Friday, December 4, 2009

Suddenly, Bioware is Incompetent.

This is one of the few times I’ll jump on an issue that is a hot topic on MMO blogs. I’m doing it now because certain prominent bloggers’ opinions on this topic have been too ridiculous for me to bear. Perhaps Keen’s numbers haven’t been good recently and he wants to start a huge debate to draw links and views?

Bioware has released information on companion characters. For some unknown reason, this fact has led people to believe that Bioware cannot tie their design shoes anymore.

With very little actual information available, people are assuming that Bioware are going to mangle the design of companions and ruin their game by removing one or more “M”s from “MMORPG.”

Arguments against companions:

  1. It throws off rewards because you will get loot as if you were two players.
  2. Who would choose to bring someone along if they’ve already got an AI companion?
  3. Everyone will always have their companion out, so the game will be balance for that, rendering non-companion strategies non-viable.
  4. The game won’t be balanced for rampant companion use, so the game will fall apart as everything becomes extraordinarily easy due to companion use. This makes non-companion strategies non-viable.

All of these complaints are ways of saying that Bioware suddenly is incapable of good design. With even a modicum of thought I can come up with ways to counter every one of those arguments with game mechanics that are easy to implement. This isn’t difficult work or hard thought—this is basic stuff that any self-respecting game designer (or MMO pundit) should be able to figure out.

  1. Parties get loot based on the number of PCs in the group, as done in DDO.
  2. AI companions will always be inferior to players because AIs just aren’t that good at positioning and tactics. As long as NPC companions occupy group slots that players would otherwise occupy, PCs will be preferable over NPCs.
  3. Pet classes already exist in MMOs. Even if the design isn’t great, you could just treat every class in SW:TOR as a pet class. This isn’t great design—but it’s the worst case scenario.

DDO has already implemented a feasible and functioning companion system and the world hasn’t exploded. Why can’t Bioware do the same?

This is yet another instance of people throwing a tantrum because they are incapable of seeing past the tip of their noses. Here, on bold display, is the common approach that everything with which I am not familiar is poison and evil. This kind of punditry is damaging to the discussion and progress of MMOs.

(You should also read Andrew’s great concise post at Of Teeth and Claws. There's also a strong post over at Player vs Developer that further shows good signs for companion systems.)

18 comments:

Castamere said...

I could not agree more, hopefully more voices of reason like yours will be heard as this topic makes the rounds. :)

Andrew said...

Thanks for the hat tip. If you haven't read it already, Kill Ten Rats takes the social angle on the debate, which I find fascinating:

http://www.killtenrats.com/2009/12/04/get-your-party-of-my-mmo/

evizaer said...

KTR basically provides the social justification... the other sides of the mechanical justification I provide.

Sara Pickell said...

I'm finding myself in your corner on this one. From a design perspective I'm just not seeing any downsides to it.

Jayedub said...

Well said!

Tolthir said...

I think you missed the point of those posts. I don't think Tobold et al are arguing against companion characters in the abstract, or doubting BioWare's ability to implement them well. I think they're concerned that the game is essentially going to be a single-player game in MMO guise. That's a matter of emphasis, not design competence. The companion characters are just one aspect of the single-player focus.

evizaer said...

They and others who agree with them have made mechanical arguments against companions.

I have refuted those arguments.

If Tobold and Keen are arguing as you claim (Keen definitely is), they are arguing a matter of taste and I have nothing to say to them.

Kenny said...

You did not refute them, just took another spin. Let me say this:

If the player can take direct control over the companions, like in other BW games, then Keen is right, it will be a huge blow to the market. Shame on BW! If the companions will behave like (pup)pets, then ultimately it will be viewed as nothing innovative, something useless with loads of resources wasted. /epic /phail BW! Or, if they strike a middle ground with really autonomus characters, then it will be AI doing the player's bidding ("henchmenning", as we called it in p&p rpgs, or more precisely "sim wars" when we played SW), without the strings attached. Then are we playing a game or are we watching a movie? /phail again on BW's part.*

See the pattern that will emmerge no matter what and how they actually implement in-game?

*I do not agree with the content of this paragraph :]

Andrew said...

@Kenny:

It just doesn't play out like that in practice - DDO has hirelings, and players still prefer to group with real players in the vast majority of cases.

The entire case against companion characters is based on flawed reasoning, a misunderstanding of human nature, and willful ignorance of existing games that do the exact same thing.

evizaer said...

@Kenny:

You're assuming that Bioware are bad at designing MMOs and cannot even design a simple henchman system that is present in at least two other MMOs that have seen marked success. So you are actually proving my arguments correct.

Dblade said...

The problem though is that each companion system is unique. You can't say "companions work in DDO, so they will work in TOR" because the two are different games by different companies. Hirelings may work in DDO, but TOR may be balanced differently, have a different playerbase less into grouping, may inadvertantly punish grouping due to bad hub design or class imbalances, or what have you.

You also can't go by past track record. There is way too much "because it's bioware it will be ok" sentiment, but competence in one genre may not lead to another. Namco and Sega of Japan both made excellent games, but when they both stepped outside of their genre, and made FPS (breakdown for original xbox, outrigger for dreamcast) they stumbled badly.

