Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

TOR: Hell is Other People

A selection of game journalists was invited over to the Lucas Arts HQ in San Francisco the other day to get some hands-on experience with their upcoming Star Wars MMO The Old Republic. You can find a list of articles with the experiences of those journalists here.
Aside from “revealing” two new classes (which had already been revealed to some magazines in Germany beforehand), the Bioware guys talked about companion characters.
That’s right, just as in the Bioware single-player RPGs you will be able to meet NPCs that join you on your quest.

Keen complains about the fact that these companion characters can be used to solo content that would otherwise require a group. An example given by Bioware’s Blain Christine was that if your party lacked a healer you could just bring a healing companion character or two along and be golden. Keen thinks that they could just make another single-player RPG then instead of calling the game a MMO, but I have to disagree.

Looking at my own MMO experience I can see multiple situations where having access to companion characters would just have been great. The most recent of these came up when I tried to play Aion with a friend. We levelled together up until the point where we pretty much needed to do some outdoor group quests to advance. The first time we went there we just couldn’t get a group (it was a rather odd time of day, I must admit) and started doing the quests with just the two of us. Being a tank and a healer we did get through it, albeit very slowly. Getting closer to a boss monster we met another group of players that was two short, so we joined them to make the whole thing easier. Well, we failed terribly at killing the boss because mechanics such as turning a boss away from the group and line of sight were clearly too hard to understand for these people. The group fell apart and we continued duoing the area. Whenever we picked up another player our performance actually got worse, up to the point where we plain refused taking other people along.

If we had had the ability to bring some DPS companion characters along we could have continued playing at a decent pace, having fun, without having to put up with the hell that is other people. Not wanting to put up with random players does not mean, however, that we should be playing a single-player game instead. I want to play with other players, but I don’t want to be forced to just play with random people in order to fulfil some arbitrary requirement.
Playing with friends is great, but it is hard to have such a large collection of friends of similar level that you can rely on enough of them being available whenever you want to play. Endgame raiding guilds in WoW work because players will all be at the maximum level anyway and they can expect to stay together for a long time, united by a common goal. I’ve hardly ever seen levelling guilds work. Everyone levels at a different pace and has different goals. Selection of players is less controlled and generally harder to do. I’ve played many MMOs but I rarely join guilds before I have to, simply because I don’t want to just join any random group of players.

An MMO with companion characters will allow me to play with just the people I actually want to play with while at the same time allowing me to increase that circle of friends by grouping with people I don’t know yet. Neither single-player nor traditional LAN games offer that opportunity. Additionally it is unlikely that companion characters will be as good as players, making groups of players still a necessity if there is such a thing as endgame raiding in the game.

I do have concerns of a rather different type regarding companion characters. They will work like the party members in Dragon Age: Origins, meaning they have their own conversation trees and story and they can approve or disapprove of your actions. While that is nice to have in the single-player game, I can’t believe that these can have enough depth for a prolonged MMO experience. In DA:O you will eventually run out of conversation options with your party members and their actual involvement in the story is limited. Where a game of DA:O lasts maybe 40 or 50 hours, MMOs tend to last a lot longer and I don’t believe that even a BioWare/Lucas Arts combination has enough resources to produce the sheer heap of content (and voice work!) that would be needed to keep your companions interesting all this time. I’m afraid that companions will be great for the first few hours that you get to know them (enough for glowing reviews) but then reduced to mindless drones that don’t have more character than a hunter’s pet in WoW.