Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NPC Companion/Pet Stupidity As A Feature

Yeebo comments on my SWTOR beta post that he hopes "with the right mix of companions you won't be crippled without a dedicated healer in group content".  I only spent a few hours in the beta and never got a companion, so I can't speak from my own experience.  However, I did listen to NDA Roundup episode of the Darth Hater Podcast, where one of the hosts commented that he and a friend had successfully two-manned a flashpoint with their companions healing up to the final boss.  They were unable to beat the last encounter because their companions stood in the fire and died. 

The merits of the scripted "dance" of the modern MMO dungeon/raid encounter can be debated, but survivability of NPC "pets" have always posed a problem. Developers talk about how pet management is supposed to be a part of how you play a class that depends on having their pet alive, but it's hard enough for the player to get their own character out of the fire.  MMO user interfaces seldom offer a reasonable option for micromanaging pets, companions, mercenaries, henchmen, and other allegedly helpful NPC's sufficiently to keep them from standing in stuff that is damaging them.  Some MMO's even make pets immune to AOE attacks because this is the least difficult solution to this problem. 

As someone who likes to do the occasional group content, I would love to be able to use an NPC to fill a tough-to-fill group slot.  The problem is that so many of these "move out of the fire or die" mechanics are so demanding that there is no middle ground - either the NPC never dies in the fire and therefore is a more attractive group-mate than a human (who might screw up), or the NPC is useless because they always die in the fire.  EQ2's always entertaining executive producer David Georgeson spins this as a feature - he claims that NPC's are intentionally designed to be less skillful than humans to preserve a role for other players - but the resulting NPC's will likely be worthless for the purpose that players have the most need for as a result. 

(Aside: Mistakes made by the new EQ2 Mercenary AI are almost certainly increased by the fact that they're abruptly launching their expansion on a single week's advance notice, and less than a month after the start of beta testing.  I see no way this can end well.) 

Part of me wonders whether the solution is to take the specialized group roles that the overwhelming majority of players don't want out of the hands of players.  That way, you're not balancing an encounter around a human tank and creating something too complicated for the NPC to handle - the NPC is the tank for the group, period, because players can't be tanks.  There are definite downsides to this approach - I'm actually starting to like healing a bit, myself - but it does solve the tank/healer shortage.  If MMO's continue to be predominately populated by DPS players relying on NPC's to do the support, it makes increasingly little sense to suddenly force that role on unwilling players at endgame.


Xaxziminrax II said...

There are lots of recipes for a tankless/healerless game, including using npcs to fill those roles.

Or you could use passive/self healing. Isn't GW2 going to be doing something like this? You can have everyone DPS, just in different ways by flavor or slight shifts in function (similar to LoL characters).

Or you could remove boss aggro tables, just have them flinging spells/attacks around randomly.

It could also be done in a more WoW-like approach with NPCs coming in for the instance/fight. They could be the tanks/healers/whatever. It also solves the problem of a "raid" having ten people: throwing in npcs would make encounters feel more epic and like there's a larger fighting force, like NPC Kings aren't worthless louts who don't know how to command their men.

It just seems to me that programming AI minions to do the dirty work is a round about way to solve the problem. You end up with what you're discussing, minions dying in the fire, and they'll have to be modified to follow scripts for certain fights if they'll to be at all useful, which seems to be taking the long way to get where they're going.

Why not just give EVERYONE tanking/healing abilities, that way you'de have an entire group full of dpsing tanks with heals and the only issue would be deciding who wants to do what role?

Anyways, it's too late for TOR to change pace now. They have companions and all the baggage that comes with.

Bhagpuss said...

I'd like to comment on both the merc thing and the Age of Discovery expansion in general, but there's, like, this NDA thing...

Unless it was incredibly well-done and completely cancelled out my experiences of the last dozen years, a general move away from allowing players to heal and tank would be the end of me an MMOs. What the heck is it that people like about DPS? It's the most tedious of all roles, way, way down at the bottom of the list of "fun things to do in an MMORPG".

One of the very first things I do in all new MMOs is turn off all those irritating numbers that tell me how much damage I am doing. I'll know when I or the group is doing enough - the mob will fall over. What more is there to say about it?

Tanking is hard work but very fun. Healing is sometimes stressful but always fun. Crowd control requires concentration but is fun. DPS? Meh. Even buffing and debuffing's more fun than that.

Green Armadillo said...

@Bhag: Forgot to mention the NDA (I'm not in the beta and therefore didn't have to sign it) - major red flag that it's still up under a week prior to launch.

As to debuffing being more interesting than DPS, they're basically the same thing if you've turned off the damage numbers - you target the mob, you push buttons, and the mob dies faster.

Tyrion10 said...

If you want to see stupid pet/companions then you have to look no further than Skyrim (sorry Skyrim, nuthin' but love).

I deliberately killed Lydia (yes she is gone forever) last night because she either wouldn't get out of the way, or I kept having to go back and find her as I traveled.

Aside from any sort of raiding intelligence, the fact that my SWTOR companions will always be at my back and not stuck wondering how to move around a small rock is a breath of fresh air.

kaozz said...

If you could control (to an extent) their movement like the companions in other games it might actually work better.

GW lets you move the heroes around, I think you can call to assist or make them regroup, it is handy but been ages since I played.

I suppose if they did move out of the fire, on their own, they would be smarter than most players ;)

Yeebo said...

I am in a very small guild in DDO, usually when we run things there are at most three active players. Because of this, we have gotten into the habit of using hirelings at all times. Everyone brings a healer hireling, unless they are themselves a healer. Healers usually bring some kind of tank. Paladins work very well as tanks, but aren't available at every level.

The end result is that even in our small guild we are generally able to do instances on elite difficulty. It also adds an interesting dynamic to the gameplay when we don't have any real healers along. For example, if someone's healer goes down, someone needs to order their healer to rez the fallen one as quickly as possible.

During the weekend, in terms of mechanics my companion played a lot like a DDO hireling. I'm hoping that still holds true at higher levels.

Oddly enough the first character I'm going to play is probably going to be a BH that goes for the healing/ DPS advanced class. So I may actually end up being the designated healer in a lot of parties.