Companion characters have long been a part of virtual worlds. They have been a source of delight for players and have even allowed gamers to form emotional connections within some of gaming’s biggest franchises (Yoshi in Super Mario, Cortana in Halo, Navi in Legend of Zelda, and the list goes on). These characters have provided new utility and tools, added “external” perspectives during gameplay, enhanced immersion in the storyline, and have even generated a degree of companionship to the player.
In the future, we believe that digital companions will become an increasingly prevalent aspect of virtual worlds, especially as cross-world interoperability proliferates. As we look at the future of digital companions, we think there are 5 key aspects to consider. But first, let’s start with the history of virtual companions.
The History of Companions in Video Games
Super Mario World (NES) was one of the first games to introduce a sidekick, Yoshi, in 1990 when the hardware could finally support the rendering of a second character (Screenrant). Yoshi has been a staple character in the Mario universe ever since. The 90s saw a rush of introductions of other now staple characters as companions such as Rush in Mega Man 3 (1990), Pikachu in Pokémon Yellow (1998), Dogmeat in Fallout (1997), and Epona in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). Cortana, the digital assistant and guide of Master Chief in Halo: Combat Evolved (2001), was so important to the Halo series, Xbox, and Microsoft, that Microsoft named its virtual assistant after her as she was the perfect symbol of the symbiotic collaboration between technology and humans that Microsoft wants to create (NBC).
What do Companions Provide to Games?
Historically, what these companions offered in nearly all of these games was an almost entirely continuous presence in the players’ journey. This companion also had a unique influence on each player’s experience with the game. At the base level, companions often provide added utility to the player (for example, some are rideable mounts or have special moves that aid the player in attacking, defending, or healing). As companions became more complex, they also began to have their own backstories and personalities. They started offering perspectives, assistance, and “companionship” in virtual worlds. This made them uniquely distinct from all of the other non play characters (NPCs). This added layer of virtual companions started allowing players to become even more immersed in the lore of the game and in turn more connected emotionally to the IP as a whole.
Gaming is sometimes perceived (incorrectly) as a socially isolating activity which could foster depression and loneliness. While partially limited in their current state, digital companions have the potential to ease loneliness in a way that is similar to real-world pet ownership. In a study done by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute and Mars Petcare, 85% of respondents believed that interaction with companion animals can help ease loneliness. Additionally, 89% of people who did get a pet for loneliness communicated that their pet helped them feel less lonely (Habri and Mars Petcare). As we mentioned earlier, in the context of game stories, companions are usually one of the few consistent presences to the player. They are consistent “characters” that are with the players throughout the journey (from start to finish). This creates a unique emotional connection between the player and the virtual companion.
Designing Companions for the Future of Virtual Worlds
We believe that these early iterations of digital companions are only scratching the surface. If we buy into a future where there are persistent, interoperable identities across digital experiences, then we also believe that these identities should have companions that follow and assist them across the digital universe.
In 2021, Elizabeth Bouquet, Ville Mäkelä, and Albrecht Schmidt of LMU Munich proposed a new framework for companions in video games (ACM Digital Library). This framework highlights seven key considerations of design - Appearance (visual, auditory), Sentience (awareness, emotional intelligence, social relations), Individuality (personality, agenda, background), Behavior (context sensitivity, autonomy, initiative, and activity), Communication Capabilities (with the player and other NPCs), Relation to the Player (interdependence, power dynamics, obligations), and Significance (story and gameplay relevance). This framework was proposed with individual gameplay experiences in mind and we believe that to design these companions for more broad, interconnected digital experiences, this framework should be modified and expanded. We propose the following structure:
Takeaway: companions in virtual worlds have been a core part of many gaming experiences over the past 30 years. Given the advancements in artificial intelligence, these virtual characters are going to become increasingly complex, important, and prevalent. As interoperability across virtual worlds becomes more accessible, virtual companions will likely see the same adoption that we have seen in the pet industry. Today, ~70% of U.S. households have a pet. Five years from now, we expect that the majority of gamers will have a consistent companion that accompanies them across virtual worlds.