Friday, December 4, 2009

Can an NPC teach you to group with players?

Keen, Syp, and Tobold have got a little debate running on whether NPC companion characters in the upcoming KOTOR MMO push the envelope too far away from grouping and towards solo play in supposedly massively "multiplayer" games.

No one knows how this will play out in KOTORO yet, I will offer a random observation from my early experiences with LOTRO's new skirmish system. Skirmishes are instantly-generated PVE instances that scale for various group sizes. Players are given an NPC soldier - who is significantly less intelligent than a player or normal player controlled pet - to fight alongside them (only in Skirmishes). The pet can (in principle) tank, heal, buff, or do ranged DPS. The skirmish system scales to a certain extent with the number of players in the group, and is supposedly used to allow players to solo otherwise group-based content in the game's epic book storyline.

My character is a Champion - a melee DPS with off-tanking capabilities and minor self healing - so I promptly picked the "healer" traits for my soldier. I ran through two actual skirmish battles using the healer, and I noticed something interesting. My Champion has a defensive stance and a taunt that I have never used, because I play 99% of my time solo and don't need to worry about keeping aggro when there's no one else for the mobs to fight.

I also promptly noticed that, when we get attacked by several enemies including at least one with ranged attacks, I needed to take an effort to drag the melee foes to the ranged attacker so that I can hit all of them with AOE attacks. If I failed to do so, the ranged foe would promptly start attacking my somewhat-defenseless healer, as I would not be doing any damage to it or generating any threat. When I'm soloing, I'm generally more inclined to use line of sight to force the ranged attacker to come to me, and it's not necessarily a bad thing if it gets stuck in anti-exploit mode instead of finding me. In the skirmish, that foe would promptly switch targets and kill my healer.

In short, I probably learned more about how to off-tank in LOTRO in a single hour of playing skirmishes than I did from soloing 61 levels to date. I find it puzzling that Keen and Tobold think this feature is detrimental to grouping; it seems like the first serious attempt I've seen to address the problem of players getting to the level cap and not knowing how to play their class in groups.


  1. I already commented about that on Keen's Blog, ,comment number 42.

    I like skirmishes a lot.

    Yet I am still totally undecided if they were a good thing to happen to the game as a whole! They will definitely change the way people play LOTRO a lot.

  2. Isn't the problem more along the lines of "not needing other stinking humans cause they suck" and less "I L2Grp with my companion"? Online cooperative games are MADE to be played with other "stinking" humans. In my eyes this is degenerating a MMORPG into a (singleplayeronline)SPORPG and then the question has to be asked: what's the point of playing with others when my henchman makes an acceptable substitute? Are we human beings as a Race really so xenophobic and introverted? and if so how does anyone score at a bar anymore if we are all so self-concious that we can't or won't play games with other humans? my 2cents that I hope is Food4thought.

  3. It's just a natural decline from a MMORPG to a MMO to a O ...

    It surely help those who don't want to or don't have the time to look for a group... but I'm not sure if this companions capture the sense of social gameplay which makes MMO gaming so much fun.

    I'm undecided if I like that companions or not.

  4. I played Guild Wars before playing WoW and 90% of what I did was done with a group full of henchman. Guild wars though essentially had forced grouping. Playing solo was fairly difficult because of the fact that you were up against enemies with 2-8 more levels then you. Obviously this was designed so that you always went with a full party and thus they added henchmen so that people could still play solo.

    Though I enjoyed Guild Wars a lot, I like the open world environment and grouping requirements of WoW.

    The one thing I would say though... a lot of the times in Guild Wars... the henchmen were better then the average player. I could imagine in WoW where you have level 80 players doing 800 dps... that npc party members would play better as well.

  5. I don't have particularly strong feelings on the subject either way, but I will point out that what Keen and Tobold are worried about is that people will stop grouping with other people, preferably NPCs instead, not that people learning group roles alone is a bad thing.

    Essentially, your post is about consequence A, while their worries are about consequence B.

  6. I've argued for precisely this before. Train players what group dynamics are with NPCs who *know* their jobs, and you're effectively giving grouping tutorials. It's an obvious part of the learning curve to my designer's mind, and a Good Thing for the game as a whole.

    (Here I think it's important to point out that Skirmish companions don't extend to raid dungeons. Skirmishes are an *addition* to the game, an optional bit of content for those who want to play it. If they like the grouping dynamics, they can go raid. If one turns out more fun than the other, then the devs can tune accordingly. If each maintains its appeal, hey, there's something for everyone. Quit whining about how other people play.)

    If the worry is that players just wind up playing with NPCs rather than other players, well, maybe other people have been an active detriment to fun previously. If more players are having more fun and spending more time (and money) on your game, complaints at that point are just sour grapes from players who are no longer the breadwinners.

  7. I hope it has this effect on a few more players as well Green :) I agree with you and Tesh, most people need a grouping/raiding tutorial and/or practice mode.

  8. Aye, if you train players how to play in groups when there isn't interpersonal drama and incompetence involved, and loot and repair bills at stake, you will likely have a healthier community in the long run. Let people get their mistakes and learning done with NPCs who don't get hurt feelings when something goes haywire.

  9. I commented to Tobold exactly what you posted about. Perhaps an option like this would also improve the crappy treatment casuals like me occasionally get in pick-up groups.

    No, I haven't run this instance 70 times. I work. I may need a reminder about how to avoid the non-intuitive spit-spray debuff of this boss. Sue me.

    If I have the option to run the instance a couple of times at my own speed, learning the boss tactics and getting to sight-see a bit, I will be more confident farming the content in a PUG for better rewards.

    For me, the option to solo a scaled down instance with a friendly NPC would INCREASE my confidence and desire to group for better rewards.

  10. "are just sour grapes from players who are no longer the breadwinners."

    Aye, that is my opinion too.

  11. You make an excellent point Green. My Warden is only level 32, but I have not tanked for a group yet. Now with the skirmishes I will be able to practice with gambits on a NPC that will not yell at me to L2P, hopefully.

    Massively Multiplayer does not mean that grouping is required, just encouraged at times.

  12. I made a response about this topic in my blog, because it's too big of a response. It's over at:

  13. It certainly sets a bar. When I was playing my tank recently in DDO after a chain of bad healers (the highlight being them leaving me bleeding to death on the floor while they looted the treasure chest of the monster I heroically tanked for them) I went back to soloing with a henchman out for a few levels just to get myself out of the clueless zone.

    The converse is also true, clerics (one of the best soloers in that game) often don't group at all until about level 10.

    And there lies the rub. The healers are quite good soloers. Fighter types generally aren't and are massively dependent on other people looking after them. I suspect most of the clamour comes from players who want to be supported by other players because of the role they prefer.


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