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DBSI Companion Leveling Is Linear

I don’t think our NPC companions in Star Wars: The Old Republic will have classes the same way player characters do. I don’t think players will be able to manually level them up or select their abilities. What SWTOR will have instead is a pre-determined linear progression that companions automatically follow—no diverging branches or ability customization. We must instead accept what is given. This is not a terrible thing, but is worth noting. Everybody seems to be worrying about the narrative implication of companions—”Why does my Bowdaar look like his Bowdaar?“—but I’m more concerned about functional customization, which I suspect will be lacking.

There are two components of this issue: One, should companions follow a class structure at all, and two, how much control should players have on companion abilities and tactics. Regarding the first, the debate between structured and abstract NPC creation is controversial in the realm of tabletop RPGs. Structured NPC creation comes from the “gamemaster as opponent” mentality. Here, the GM uses NPC class structures—”monster” classes—to create enemies whose “challenge rating” is controlled by their level in their class. The challenge rating is “begotten” by the monster class. In abstract systems, the GM creates enemies from scratch with whatever abilities they want—including ones players don’t have access to—and figure out the monster’s challenge rating after the fact. The challenge rating is “made” separately.

After Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition was released with the abstract method of NPC creation, the Wizards d20 community was split between the two approaches. Fans of older editions and the excellent Star Wars Saga Edition game preferred the structured NPC creation system. Lo, and at that time I did engage in forum-based combat with the very talented designer of Saga Edition, Gary M. Sarli, over the merits of one system vs. the other. Gary insisted on structured NPC creation for Saga as a matter of fairness to the player: He felt strongly that a player should never have their character killed by an ability they couldn’t themselves obtain. I argued that the role of the gamemaster was as a storyteller, not opponent, and that barring incorrect challenge ratings—a problem shared by either method—the GM should have creative freedom. Also, the GM controls all circumstances in-game so there is never a fair, level playing field to begin with. Gary’s stance against abstract NPC creation has softened since then, but not due to any arguments of mine:

GMSarli: “@fodigg yep, changed my opinion — abstracting the #dnd monster-creation rules saves LOTS of time, so i’m using same idea for #e20system

{Twitter.com/GMSarli}

Apparently lazy GMing is universal, even among game designers.

In gaming of the video variety, this has been less of a controversy. Enemies in video games have traditionally been capable of things the player is not since ghosts chased Pac-Man and Donkey Kong threw barrels at Mario. Players might be frustrated with “cheap” or difficult enemies from time to time, but rarely would they describe the game as “unfair” or as “cheating.” Challenging battles are simply one element of design.

The lack of controversy is probably because you don’t have the architect of your rage—the devs—in the room with you. When you’re one-shotted in Contra or fall down a bottomless pit in Mario, it’s not some guy across the table who designed from scratch the character or trap that killed you. When you’re killed in a video game, it’s simply frustrating. When you’re killed by a GM, that can get to feeling personal. And hey, sometimes it is. I knew a GM who kept a “kills” card that tracked the names of all characters he’d killed. Ninety percent of those characters belonged to his roommate, who unbelievably still played in his campaigns.

As a quick aside, a related issue that is controversial in video games—especially multi-player games like MMOs—is the concept of variable difficulty. Should video games challenge everyone the same way or are they more like a film or book, where everybody get to see the whole story no matter what? When games moved from the arcade to the living room, the dynamic changed from universally challenging to, well, casual. Some gamers still yearn for the days when all games were “Nintendo hard,” where games had high scores instead of endings, and where there was never an “easy mode.” Ask a hardcore raider if they enjoy the fact that, after they’ve invested hours upon hours into killing a boss and looting his gear, the difficulty of that encounter is reduced to let casuals in, or the same gear is handed out via a badge system. They tend not to be pleased. I usually fall into the “let the casuals (me) participate” camp, but I can certainly understand why the hardcore gamers have been irked by the ongoing push toward gaming as a mainstream, casual pastime.

That aside…aside, companion characters will be very different in structure from player characters. No, I haven’t seen anything you haven’t, I just know this is how BioWare companions work. They will have jumbled or unique archetypes and unique abilities. Again, this is less controversial in video games than in tabletop games, but the community has already seen kvetching over characters in the lore who can do things players can’t, such as faction switching (e.g., Vader), mixed character archetypes (e.g., Kenobi), or cross-faction archetypes (e.g., Vette the Imperial Smuggler). I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, will be uproarously indignant that an NPC can be a Trooper-Jedi hybrid and they can’t. Or that Bowdaar will fight unarmed like Shale from Dragon Age: Origins but there’s no “unarmed fighting” path for the Jedi Knight. Even if I’m wrong and every companion NPC follows the player classes rigidly, you can be assured that they’ll be weaker than the player characters (except Bowdaar of course).

This is how BioWare has always done their companion classes in their single-player games. Consider the companions in the Mass Effect series or in Knights of the Old Republic, who are very, very similar to player classes but have one or two unique abilities that change how they play, usually involving the themes of their profession (e.g., Kasumi the thief’s unique stealth ability), species (e.g., Garrus is a “Turian Agent” instead of an “Infiltrator“), or unique talents (e.g., Juhani’s unique Force camouflage). Then in games like Jade Empire or Dragon Age where the player can have totally abstract companions like Henpecked Hou, Barkspawn, and Shale. However, even with non-standard abilities and totally abstract companions, the player has been able to manually “level up” these NPCs, allowing them the chance to customize which abilities they gain and how they progress. In SWTOR, this will not be the case:

PCGames: “Does your companion levelup at the same time as your character?”

