MMOs, in my limited experience, strive to do something that Second Life never did. Well, if I’m honest they offer up several things but for the purposes of this post I just want to look at NPCs and what they do when they are not dealing with players. In Second Life there were no such things as NPCs unless created by the users and the AI on offer (again coded by users) ranged from not very good through terrible to non-existent, but that was fine because SL was never about providing NPCs in the same way an MMO has to. In the vast majority of MMOs NPCs are vital as they provide ‘touch down’ points for players to interact with the game’s systems such as the story or inventory management or item upgrading. Bottom line is if every NPC in every MMO went on strike tomorrow the who damn shebang would fall on its arse in an hour.
MMO worlds are touted as living, breathing creations for us to explore and despite the huge amounts of available evidence to the contrary we believe this falsehood. Predominantly I believe this is simply because we want to. We want to believe our games are alive so we can more easily feel we too are a living, breathing part of them and that’s why when we are confronted with NPCs who just seem to stand on the same spot forever it breaks this feeling and upsets us.
Take LOTRO for example, I mean why are the street traders in Bree stood at their stalls all day every day no matter what time it is or what the weather is like? Do they never go home to their loved ones? If I stayed at work all night the missus would have my guts for garters and yet these guys happy to stay there way past their tea time? Same goes for the gate guards, why are they always the same blokes every single time you see them? Does their captain not rotate them? And then there are the old codgers in the same small room of Scholar’s Tower! How come they are always ruddy well there? Sigh… I could go on. Turbine’s Middle Earth is full of immersion-breaking static NPCs & disinterested animals, which is a real shame.
You see for a world to be alive the people in it must have purpose. We the players do, from slaughtering rats and bears and boars by the zoo-full to raiding the deepest dungeon for the sword of punchy slicey death but this is wasted when the NPCs are nothing more than glorified window dressing. When they never move, never interact, never do anything interesting or even mundane then the world no longer feels alive and instead begins to look flatter than a witch’s tit.
And that’s where I’m hoping Guild Wars 2 will improve on things. Arenanet seems to have worked really hard on making their NPCs live and work in their world and that really makes me want to explore just to see how far they have gone with this. So far I’ve found animals that attack each other, guides that show you around interesting areas, woodcutters that carry logs between piles, children that play games, guards that defend their posts and a dozen other little ways in which, at last, the purposeless are given purpose and the world comes that little more alive. I really hope Tyria is the first world I’ve found that really makes believe it is alive