Replaying KotET and more recently also KotFE got me thinking about the role and importance of NPCs in MMOs, probably because both expansions have been criticised for putting too much focus on certain non-player characters, to the point where they feel more like the story of Valkorion, Lana & Co. than our own.
How much of a role should NPCs play in an MMO? Do we need them at all?
I think the answer to the latter question is probably no, if we're talking about truly "needing" them. I suppose a complete lack of non-player characters would be challenging in terms of handling certain game mechanics (such as how to create and distribute currency for example), but that aside it's not that hard to imagine an MMO in which players literally only have each other to interact with. It would be the ultimate sandbox.
But it is desirable? I could imagine such a game being fun, but I fear that if there were multiple games like it, they would be at risk of feeling a bit same-ish. As a collective, MMO players are not very good at building a coherent and interesting culture. Put a lot of them together and it seems you inevitably end up with a lot of people with silly names and a penchant for making crude jokes. That could be a fun setting once or twice, but you wouldn't want all your games to be like that.
I want my MMOs to have an interesting setting and lore, and for that it still seems best to have that part actually put together by professionals. NPCs are one way to achieve this. Even if they were set up to never talk to or otherwise interact with players, their mere presence would already tell us things: about what sort of society they live in, what sort of settlements they have, how they dress, what sort of roles they play. Once you get them talking, things only get more interesting and stories get told.
It seems to me that when it comes to NPC interactions, you can have a spectrum that goes from disinterested and independent to highly attached. The former means that NPCs talk to and trade with you and may even give you quests, but have little to no interest in you beyond that. Once you're done with them, you move on and probably never interact with them again. I remember Vanilla WoW being a lot like that. This can then lead to people accusing the game of having little or no story - but this isn't necessarily true, the story just isn't as in-your-face. Vanilla WoW actually had some very interesting stories, you just had to actively pay attention to quest text and connect the dots. And they were rarely about a single hero and more often about whole political factions or worldly developments (e.g. multiple quests having you investigate Silithid hives in different zones slowly drawing a more comprehensive image of what was going on with them).
On the opposite end we have Bioware's companions: NPCs that pretty much attach themselves to you, follow you around and become your best friends or worst enemies. It seems to me that merely telling stories that way has become almost synonymous with "good storytelling" simply because it's impossible to miss. The more distant approach requires players to be curious and interested in puzzling things out for themselves, which can be fun and rewarding. But if you're not into it, that story might as well not exist. Comparatively, the guy who constantly follows you around and comments on everything you do is hard to miss, and suddenly there's a story for everyone.
Of course that approach has its pitfalls too. Players who enjoy puzzling things out for themselves might perceive a story delivered in a pushy manner as "dumbed down", but more importantly you might piss people off by (semi-)permanently saddling with with companions they don't even like. Theron Shan and Lana Beniko in SWTOR are a good example. They were originally introduced with the Forged Alliances story arc in early 2014 (yes, that long ago), initially just as contacts that guided you through the different steps of the story, just to rise to further prominence in Shadow of Revan until they became permanent companions in Knights of the Fallen Empire.
Both are written in a way that tries really hard to make you like them. They may disagree with what you say at times, but they remain unfailingly loyal no matter what. They are also both skilled individuals and highly useful to have around from a purely pragmatic point of view. Lana is more of a quiet, thoughtful type, while Theron likes to crack wise on occasion, but both are likeable archetypes. And it works! They are popular with a large part of the player base and many have entered into a romance with one or the other.
But there are reasons to dislike both of them too. Lana is manipulative and somehow always gets things to go her way. It's not unreasonable to want to break free of her grasp. Or maybe you're just sick of Theron's forced levity and want to get rid of him.
Yet you can't. On occasions you may be able to say rude things to either of them, but as mentioned above, they are unfailingly loyal to your cause... which only gets more annoying as you try to drive them away by being mean. Pfannenstiel mused in his own comment section the other week that it would be interesting if after the choice on Iokath either Lana or Theron would turn against us. Sure sounds exciting to me, even if I don't think it's likely to happen and I don't even really dislike either of them. But being forced to hang out with them all the time is not optimal either.
And I do think this is one area where KotFE/KotET suffered a bit, in that they tried too hard to make the conflict between you and Arcann and Vaylin personal. I never liked the Sith inquisitor's chapter three because it uses a similar set-up: The villain wants you dead for personal reasons, so you must personally want them dead too. No, that's not how it works! Maybe the "Knights of" story would have actually been stronger if there had been more of a focus on why Arcann and Vaylin's reign was bad for the galaxy as a whole, beyond some occasional mentions of how they were cruel to their people. That would have provided more opportunities for the player to find reasons to want them dethroned and given us back some sense of agency.
Still, on the whole I like having some NPCs around that serve as recurring characters and with whom you can develop a relationship. I just think it's best balanced out with also having characters on the other end of the spectrum, to remind the player that the world doesn't revolve around them and that there are other stories out there that are worth actively discovering too.
SWTOR did used to have those as well by the way. The other week I finally finished up a long-running project of mine, which was to make a video about the Dread Master story arc.
Sure, the Dread Masters were recurring characters too, but not in the "core" story content, and you had to actively seek out those extra stories and figure out how they were all connected. The Masters themselves weren't actually very fleshed out in terms of personality (aside from Calphayus, we don't even know what species they were), but they didn't need to be either - they did a lot of directing events from the shadows, and on the few occasions when you did meet them directly, they almost always made it very clear that they didn't think very highly of the player character. But that's what made them fun: chasing them, proving that you were worthy of attention and that you weren't going to let them get away with their plans.
Do you have any favourite NPCs that you think are underappreciated, or clingy ones that you just wish would leave you alone already?