While I think Keen is overreacting, be careful of being too quick to wave it away.

evizaer said...

Each companion system is not unique. These games are similar in their mechanics. They are in the same subgenre of the same genre. Some specifics are tweaked and the settings are different, but it's not much of a leap.

You can go by past track record and have reasonable expectations. I have the reasonable expectation that BioWare is better at designing MMOs than Keen, Tobold, and Syncaine put together and given lots of aderall. If Turbine and ArenaNet can make it work, it's beyond reasonable to expect BioWare to be able to. Especially when I can think of ways to balance the mechanic and I'm a rank amateur.

WyldKard said...

Glad someone else isn't jumping on the companion-hate-bandwagon. We wrote about this earlier as well (http://tinyurl.com/yaxk9z8), and believe there are numerous advantages to Bioware's move, not the least of which is players learning group mechanics from the get-go, instead of only at end-game.

Logan said...

i've summed up my main arguments on this issue here - http://www.keenandgraev.com/?p=3186&cpage=4#comment-122425

scroll down to comment #160.

you're a smart guy with a lot of good insight Evizaer, i very much enjoy your blog, but i don't think you're thinking things through on this issue. it's more than just an issue of AI companions. you have to look at the whole, not just the part, and see how everything fits together and affects everything else.

granted, we don't know all the details of the final game yet... but from the info we do have, things don't look promising, you of all people should be able to see that.

evizaer said...

Thanks for the compliments. You don't need to try to offset disagreeing with me through flattering, I'm a big boy and I can handle dissenting opinions. :)

We have very little information on the mechanical aspects here. We don't know how this system is going to be implemented. I don't think that "soloing through the whole game" is a result of this mechanic. BioWare stated in an interview discussed in that comment thread that SW:TOR would have your standard tropes for end-game content. This means that you CANNOT solo the whole game.

(And what's the issue with soloing the whole game anyway? It's debatable whether that's an actual problem.)

I'm giving BioWare a fair shake here. I'm not going to be pretentious and suggest that they are profaning the sacred institution of MMORPG ideal blah nonsense blah blah. They're releasing a game that is an MMO and people are getting riled up about the fact that they aren't playing by all the rules and buying into all the cliches and fitting the classification perfectly. In a genre where most of the pundits are nostalgia-fiends, this is to be expected. It has no effect on the actual quality of the end-product, though.

You should have some faith that BioWare is not incompetent and are putting together a fun MMORPG here. It may not be WoW2, EQ3, or Darkfall 2, but it will most likely be a game that many people will really enjoy. BioWare has made enough good or better games in their day for us to trust them on this one. I'm interested in seeing where they're going, though I probably won't play the game. I'm not going to assume they've lost their wits just because they're doing something different and making a specific kind of game that no one has made before.

Please don't fall into the stupidity of other people who claim to know what an MMORPG is and that definition is unwavering, unquestionable, and the essence of the genre that is inalterable. It's presumptuous, pretentious, and backwards-looking. Judge the game on its own merits; it's going a different direction, the least you can do is give it a chance to show that such a direction is worth travelling.

Geekzor said...

Henchmen/hero system in GW may have encouraged some to try and solo all content but with good game design and significant challenges, the game always came down to players are going to be better, it was never detrimental to the game and fitted well with it's own definition as a CORPG (Cooperative Online Role Playing Game, I think it was the over use of instancing that put most 'massive' players off and led them to denigrate it as an inferior cousin, rather than the hench system.

If your think of most modern MMORPG's without one and imagine any of those with a hench system, it would be fairly horrific, they just weren't built for it, if the game is well designed and challenge is implemented above the capabilities of AI then I see no evil.

Whats wrong with catering for both the hard core MMO player and the social gamer? It's about bums on seats, same as any other entertainment market, except our bums are virtual and probably of the opposite sex :)

Maika said...

"If Tobold and Keen are arguing as you claim (Keen definitely is), they are arguing a matter of taste and I have nothing to say to them."

They are not arguing a matter of taste. At it's heart, it's a matter of false advertising. When people who like MMORPGs hear the acronym "MMORPG", they assume that it will, in fact, be a Massively Multiplayer Online Game. Now, Bioware is clearly making a massively online game. But they need to advertise it accurately so that people won't become confused. It's a Massively Single Player Online Game with party function. People who expect to get an MMORPG when they hear MMORPG, get mad because after a while it becomes clear that bioware is engaging in false advertising.

I doubt anyone is claiming that Bioware is incompetent. I'm sure they believe that bioware will produce one of the most excellent MSORPG games one could conceive of. However, the argument is that they are making it seem as if they are saying MMORPG, while meaning MSORPG.

"I'm not going to be pretentious"

I have seen very little to prove this statement truth. :p

evizaer said...

Maika:

You don't have anywhere near the evidence you need to make that claim. If anything, you're cherry-picking your definition of MMORPG. I'm not here to debate semantics. The fact that Bioware is making a game that has the vague vicissitudes of "Massively Multiplayer" games and "Role-playing Games" means that we can apply the label MMORPG without causing any issues. The fact that you can't accept this means that you are caught up in the institution of MMOs as it presently stands and are averse to the exploration of game designs within the MMO field. This is not BioWare's fault, it is yours.