Last week, we talked about an interesting topic, sitting in chairs and how this influences our online gaming experience. We’re left wondering, how about the world around those chairs? Yes, that’s right…we’re diving into the NPC world. While I’m no role-player, one of the things that annoy me most in MMOs are static NPCs and static worlds. Every time I travel the lands, enjoying the scenery, looking for quests or just hunting down enemy players, I can’t stop thinking “This is a danger zone, wouldn’t it be great to see some NPCs running around in fear or at least, some kind of NPC interaction?”. We all know that NPC actions in MMOs are limited, to put it mildly. Nothing ever happens, the quest givers have that blank stare with some minimal hand movements and that’s it. But hey, who needs cuddly NPCs when I have 100 spiders to kill, right? Wrong.
As you probably know by now, most MMO developers overlook the smaller things and how greatly they affect the game’s immersion. NPCs play a bigger role than most “small details” and I’m not only talking about quest givers or main NPCs. Let’s look at cities for example, a place where the player rests, shops, trades and well…wastes alot of time. In World of Warcraft, the only NPC action is the guards moving up and down, on a predefined path. And with a bit of luck, in your adventures, you can find some traveling NPCs that roam from x to y…but that’s it. The latest MMO I played, Neverwinter, is worst than that – talking/looking at NPCs is like starring at a talking wall with no lips. Sure there may be some traveling NPCs there too, but to be honest, once you get the full “statue” experience, you tend to filter everything else and move on with your questing.
We talked about static NPCs and how they do absolutely nothing to make us feel we’re playing in a “live” world. But let’s take the happy thoughts to another level shall we? How about NPCs that interact with each other? How about those NPCs fighting for a sack of grain or an apple? How about a NPC that steals from another NPC and gets chased by the town’s guards and runs past you? Too Assassins Creed? I think not. I don’t think that developers lack the tools to improve the AI of NPCs and assign them an array of possible actions. I think that’s easily doable but way down the priority list for most MMOs.
Elder Scrolls Online is first and foremost an Elder Scrolls game and Elder Scroll games tend to be, well…you know…more immersive in all aspects. While playing Skyrim, I remember wanting to buy some apples or bread from a street vendor and on the way there, a small child ran past me and told me something that made me turn around and chase him to see if I can talk to him and see what the hell he said. Reaching the market, I remember alot of action, NPCs wandering, looking at the wares (or so it seemed at the time)…and the night came and everyone started going home. In those 5 mins of walking through the market and observing the “local life”, I’ve completely forgotten what was my current quest. I had to open my damn quest journal again, same time thinking if I’m getting old or got distracted. Talking about immersion right?
One thing Elder Scrolls has done and did well was create lore, not just about the world you’re playing in but the NPCs, they have back stories. You can talk to the NPCs and ask them questions about their problems, their past, some will even talk about their dreams. This type of detail makes those NPCs no longer part of the game, they are part of the world. It doesn’t stop there you are part of the world as well and the environment the surrounding NPCs their actions will take you from being part of the game, and make you part of the world as well.
I know that some of you care less about the little things in MMOs but have you considered that this is happening because the majority of MMOs focus on end-game raids, balance and other big things? Sure those things matter alot in the big picture, but so are the small things: sitting in a chair at your local tavern, looking at NPCs that interact with each other and so forth. Now, I dare you to imagine this: “You’re in friendly Cyrodiil, conquered by your faction, you start walking around, doing some shopping..maybe replenishing those health potions you used in the recent fight…enjoying the crowded market area, when suddenly, the NPCs start to run way from the market, screaming…you turn around and see a group of Aldmeri Dragon Knights charging, you start shouting to your Skype friends, Aldmeriiiiiii…come fast, realizing that you’re left with no potions because you didn’t had time to buy any…” – I’m no role-player, but if this isn’t making you think “OMG, that’s awesome”…no end-game will.
This is my plea to Zenimax, please do not forget about the little things, they do matter.