Identity Crisis

When I was 10 years old I remember getting excited because a friend of the family loaned me a game named Guild of Thieves, and then Hollywood Hijinx. Both of these titles were text adventures, meaning there were more or less no graphics. Some of them had a few bitmap images to go along with the text, but no movement as we are all used to today.

Back then, your imagination was responsible for creating not only your environments but your character as well. Nothing relied on the cost of your GPU or how much memory you had. As long as your computer could display text, you could play the game as well as anyone else.

These days bring many changes. Now a game without bleeding edge eye candy is considered below par and dies on the discount table. MMOs are reviewed and rated based on their cosmetic level holding as much importance as the design of the game itself. Those who still partake in pen-n-paper RPGs are considered nerds and losers. Times do change indeed.

All current games share one common element. The perspective of the player exists, and is therefore relevant to the design. Whether the player is assuming the role of God or a highly trained dark elf shaman there exists a self awareness which must be illustrated. Black & White represents this character with a hand cursor which changes depending on the player’s choices in the game. Many MMOs represent this with a three-dimensional avatar, while others like EVE online put the focus on the player’s ship (with a still image of the pilot as a backup).

My interest is how much the character representation affects the player. I am referring primarily to the depth of customization designed into the game. Let’s look at a few case studies.

  • EVE Online – Player character is represented by a still image with the selection of four lighting types. All other customization is based on the character ship in-game.
  • Everquest II – Player is able to customize character with a medium range of physical features and hair styles. Hair color and skin tones restricted to race. All other customization depends on in-game armor restricted to level.
  • Lineage II – Player is able to minimally customize character hair style/color and predefined faces restricted to race and class. All other customization depends on in-game armor restricted equipment class restrictions. Armor appearance changes per race.
  • World of Warcraft – Minimal character creation. All other customization in-game based on armor restricted to level. Due to the unique graphic engine, detail of avatar is low.
  • The Matrix Online – Very minimal character creation. Lack of creation ability counter-balanced with wide range of player created and dropped clothing and weapons.
  • Star Wars Galaxies – Most likely the highest amount of character customization to date. Full physical modifications including weight, height, bust size (females), tattoos and player created clothing/armor based on hundreds of base templates. Also, in-game appearance changes possible by player ran Image Designer profession.

I believe that the importance of character customization is directly related to the player’s style of play; what they enjoy. Some old school RPG players do not require much customization in order to enjoy a game because they have adapted to making use of imagination in order to succeed at role-playing their character. Others put a lot more weight on a character’s appearance to present themselves to others in game.

All of this falls back upon the foundation principle that RPGs are about playing the role of a different creature. Whether the player requires a completely unique avatar or simply their mind, they are representing themselves as someone different. This goes along with males who prefer to play female characters and vice-versa.

Many of the guides which we would normally follow in a discussion like this are clouded by the fact that as MMO production gets closer and closer to the main stream market, game populations become less focused on hard core role-playing and therefore more so on popularity ladders which, as time has proven, always put a high importance on cosmetic elements. :)

I am a person who while enjoying serious role-playing, also requires a good amount of avatar customization and presentation ability.

What about you?


13 thoughts on “Identity Crisis”

  1. CoH has some of the best character customisation options I’ve seen. It pretty much guarantees that people will be unique.

  2. I agree – while a lot of roleplaying in CRPGs is in the players mind, I love heaps of customisation, both of character features and in game armour/clothing. I was very disapointed in L2’s character creation, whereas EQ2 I spent ages playing with different races and characters personalising what I thought my character should look like, down to the size of the ears etc.

    For me, the more I can customise my character, the more I can relate to it, feel for it, want to play it, be it. Theres something impersonal about worlds where character creation options are limited. This is esspecially important in CoH, where as a superhero, you really really need to have your own, unique identity.

    This also leads in the direction of removing floating names from games – imagine a game where you can recognise someone by their avatar alone? (which leads to some very interesting situations)

  3. EVE Online is unusual for me. The character creation process is focused around a still image. There is quite a lot of adjustments you can make to personalize it, but when you boil it down it’s still just a still image. I never even look at other player’s images. So that leaves you with a ship. Since you cannot customize the ship (other than naming it) you end up being one of many people with that ship.

    So what connects me to the game? It feels like the character I am playing is *me*. I can’t see myself, I am inside the ship. I was suprised that I became connected to the game, but I realized this was why. I am the pilot.

    In previous games, getting a unique “look” was rather important to me. In EVE, it feels like “what I do” defines me more than “what I look like”. Really, EVE is just fascinating me beyond all expectations.

    I really agree with the CoH comments above. That game seemed to be the best by far at letting you create a unique individual. Making characters in CoH is fun all by itself.

  4. It really bugs me when I see someone in Guild Wars that looks exactly like I do. I even had this happen to me in CoH when I played even though that was a character creation process that would yield very unique characters.

    To answer the question though: For me, graphics certainly aren’t everything. However, it’s important to me that my character doesn’t look like every other character out there in the game. Uniqueness is important.

    Outside the world of MMOs, I’m really looking forward to Oblivion’s character creation and playing around with that. Should be a blast.

