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?