomit does nothing to promote the benefits of free speech.

    I’m looking forward to how they are going to implement this in THEIR game. Doesn’t work? Kudos for trying. Does work? Awesome.

  30. royaldawgz February 5, 2010 / 9:50 am

    I am with Julian 100%… The social aspect of the MMORPG is great..chatting, comparing tactics…whatever.. but I want the action left up to me…plus with all the tools who think they are avatar gods make the grouping thing a headache… i have been a hp takin’ $%#$% more than a few times while the other players in the “group” run around and pick up all the loot..lol npcs don’t run away when they think they might die either… gimme my own team that i can customize the way i want to.. we can hang at pub orgrimmar and shoot the shite when the fighting is done.. 😉

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