  5. City of Heroes: where you spend two hours deciding exactly how your character should look, down to the shade of red on your tights’ stripes and just how much to move that third slider for “jaw”…and then you turn on Stone Armor or Blazing Aura or Bright Nova and never see that costume again.

    I am also amused by games that let you customize little except your character’s face, then make almost all the worthwhile helmets cover it up. Asheron’s Call springs to mind.

    In City of Heroes and A Tale in the Desert (I’m not sure about other games), you can put a bit of info about yourself or your character. Some people are going to use that. In ATITD, some people have extensive text. That probably gives you a bit more in ways to present yourself and your character/game than what hairstyle you have chosen.

    Equipment-centered games have the problem that everyone looks alike in Uber Armor 7. My new Guild Wars elementalist looks like every other elementalist not because we chose similar hair styles, but because we all start in that same outfit and upgrade to a purple version.

  6. Asheron’s Call 2 went out of it’s way to make helms have open faces so that people could still see their “unique” face (yeah right). Eventually, after so many people claimed they looked silly, they started making full-face helms.

    There were certain sets of armor that were better than any others so everyone at those levels had the same set. The only difference is, that you could dye them different colors. For example, my Tumerok had all red armor so it gave him a little bit of uniqueness.

    And talking about people being able to add a bit of text, I entertained myself more than once in CoH by just sitting in one spot and reading the backstories people wrote for their characters.

  7. Re: putting a bit of text about yourself – this was standard in NWN multiplayer, as long as you didnt get the almost-roleplayer who wrote ‘you see a hot young elf who makes you feel giddy’ – when they have no say over what my character may feel. Text descriptions can be fine as long as they are not abused – keep it practical and objective.

  8. Controls and animations are more important than the visual aspect.

    Some players will tell you the contrary but that’s not what they’ll pay with their money.

  9. Abalieno, I completely agree with you. I have immediately dropped other games (like Matrix) because of the shitty controls. That topic was just not in the scope of this post. :)

  10. I partly agree with Winter in that CoH had the most customizations available; however, they were restricted to textures and details over basically three body forms with some slider variability. SWG has the most overall customization, lacking less in details but way more in body forming. EQ2 was a surprising disappointment. I assumed when they pre-shipped the Character Generator free module (with pre-orders) that it was incomplete. I was surprised to be wrong months later.

    In any case, I agree controls are most important, and animation just behind. Players need to feel a connection between pressing the key and seeing an action in games that use FPS-like controls (we accept casting bars of course…)

    The visual aspect is still very important. Unfortunately, most games restrict real customization to the *pre*game. Afterwords, only games with a huge array of statistically-equivalent equipment afford players an opportunity to go for look *and* function (ie, EQ1). Otherwise, players go for function, and only a minor subset of roleplayers build sets on look. They become their fashion-clothing, things for roleplay events.

    I was heartened to see the Tailor NPC come to CoH. It’s about time the awesome character customization available at creation came back into the “real” game that follows.

  11. I liked what you said about the text based games. I actually played a text based online RPG a long time ago, and it made me realize long ago that “the mind is the best 3D engine there is”. Really half of the fun was reading people’s descriptions and imagining what they looked like. The game was GemStone III and it was outragiously expensive to play way back then ($3/hr on AOL, since there wasn’t a “modern day” internet) but I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed any game since. There were various reasons, but the main reasons were the depth of the game and the sense of community. The game had 80-100 people online during PEAK hours back then, and normally there were 20-35 online at any one time. I assume the cost is why, not many people could afford $100-$400/mo AOL bills. =)

    Anyhow I my point is I loved the depth of that game, and I think a lot of games these days don’t have near as much depth and flexability. I’ve actually started playing Eve after reading Ethic’s posts about it and remembering my brief 10 or so day free trial a while back. It was boring compared to a lot of the online RP (now called MMO) games, and still is in most cases, but I know it has a LOT of depth. It’s open-ended, and players are a large part of the in-game storyline, just like in that tiny game I used to play a long time ago. People roleplayed there in GemStone because it was how you became respected in the community (plus hidden GMs would randomly give good roleplayers experience boosts that lasted a few days) and in Eve you are almost forced into playing some form of a role, but that role is entirely up to you it’s cookie-cutterish like most MMOs today are. The depth of the game is like a play you are going to see, and the graphics are just like the backdrop and wardrobe. If you’re going to see a play for the backdrops and wardrobe because you know the play is going to suck or at best be sub-standard, why even go?

  12. Bleh, for clarity “It’s cookie-cutterish” should be “it ISN’T cookie-cutterish”. Should really review before I hit that “submit” button and not after. :X

  13. “Back then, your imagination was responsible for creating not only your environments but your character as well. Nothing relied on the cost of your GPU or how much memory you had. As long as your computer could display text, you could play the game as well as anyone else.”

    I’m sorry to say that this statement isn’t true: you had to have 16k of RAM to play the Infocom games. My friend with an Atari 400 was quite jealous that I could play Zork on my Atari 800XL. ;-)

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