What MMO devs can learn from The Witcher (and other SP RPGs)

So as mentioned in my last post, I’ve been playing my $5 copy of The Witcher and really enjoying myself. In a lot of ways I’m playing it almost like an MMO. I spend a lot of time wandering around harvesting herbs, or “grinding mobs” by hunting at night for experience and loot I can sell for Orens (the game’s currency).

One of the problems I often face when stepping away from MMOs and into single player games is that I forget to save. Years of MMOing has driven the “Quick Save” concept from my brain. Luckily The Witcher autosaves every time you enter or exit a building. So that’s something single player devs can learn from MMO developers: don’t make the player have to worry about bookkeeping tasks like saving.

But this post is about the teaching the MMO devs. The world of The Witcher feels more alive than just about any MMO feels, assuming you take the PCs out of the MMO. Obviously a SP game is never going to have the odd and weird interactions you’ll have with other people in an MMO, but the NPCs in The Witcher seem so much more alive.

Imagine Stormwind or Qeynos with no other players in it. What do you see? NPCs that either stand in one place or patrol along a set path, day or night, rain or shine, saying the same thing over and over again. They act like what they are: automatons. In The Witcher when it starts to rain, all the townsfolk scurry for cover. Not only that, but they’ll grumble or joke about the weather. I did a double take when an old codger ducked under the eave of a house and looked out and cackled “Ha! The neighbor’s laundry is getting soaking wet!”

To be fair, I won’t be playing The Witcher for years and years; if 3 years from now the same codger was saying the same thing every time it rained, it wouldn’t seem as amazing.

Now I know WoW has started to dabble in this kind of behavior via phasing, but generally you have to do something to trigger phasing. In The Witcher, even quest NPCs will move. At night they’ll be in their homes, during the day on the streets or at their place of business. Now the devs weren’t a slave to this ‘realism’ and you can barge into an NPC’s house in the middle of the night and talk to them about a quest and they won’t freak out. Having to wait until morning to talk to them would probably be too much realism.

Last is point-of-view. In The Witcher you play Geralt, the titular Witcher. And you always play the game as him. But when there are cut scenes, you’ll sometimes see the world through another character’s eyes. This can add richness to the overall experience.

[Trivial spoiler ahead]
Fairly early on in the game you meet a barmaid and save her from thugs. She is so grateful, and you so exotic and charming, that she agrees to meet you to “reward” you. She chooses the place: a (supposedly) haunted abandoned mill beside the river. You won’t be disturbed there. Assuming you make the appointment, you and she head into the mill for a bit of non-interactive nookie. At that moment the point of view changes to some folks who make their home across the river from the mill. They hear these faint moans coming across the water and assume it’s the ghost. One comments that there’s never a witcher around when you need one. The scene cuts back to the doorway of the mill where you can clearly hear the young lady’s cries of passion. (Yes, The Witcher is an M-rated game).
[End spoiler]

Now that moment took longer to read about than it did to experience and it might not translate to a blog post very well, but in the moment, playing the game, I found it really funny. We’re always playing these heroes charging through scene after scene but rarely do we get to see the repercussions of our actions. I know most MMO players are notoriously impatient and I’m not urging devs to stick in a bunch of video cut-scenes and their accompanying loading times, but the odd quick in-game cut scene showing your character from someone else’s point of view could really help to flesh out your adventure.

Story is a whole ‘nother blog post. I’ve actually been surprised in The Witcher, and have stayed up too late playing not because I wanted to make the next level, but because I wanted to see what happened next. Your average single player RPG doesn’t have a plot that could rival even a very pedestrian novel, but these stories are still better than those in most MMOs. As a best case scenario an MMO might have an interesting story that it takes you weeks of play and lots of groups to unravel, and spreading it over that much time tends to diminish things.

Anyway, that’s my mutterings for tonight. It sounds silly but the first time the NPCs in this game reacted to weather I kind of stopped and stared. And that was when I realized I’d been away from SP RPGs for a little bit too long. 🙂

3 thoughts on “What MMO devs can learn from The Witcher (and other SP RPGs)

  1. The Witcher is one of my absolute favorite RPGs of all time. (I’m a fan of the IP as well, having read the books prior to playing the game.) The first time I saw an NPC walk out of a tavern and pee in a corner, I about died laughing. That’s not something you normally see in a game! The world is gritty and immersive in a way that most single player games just aren’t. I agree that the NPC reactions are a huge part of that. I’ve already pre-ordered the Witcher 2!

  2. I remember being so fascinated after Ultima VII came out and the NPCs all had daily schedules. Sometimes my gaming sessions would consist of just choosing NPC townsfolk to follow around throughout the day just to see where they would go and what they would do. When it started to rain, they would make comments and close their window shutters. I took devilish delight in opening the shutters only to hear them grumble and go over to shut them yet again.

    Ultima VII was back in the 90’s. Sadly, MMO’s still seem pretty far behind when it comes to NPCs.

  3. Bethesda’s single player games Oblivion, Fallout 3 and so forth have NPC’s that react to the time of day and just seem more alive than the static droids in most MMO’s. It is true though that in their games you can “wait” hours and the game jumps ahead in time to when the store is open, something that cannot be done in an MMO.
    One aspect of games though that I feel has lagged behind over the years is AI.
    Just think of the leaps in graphics we have seen the past 20 years and then think how little NPC AI had advanced.

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