Posted by: L1H | May 11, 2009

Are Players the Problem?

A handful of upcoming MMO games are going to feature NPC “companions” for your main character.  These support characters will be more than standard MMO “pets” – more than vanity creatures with an auto-follow script.  You’ll develop relationships with them, level them up, and potentially build a roster of NPC characters to swap out depending on what quest or task you’re engaged in.  They’ll have a story, a shared story, and choices you make can affect how they respond to your character.

My hope is that maintaining these “relationships” doesn’t degenerate into some variation of Nintendogs/Sims: virtual babysitting isn’t a “relationship”. 

That being said, examples that range from SWG Creature Handlers to Pokemon clearly demonstrate how attached we can become to our virtual friends, even if they require a little hand-holding to develop.  This is hardly different than when we were children and playing with dolls (er, GI Joe), attaching human qualities to inanimate objects.  This kind of attachment is emotional content that we exert into our games.  Pets and NPC companions serve a purpose by which we seem to exercise this part of our nature.

Are game developers simply exploring these features because they are compelling in their own right, or are advanced NPC companions the first step to finally solving the “player problem” in MMO games?

Remember players are the ones that exploit the game, tax the server, speak out of character, optimize, gank, destroy emersion, and collectively behave poorly.

An NPC, in contrast, is always in character and usually willing to help.  They play by the rules and don’t detract from the player’s heroic story arc.  They get stuck on geometry occasionally, sure, but 99% of the time you can count on them to play their role.

My first thought when I played Fallout 3, a single player game, was how amazing a MMO it could be, how I wanted to explore this world with my friends – but then I remembered the “player problem”.  Would the wasteland have the same atmosphere and feel as desolate with dozens players at Megaton spamming, “LFG Ghoul Town”, or bands of players spawn camping the Super Mutant Behemoth?

Are advanced NPC companions going to replace the need for real players in our future MMO games?  Are they the future?  

Would you pay 14.99$/month to play in a virtual world that is stocked full of AI characters in a developing story centered around you?  It would be like 10 million unique instances of Azeroth where the subscriber is the “real” hero.  

Clearly many players prefer to solo in their “massively multiplayer” games, and only group by necessity (see: WoW), but are they taking for granted that one day their online worlds could be populated by AI inhabitants instead of real people?  

We often joke how silly NPC quest givers are, asking us to deliver a message to another NPC across the courtyard and then back again, but what happens when we become obsolete and they can complete their own simple tasks?

Terminator MMOG: Rise of the NPC’s.




  1. […] Ten Rats and Level 1 Human have both been mulling over this topic lately, so I turn you over to their capable […]

  2. I think that intelligent NPCs are an integral part of a living, dynamic MMO “world”. If we’re just looking for a game where we’re the hero, modern MMO design is fine (but so are single player games), but if we’re looking to play in a virtual world that feels like a real *other* place, NPCs with lives, interests, schedules and variability will play a big part.

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