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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.