James Ohlen: “Yes, he will also levelup. In addition, you can do cool stuff with him. You may equip him with different equipment …”

PCGames: “Can I decide which abilities he will learn and spent his talent points for him?”

James Ohlen: “No. As we created the companion system we thought about two different ways to dot that. The first one was the complete control over all abilities, talents etc through the player. But its not like you own your companion. Hes more like a friend who follows the player character on his adventures.”

{PC Games: “Die beiden letzten Charakterklassen”, translation from MMORPG.com forums}

I expect that this will disappoint some players, because players always want more customization. Customization is like puppy kisses, marshmallows, and back hair—you can never have too much.

Without any sort of customization or manual element of the companion leveling process, they’re basically forcing us to use the “auto-level” feature that appears in most of their single-player games. If companions can’t be customized to fit the build of our characters, then it follows that some of them may simply not be very useful for our playstyle. Sure, they’ll be designed for the specific class they belong to, but if you’re a Jedi Consular and you go with the healing advanced class/build, then any companions designed for the DPS AC or stealth build might be useless to you. However, BioWare is addressing this issue in an interesting way, via companion gear.

James Ohlen: Companions add a lot to a player’s combat capabilities. Each companion has a specific role, whether it be additional DPS, tanking, healing or crowd control. Companions also have special abilities that can be activated to significantly change what’s going on during a battle. One companion might lay down suppressing fire, giving the player some breathing room to escape or turn the tide of the battle. Another companion might trap a tough enemy in an energy bubble, allowing the player to use a divide and conquer strategy in a battle. Players can also equip items to his companion character. This includes standard gear such as armor and weapons. Additionally, what a player equips to his companion can change the companion’s behavior.

{IGN.com: “Star Wars: The Old Republic Companions”}

So depending on what gear you assign to your companion, they will behave differently in combat. This mechanic is apparently being referred to as “kits” by the development staff.

Blaine Christine: With [Kim Vaal’s] different AI kits, you can actually outfit him to fulfill various roles, and augment your abilities. “Kits” is just terminology we are using, but what it means is that I want to make sure my Dashade is working like a true melee tank, so I’m going to make sure his outfit or kit is going to allow him to soak up more damage, and maybe he isn’t going to deal out as much damage. But I may have a different type of kit that will allow me to outfit him with abilities to have him do more melee DPS.

{DarthHater.com: “PAX: Interview With BioWare’s Blaine Christine”}

Ah, that sounds fun. Tying NPC AI tactics to gear. So not only will I have to be doing the gear grind for myself but for all my companions as well—multiple times for each, in fact, so they’ll have different tactical “kits” available for them. I just can’t wait for that.

Extra grinding BioWare? You shouldn’t have.

This “kitting” tactics system does not count—in my opinion—as customizing companion abilities. Not the same way manually leveling them up within an NPC class would. I can understand why BioWare would go this route, they don’t want you to feel like you’re managing two characters and just want companions to work on autopilot. However, something valuable is lost by not allowing us to personalize specifics of our NPCs, if only because the AI for auto-leveling has been pretty dumb in past BioWare titles and I’m expecting linear progression for SWTOR companions to be just as dense. Knowing that these companions will play a big part in PvP, it would have been nice to have manual control over them to make sure they didn’t suck.

There is one benefit to the kitting system, however, which is that we can’t permanently screw up our companions. BioWare has already made a controversial stand in favor of permanent in-game decisions (ACs) in order to support their “choices matter” form of gameplay—something I maintain should be true for narrative choices but not for gameplay choices—so it’s nice to know that we won’t be able to ruin a companion by mis-allocating their points when leveling them up. The kitting system is essentially a free companion respec whenever you switch out their gear, so this problem is moot. Sure, it’d be wonderful to have the level of AI customization of Dragon Age‘s Tactics system, where the player can basically write logic scripts that the companions follow, but if they’re not even letting us manually level up our companions in SWTOR I’m not surprised they’re avoiding that level of control. The kitting system will be, if nothing else, easy to learn and use. Want more DPS for your smuggler-like companion? Equip her with two pistols like the Gunslinger and she unlocks her rapid shot abilities. Want more tanking from your Sith Warrior? Drop him down from two lightsabers to one and he suddenly has his tanking abilities. Easy. And if players can switch between companion kits on the fly mid-combat—something I would expect from a fully functional NPC AI tactics system—then this would make companions very adaptable in combat, resulting in reactive gameplay. Such would add stategic depth to companions beyond them simply being a heal, damage, or tank-bot that follows you around.

I’m miffed that I won’t be able to min-max my companions—and I’m definitely not looking forward to grinding gear “kits” for them all—but I’m cautiously optimistic about how the kitting system will work in combat. What do you think of no manual leveling for companions? Or about the kitting system? Or just generally about structured NPC creation vs abstract NPC creation? Comment below or reply here!

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