The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are both hugely popular fantasy RPGs with massive, detailed game worlds, but there are some key differences between them. Notably, their non-player characters are very different beasts, with Skyrim’s NPCs being mostly shallow and uninteresting, mere wall-dressing for the player’s journey, whereas The Witcher gives depth and meaningful personality for its NPCs, whether they’re part of the main quest or a minor side quest.
For example, in Witcher III we are introduced to the Bloody Baron. Warning! Character spoilers ahead (though I’m doing my best to keep out anything really important)…
When first meeting this Bloody Baron, he comes across a generic abusive father and husband. Both his wife and his child have gone missing, and it’s seems pretty obvious his drunken escapades have driven them away. Roughly the first quarter of the main quest is spent running errands for him to find his family members in exchange for information. As the quest unfolds, more details will be revealed about this seemingly abusive, power hungry man that might make you even pity him. The climax of his tale leaves the player in a much different state than when the quest first began. And yet, if you by the end of the quest you still think him a low piece of scum then no one could really fault you. But no matter your opinion of the Bloody Baron, his character will make you a range of emotions from revulsion to remorse. And that’s just one of the NPCs in Witcher III. For those interested, there’s a more detailed analysis on Kotaku and a great (old) discussion on reddit about him.
By comparison, the two most notable NPCs in Skyrim are a one dimensional companion who likes to remind you how she is ‘sworn to carry your burden’ and a former adventurer whose knee is an arrow magnet.
So why are we talking about single-player RPGs on a site that mainly deals with MMOs? Because there are lessons here that are relevant to MMORPG NPCs.
Worlds without character:
MMOs are about players interacting, but that doesn’t mean the NPCs aren’t an important part of the equation. They are the other half of our virtual worlds, residents who never log off or break character. They are the heart and soul of MMO stories, and the gateway to most content.
The problem is that for such an important part of the MMO formula, very few MMORPG NPCs have any real effort put into them.
And this is where the Witcher/Skyrim example comes into play. Sprawling open world RPGs like that are the closest single-player cousins to MMORPGs, and they provide a good basis for comparison.
Right now, the NPCs in most MMOs are entirely too Skyrim and not enough Witcher.
As with so many things, the standard for MMORPG NPCs was set, at least in part, by World of Warcraft. It did much to popularize the concept of quest-based gameplay, and that design requires plenty of NPCs to provide these quests.
But WoW has always taken a “quantity over quality” philosophy. A game that can boast thousands of quests is going to sacrifice some depth in the questing experience, and that affects the NPCs, as well.
That’s not to say that WoW doesn’t have good quests or memorable NPCs — anyone who’s tried to save Crusader Bridenbrad or asked Calder Gray what he likes can attest to that — but these do tend to be the exception and not the rule.
And for the many games that sprang up to imitate WoW without Blizzard’s resources, memorable NPCs tend to be even rarer. We are saddled with vast virtual worlds bereft of character or personality. Even if a game designs a vast history and epic story, that story will feel empty and flat without compelling characters.
One could argue that gameplay is more important, but story can also play a crucial role. If a player comes to care about a world and its characters, they’re invested. It will keep them interested in a game even as other titles surpass it graphically and technologically.
So how can we make MMORPG NPCs better?
The diamonds in the rough:
Not all MMOs are wastelands of character. To get an idea of how things can be made better, we can look at some that have bucked the trend.
The Secret World puts more effort into its NPCs than almost any other MMO around. Relative to other MMOs, TSW has far fewer NPCs and is therefore free to put far more effort into them. Every character is lovingly imbued with colorful personality and a compelling backstory, as told through cutscenes at the start of missions as well as optional conversations.
Even seemingly simple characters have a surprising amount of depth. At first glance, Tokyo’s Ricky Pagan — a rockabilly-obsessed eco activist — seems like pure comedy relief, but there is method to his madness. As you get to know him, it becomes clear that his cartoonish persona was something he retreated into to cope with the destruction of his city and the death of his friends.
