“Hasn’t he been standing here since the game launched?” My brother asked. It turns out this particular NPC had and I then had to explain that as a starting area, many of the non-player characters were static or had fixed routes around set locations.
“But do any of the characters have autonomy?”
“Well, no. Not that I can think of. They’re all scripted in some form or another.” I replied.
“Don’t you find that a bit, off-putting?”
“How do you mean?” I probed. “As in, seeing the same NPC’s never doing anything differently?”
“Exactly. How are you supposed to role-play when they’re a constant reminder of how everything is scripted?”
It’s at this point that yes, I had to admit my brother was right. He has tried MMOs in the past, notably Guild Wars 2, but unfortunately for him he spent so much time admiring the game world he never actually leveled up. I think even now, after all these years, his Guardian is barely over level 15 but he still jumps on now and again to have a look around.
I decided to show him Black Desert Online recently. My intention was for him to play around with the character creator and as a designer, it’s often the only thing that tends to appeal to him (outside of the physical game world on offer). Having already watched me running around when the game launched, he was impressed. It’s when he then followed creation through to the game world that he noticed his experienced upon entering the first major town was the same as mine.
Every NPC was in the same place doing the same thing that they had been doing when he first saw me make my character. It’s here that we quickly began to talk about the nature of NPC’s in the genre and how players really view them. The topic of role-playing was soon on the menu and it’s something he certainly likes the thought of. Heck, even I like the thought of role-playing in MMOs: it’s the primary reason why I began playing them in the first place.
I do however understand his thought process and the level of immersion one can apply to a game world that’s clearly much more rigid that it proposes to be. Even Skyrim, a game often lauded for its freedom, I’ve often found jarring. My first experience in the game saw a cow standing on top of a house (delicately balanced, I might add) and I was soon chased out of town for no other reason than looking at a chicken. Yet despite such bugs and the frequency of them, people still find Skyrim immersive and the same principal applies to Black Desert Online as it does for any other MMO.
Yes NPC’s are static, yes they’ll still be at the same bank in three years’ time and yes they’ll still be having the same conversation. But to me, that alone shouldn’t define your game experience. In the grand scheme of things, restrictive NPC’s feels like a small compromise for all that we gain. We’d all have loved for EverQuest Next and its Storybricks to be in every single MMO, but the genre - certainly for me - is much more than its NPC’s. It’s about exploration with friends and a sense of being part of an expansive world, even with the odd blip to immersion.
From a role-play perspective, it’s a too narrow thought pattern to think this one thing alone is enough to dissuade players from being engaged. It would be like suggesting that you can’t be immersed in The Last Of Us because we you that the NPC’s in it and the struggles they’re facing aren’t real. At some point you have to look past what limits game developers face and embrace what they’ve offered, even if it means seeing the same NPC doing the same old thing.
What do you you think: do static NPC’s break immersion in MMOs? Does it bother you that they lack autonomy? Let me know.