If you know anything about me, you know that I’m a fool for fluff. I love cosmetics, silly trinkets that may do nothing more than put a bright visual effect on the screen and cause my raid members to shout “CUT THAT OUT AND GET OUT OF THE FIRE!”, and so-called “vanity” pets.
Dang, I love pets. I mean, if they fight, so much the better, but I have a different relationship with combat pets. Those are meant to be summoned to die. I don’t care about their well-being so much as if they can keep the pain off of me and onto them. It’s like I’m a prince and they’re the poor villager who gets enlisted to take my spankings instead. And just like the prince, I don’t really care if he’s getting whooped or not, I’m just glad it’s not me.
But with vanity pets, I register a higher internal meter of caring. I love those little guys. I was really bummed that SWTOR didn’t (and continues to not) have many non-combat pets. I still can’t understand why cash shop-crazy LOTRO doesn’t outside of Lore-masters. But in other games, like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, RIFT, and even The Secret World, I always have a faithful companion out alongside of me.
So what is their purpose? Why do I like them so much? Several answers to that come to mind, actually.
1. They fill the role of a “companion”
Even in a massively social game, it’s entirely possible to feel lonely. You’re going on all of these grand adventures, yet who’s there to see you do that? Who’s there every step of the way?
Virtual, non-sentient pets though they may be, these critters can still trigger that emotional reaction of fellowship. You can suspend just enough disbelief to accept the fiction that this little on-screen creature cares about you and is following you into the jaws of hell and beyond. Everywhere you go, it’s there with you. It doesn’t complain, it doesn’t argue, it’s just there to be near you and make you feel less alone.
2. They can be amusing
As a general rule, non-combat pets don’t do much other than follow you. Some of them are downright boring, but others can boast interesting animations. My corgi in RIFT sometimes lifts his leg to pretend to pee on things, and he’s forever wagging his tail all happy-like. “Yes, master! Slay the infidel! Good master! Now I will desecrate his corpse!”
There was a vanity pet in WoW — Willy — who would even occasionally zap critters with an eyebeam. That rocked.
I’m all for being amused. I appreciate the attempt of some games to give you tools to interact with your pets, which I think we need to see more of. And no, World of Warcraft, I’m not talking about training your pets to fight each other in your sick ring of death.
3. They are a form of personal expression
We like feeling all special and snowflakey unique in MMOs, but sometimes that’s hard to achieve when everyone else looks and dresses alike. Cosmetic outfits is a big step to giving us tools of personal expression, but vanity pets are another.
You can tell a lot about someone from their choice of vanity pet. Are they a cat lover or a dog lover? Do they like whimsy or hardcore deathmetal thrashing? Are they going for a pirate theme or a Beauty and the Beast motif?
4. They’re social tools
When I’m on a dungeon run or (more rarely) raid run, I always pull out a pet. Why? Because I like showing them off (more on that later), but also because it usually prompts others to do the same. There’s just something fun about a group of people bringing out their pets that bonds us together. It breaks the tension and can bring a sense of lightheartedness to runs that can often skew toward being too serious and work-like.
5. They are show-and-tell for the next generation
While nobody will come out and say it, a lot of people like showing off their pets because they’re being competitive about it. It’s show-and-tell, boasting about what rare and exotic beast you acquired (or, hey, paid for), and the player who has the most interesting or visually arresting pet “wins” the round when another pet-toting player comes by.
It’s not a bad thing, per se, because having cool pets that others can check out and possibly “ooh” and “ahh” over is one of the reasons I like having others around. Vanity pets would not be as interesting to me in a game void of other people.
6. They satiate collectors
Finally, there are just some of us who love collecting things in games, and pets are perfect for that. Not only does it fill up a checklist, but pets are something you can visibly see. Gotta collect ’em all, after all!