Yet for all the strength of its characterizations, there are still some problems with how The Secret World handles its NPCs. For one thing, they are terribly static, rarely taking any role in the story beyond that of quest-givers. To some extent this is necessary — NPCs shouldn’t jeopardize the role of the player — but it does limit their role in the story and thus the story itself.
Also, as in most MMOs, once their quests have been given, they are left behind and all but forgotten. For all their depth, they’re still oddly temporary and ultimately somewhat irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. There’s no steady cast to form a long-term investment in.
And finally, players cannot truly interact with them. There is no conversation system, no choices to be made. We all love Nassir, but my interactions with Nassir will be exactly the same as yours, and nothing will ever change that.
One game where you can expect NPCs to stick around is Star Wars: The Old Republic. Each class has access to multiple unique companion NPCs who will stick with them over the long haul.
Inspired by the incredibly deep NPCs in Bioware’s single-player games, such as the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises, these companions have rich personalities and their own storylines in addition to providing assistance with combat and crafting. Players can even pursue romantic relationships with some of them.
These characters don’t have quite the same depth as their single-player cousins, and their storylines could use more fleshing out, but they’re an admirable effort. Keeping them around and allowing them to fight alongside the player makes it easy to form an emotional attachment to them.
However, companions have also been largely ignored in SW:TOR’s post-launch content. Some attention has finally been given to them in the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, including the addition of new class-agnostic companions, but it’s a bit piecemeal, and the long-term future of how companions will be handled is still a bit unclear.
SW:TOR has one more problem in that outside of companions and a few other major figures, the game’s NPCs are still largely an endless spree of forgettable, disposable characters that disappear almost as soon as they’re introduced.
One more MMO that’s worth looking at is the sci-fi shooter Defiance. It’s not really a game that comes up often as an example of great storytelling in an MMO, but it is noteworthy for having a very unique take on how MMORPG NPCs are handled.
Defiance has a very small cast of characters, even more so than The Secret World. Instead of them having a small, specific role in the story and then disappearing, they’re more like the cast of a television show: a small, steady group of characters that sticks around through most of the game.
Defiance’s NPCs don’t have quite the depth of TSW’s or SW:TOR’s, but they’re colorful and full of personality, and because they tend to stick around, it’s very easy to get invested in them.
So what have we learned?
From The Secret World and Defiance, we learn that MMOs need smaller casts. With hundreds, or even dozens, of NPCs, there is simply not enough time or resources to give them any significant development. A smaller cast allows far more effort to be put into each individual character, making them memorable and distinct.
From Star Wars: The Old Republic and Defiance again, we learn that MMORPG NPCs need a certain degree of permanence. Coming to care about a character is much less valuable if you simply leave them behind, never to be seen again, when their quests are finished. Investment is the goal, and that requires consistency.
SW:TOR also shows us the value in giving NPCs a practical use beyond beyond serving as quest-dispensers. Maybe not every game needs to offer permanent combat companions, but anything MMOs can do to make NPCs more than talking heads in towns or dead weight to be dragged through escort missions is valuable. The player can still take the starring role, but NPCs need to be able to take meaningful action, as well.
Finally, a certain degree of interactivity is valuable. NPCs become a lot more engaging when the player has the ability to control, at least to some extent, their interactions with NPCs.
One could even imagine a game where this is a major choice and a crucial element of character customization. Which NPCs you have befriended and which never want to see you again could help shape what content you have access to or otherwise change your character’s journey.
Not every game needs that level of depth, but even having a choice of responses to NPCs, with no major consequences, would be an improvement over the standard paradigm.
It seems like the best route would be to treat MMORPG NPCs more like the cast of a TV series. A small cast of recurring characters that grow and evolve over time, with only occasional guest appearances by other characters.
In this model, the player would be the star of the cast, so to speak, but the NPCs would have a meaningful role, as well. Players could form strong bonds not just with each other, but with the game’s fictional inhabitants, as well, making for a more enjoyable game and greater long-term player investment. Just like in Witcher III…not so much like Skyrim.