The NPCs of MMOs
by Tyler Edwards, Feb 20, 2013
Players aren't the only ones populating massively multiplayer worlds. MMOs also offer armies of NPCs. In fact, there are so many NPCs in each game that it eventually becomes impossible to make them all interesting and memorable. They all inevitably start to feel the same, blending into certain archetypes that pop up in every game. From Azeroth to Atreia, from Tyria to Telara, you will eventually find the NPCs all falling into these standard patterns.
These are one of the most common types of NPC you'll meet, especially in low level areas. These are the average shmucks of the MMO world: ordinary farmers, hunters, and soldiers. They're the ones that need bear hides, boar butts, and bundles of fairyweed.
They may seem pitiable creatures, but when you think about it, they've got a sweet racket. All they have to do is put on the old "Oh, I can't go into the forest or the Orcs will eat me" routine, and they have a small army of adventurers doing every single chore for them.
They're nothing but scam artists when you get right down to it. They're sipping cocktails while players break their backs collecting wolf sphincters for them.
One also has to wonder where they're getting all the gold and quest rewards. There must be an entire secret economy supporting them - and, by extension, the players. If us players could only take command of their resources, we'd be gods.
The (poorly) disguised villain:
Not all NPCs are on our side. Some are purely malicious, but willing to hoodwink a few gullible heroes into doing their dirty work for them. You would think this would require great subtlety, but the fact is most of these characters are incredibly bad liars.
When the NPC is constantly tenting their hands and making ominous pauses before talking about your "reward" for completing their task, you've got to know something is up. When the disguised villain eventually unveils their true identity and explains at length how you've helped them murder puppies and drink the souls of the innocent, you struggle to appear surprised.
Why, then, do players keep doing these quests even when they know they're helping the bad guy?
Because the quests still give XP and gear. In the end, we don't care about saving the world. We just want the loot and the power. What these villains don't understand is that they don't need to continue the charade. They can be upfront about their evil goals. As long as shinies are being offered, there will always be an army of players ready to help them.
The temporary companion:
Lately, there's been a push to make MMOs a little more story driven. One way developers can do this is to give the player "companions" that will follow them through the story. For whatever reason, these seem most common at low levels. These characters become your friends, confidants, and sidekicks. They help you through quests and add life to the world.
The problem with them, though, is that these characters will eventually just disappear from the story, never to be seen again - unless you're playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, anyway.
So when you think about it, these characters are pretty terrible friends. They're there for you... until you start getting into high level areas. Then they just drop you like a hot potato - cowards and fair weather friends, all. In the end, you're just better off without those leeches.
But that doesn't stop you from missing them, does it?
The one you remember:
Most of the time, NPCs in MMOs aren't terribly memorable. Even if you bother to read their quest text or watch their cinematic, you'll probably find it to just be a bland list of objectives vaguely dressed up with some semblance of a story.
But once in a while, a character comes along and just grabs us. It's not always an important character. It's not always someone who's part of a major story. Often, the quests they give you are completely ordinary and forgettable.
But there's just something about them that grabs at your heart. Maybe theirs is a tale of tragedy, and you take pity on them. Maybe they're the first NPC you meet that shows affection or familiarity to your character.
Whatever the reason, these are the characters whose quests will stick with you long after you've moved on to greener and higher level pastures, and even long after you've forgotten countless other generic quest givers.
Players aren't the only heroes in the MMO universe. Every game will also boast NPC heroes. These are the people whom the storylines will focus on. These are the faces that go on box art. Wielding powers even the most uber-geared players can only dream of, these titans are the real stars.
But there's a problem here. If these heroes actually used their powers to save the world, there would be nothing left for players to do. A game where you're simply some NPC's sidekick - at best - isn't terribly exciting for a lot of players. So how do developers solve this problem?
Usually, they don't. They simply have the players do all the important work while the truly mighty heroes are just sitting around on their asses. At best, it might be said that the important characters are busy, though it's never quite clear what they're busy with. Using their powers to pick up Elven girls at the market, maybe.
The actual hero:
But not all MMO heroes are shiftless freeloaders. Once in a while, they actually get off their regal behinds and do some real heroism. Such occasions usually have to take place in an instance or special phase so they don't break the game with their overpowered abilities.
By lending their aid, these mighty NPCs allow players to do things they could never do on their own: fend off entire armies, shatter enemy fortresses, and defeat all-powerful villains. With such friends on their side, players can experience some of the most epic moments in the MMO world.
Of course, MMO fans - ever the type to complain that their free ice cream isn't chocolate - still sometimes object to this helping hand from the NPCs, complaining that their thunder has been stolen by the non-player hero. They perhaps do not consider that it wouldn't make for very interesting game lore if the credit for the dragon's kill went to Ipwnzer the mage.
These are NPCs that either haven't seen or just don't care about your hero credentials. They'll treat you as just another grunt - at best - no matter how powerful or accomplished your character is.
These NPCs don't really make a lot of sense when you think about it. For one thing, your character is almost certainly worthy of respect, and they have no reason not to give it to you. For another, what gave developers the idea that players would enjoy being treated like something the quest giver just scraped off their boot?
There's no clear reason what makes these characters so difficult to impress. Maybe they don't want you getting arrogant. Maybe they're just big McKayla Maroney fans. Whatever the reason, they don't care how many dragons you've killed, how many opponents you've thrashed, or how many times you've saved the world. To them, you'll always be just another scrub.
...Come to think of it, they're a lot like many MMO players.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those NPCs who have clearly never experienced anything so wonderful or exciting as the day they met you. That so great a hero as you has even appeared in their corner of the world is a wondrous and incredible thing to them.
These are NPCs that have heard of your great deeds and respect you as is due. They always hold you in high regard, and they're always grateful for your help.
Generally, this kind of NPC is lovely to have around. What's the point of being a hero if no one acknowledges all your hard days of dragon slaying and zombie stomping? We all want to be appreciated.
But sometimes they can be a little over the top. If all they do is fall all over themselves in their rush to earn the right to lick the dirt from your boots, they can get tiresome. This is especially true if they appear early on, before you've really accomplished anything.
"Ye gods, this hero has braved the field next door and found the caterpillar legs I needed! Such an act of courage will ring through the ages, and forever after, we shall sing of the heroism of Lawlstabqt the Magnificent!"