Sunday, March 04, 2012

Companion Affection

Milady wrote an interesting post on the evolution of Bioware's romances on her site Hypercritism. I started to post a response, but then had to think about it some more. It seems to me that the real issue is not so much the writing of romances, so much as it is the underlying companion affection system.

The companion affection system reminds me of valor points in WoW. The connection is probably not obvious, but they're both systems which have been iterated on over time, and which may no longer serve their original purpose.

Think about why Bioware came up with companion affection. What problem was it intended to solve?

In the early Bioware/Black Isle games, your relationship with a companion was really independent of your actions in the game, independent of your character's nature. Really the only thing that mattered was your previous conversations with the character and your progress in the game. Those were the keys which unlocked subsequent conversations.

I think the original idea behind companion affection was that your character's personality--as revealed through her actions in the game--should matter to your companions. A good-aligned character should find it easier to get along with other good-aligned people, and harder with people who share different values.  I think this idea makes sense, and is a reasonable behavior to try and simulate.

So Bioware decided on a simple scale. If your character took an action or dialogue a party member agrees with, your affection with that character increases. If they disagree, the affection decreases.

The next hurdle comes when you have more companions that party slots, and the game has roles. If your character fulfills the same combat role as Alistair, you're not going to have him in your party. But that means that Alistair's affection does not change, and so you will never see Alistair's personal storyline.

So Bioware implemented gifts. Gifts allow you to increase the affection of companions you don't adventure with. In The Old Republic, gifts also allow you to increase affection if you don't quest, if you PvP or do space battles or group instances.

But if you think about it, gifts also invalidate the very purpose of the companion system. Your character's personality doesn't matter to the companion any more. Instead you just ply them with gifts until their stories unlock.

What the gifts do is turn the companion affection system from a simulation into a grind. Another xp/rep grind that you fill out for rewards or to unlock content. I bet many players in SWTOR will have all five companions with their affection maxed out.

The other part of this is that players, especially MMO players, don't really like making permanent decisions, especially decisions that close off content. Gifts allow you to circumvent the choices made during leveling. Your choices are no longer permanent.

I think that companion affection systems would work better with two changes. First, no gifts, no ways to circumvent the choices you make in the game. Your companions react to your character as revealed by the choices you make.

Second, changes in companion affection are not restricted to your current companions, but rather occur for all the companions. This means that you can't avoid the loss of affection by using a different conversation. Conversation and decisions trigger a reaction in all characters, so a decision might see a gain in affection for some characters, and a loss for others.

Of course, the downside of this is that you won't see the stories for all the companions. Maybe the companion affection system is entirely unnecessary, and the old way of unlocking stories as the game progresses was just better. Maybe trying to make your character's personality--outside conversations with companions--matter to your companions is not worth the effort, and has too many negative consequences.


  1. While I would prefer for my actions to give/penalize affection for all companions, even if they're not with me at the moment, I disagree with removing gifts. While it's a mechanic that fits a need, it's still something that happens, you know. People still give gifts to other folks to raise their affection, after all.

    But you basically hit the nail on the head in the middle; By locking out content from players, you are punishing them for actions they had not enough information about (there's been more then a few dialog choices I've made that gave me bonuses or penalties I was totally shocked about). And that's bad enough on it's own, without the unintended consequences.

    If you made the system have literally no way to "reverse" choices, then the system implicitly encourages players to never take any risks. Players will be unwilling to engage in things if they thought that they were going to screw themselves out of later content as a result, or they will get frustrated with the game because they think it wants them to play in a way it doesn't actually intend.

    For example, LotRO has a number of "achievements" for reaching certain levels without dying. It's not the full level range, though; it stops not too far out of the tutorial zones. Why? They were discovering that people were playing in very self-destructive ways, and were getting incredibly frustrated as a result. If companion conversations were similar, then you'd be finding players partaking in similar forms of self-destructive behaviour as they try to min-max.

  2. One of the major issues is the linking of companion affection with reduced crafting time.

    This is a gameplay incentive to grind companion affection rather than enjoy roleplaying.

    I am comfortable that Khem Vhal thinks I make sissy decisions as Light Side inquisitor. But the game disincentivises such roleplaying, which means I have to grind gifts...

  3. "Maybe the companion affection system is entirely unnecessary, and the old way of unlocking stories as the game progresses was just better. "

    Unless they devise a better system that can take into account roleplaying as well as content accessibility, I guess that the best option would be to go back to previous models in which the affection was taken for granted unless you planned to crush the NPCs heart.

    In any case, what does affection really add to the player's experience? As you said, it is a matter of "realism", of implementing a feature that would take into account a concept that in games was non-existent until then, and which is determinant in real life. But did it add anything to the game? Did it even achieve its original purpose? No, the romances are as bit as unrealistic and "imposed" as ever, even more so if you stick on the gifts feature to the original decision/conversation-based affection. The only purpose I find in the current system is for romances to be evenly paced, and even in that case you have a pile of gifts to force six consecutive dialogues.

    If the affection would have a negative value and granted the player a different path, such as the Dragon Age 2 game did, the system would make more sense, and encourage true character roleplaying, instead of subjecting it to the mechanics of romance.

  4. Mylady beat me to it, but I too really liked the way Dragon Age 2 tackled this problem by taking basic attachment for granted but allowing the relationship to go into different directions depending on whether you and your companion got along or not.

    I don't really mind the "gamey-ness" of the system in SWTOR, but I do think it's a shame that negative affection with your companions only has disadvantages (slower crafting and missing out on their personal story).

  5. I love the idea of having all companions affected by all your dialog, but personally the negative affection mechanic has left a bad taste in my mouth. When I see "-1" pop up at the bottom I feel like it's negative feedback and that I picked the wrong dialog option.

    It goes along with the min-maxing of light/dark side and feeling like you have to stick to one side 100% of the time to min/max.

  6. A lot of my credits went into gathering these companion gifts via professions. My reasoning behind it was that more affection lead to quicker working and more XP from the quest lines which I was also eager to do. I never did the math behind it. Should I have sold them, I might have made more credits since I was short on them every time I could buy new mount I could not right away, for example.

    One thing I do know though: if you are on your ship intercomm there are some decisions you make (this is between the level 35 and 50 range from what I remember). The decisions made here affect some companions in the + affection and other in the - affection. Don't like the effect? Hit escape and start over. I rather get my fully capped companions a - affection and get some low affection companions up. Which is what I did. So, what you said is in-game in SWTOR, but not by default.

    My last companion, Nadia Grell, also gained insane amounts of affection (+102 or so) with almost every decision I made. There was little grind required, but I did that anyway (not smart in hindsight since I could've just sold the gifts instead, and she was my "tank" from now on so I wasn't sending her out to work anyway except when logging). I suppose they did this because you get her late in the game, as your last companion.