Bring Back Character Customization!

EQ Character Customization

Graev and I were having a discussion the other day about character creation in MMOs, and we’ve come to the conclusion that it pretty much sucks these days. Yes, there are exceptions, but almost every new MMO released limits the player to just aesthetics (usually swapping faces) and a few basic choices like what class you want to play.

I enjoy character creation that lets me truly customize how I’m going to play.  I don’t like to be overwhelmed with meaningless or complicated customization, though.

SWG had a really good customization process where the player could choose their character, fully customize his or her looks, choose a starting skillset, and then allocate their stats to determine their Health, Action, and Mind.  You could never truly break your character because stat alteration was easily adjusted with an image designer (or I think you could wait it out via real time) and you could always pickup and drop skills.   Other than amazing options to customize the character’s appearance, nothing felt lasting or permanent.

UO had very similar customization in terms of character skills and stats.  If you messed them up, or even wanted to change them, it was a matter of pointing arrows up or down then just playing the game.  Choosing your skills mattered though because you were given starting items to help you out.  Ultimately, UO also falls into the same category as SWG with not a whole lot to care about later on.

A more hardcore approach is the oldschool EverQuest stat allocation.  Messing up your stats in EQ was definitely a horrifying experience.  I remember dinging 50 on my Necro, and all I could think about was how much I regret not having min-maxed my stats properly.  Eventually people figured out the ‘ideal’ way to build a character and it became less about customization and more about checking the right boxes.

I think striking a balance between the SWG and EQ style is ideal.  I want to ding level 50 (or max a character out, etc) and be able to still be affected by choices I made when I created my character.  I don’t want those choices to be game breaking or something that makes my character perform less than someone else — after all, we have to be friendly to newbs.

Maybe some sort of special traits or abilities (that aren’t worthless once per day novelties).  I’m trying to remember which game it was that let me choose a bunch of ancestral/heritage information.  Having those types of choices impact where your character can live, or what towns you’re welcome in, or play a part in factions would be cool.  Deities in EverQuest were a great idea, and I think the same type of customization should allow for cosmetic abilities and alternative paths of progression later on.

Race choice should also matter a lot. If you choose Dark Elf, you should expect to be evil and have to work hard to be accepted places.  Races with a natural affinity to magic should have higher intelligence and ultimately make better casters, but sacrifice in other areas.  Overcoming these shortcomings should be possible, but it should require you to sacrifice something else in order to one day achieve that status.  For example, if I wanted to be a Halfling Wizard, I may have to progress my character throughout his entire life away from his sneaky heritage just to one day be accepted by the master wizards who will teach me to hone my skills.

I’d love to hear about any ideas you folks have about customization.  I still believe you shouldn’t be able to break a character, but living with consequences that are meaningful is part of character progression even if those choices are made at the beginning.

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Gringar - March 7, 2013

Developers keep customization to a minimum because then it’s easier for them to create encounters based on what they know players will have. It also reduces the chance that players will find power builds that render most other builds obsolete.

I’m all for customization but developers don’t seem to know how to do it properly when they do try. When an encounter needs you to jump through hoops the developer needs to know your class is capable of jumping, or not jumping, through the hoop. Of course that’s more along the lines of encounter design flaws. In the old EQ days dragons just hit real hard and AoE’d pretty hard and you just dealt with that. Other enemies threw you around like you weighed nothing and that was good too. As soon as you introduce phases, weak points, and spinning fire hoops the battle has just become too convoluted.

Mark - March 7, 2013

Interesting article and I agree…some developers have become lazy:) They seem pressed to get the story out by 5pm and cut corners to do so. In the end, the game suffers and so do us, the gamers.

Cthreepo - March 8, 2013

I’m all for customization, but players seem to want to min/max everything. And if that means all Wizards want to be High Elf, because of a racial magic bonus, that kinda sucks. Or if all rogues want to be halflings, because of a +dagger bonus that race have. If the choice is to have racial abilities that force people who wants to play a certain class, to pick a certain race, then I would rather not have any racial bonuses.

overbyte - March 8, 2013

So no mention of Cryptic in a whole article about customisation? None?

overbyte - March 8, 2013

I would say that stat allocation is vestige of a bygone era. It’s not fun and is simply min-maxed by people who care and is ignored by people who don’t

John - March 8, 2013

@Cthreepo: Not all players choosing a race for a bonus…the majority chose a race for aesthetic or for the background story. I have many friends playing MMOs and after reading your post tried to think of one that ever chosen a race or generally he sacrifised a unique customization for an x bonus

Cthreepo - March 8, 2013

@John – Its funny, ’cause I cant remember one of my friends who picked a race, because it was “cool”, we allways go for whats best. I know there is no right or wrong way to play the game, but we allways have a friendly competition, when playing mmo’s, and as a player, I allways want to be the best mage or whatever I can be

Jenks - March 8, 2013

I agree with Gringar completely, this is a developer resources / laziness issue.

I’m going to use my favorite two examples, EQ and SWTOR, and of course there has been a progression over time between these two extremes.

In EQ, you had 12ish (too lazy to look it up) races to choose from. Each race (save a few, like half elf) had their own starting city. Each city had its own starting area (gfay an exception). Each starting area had a pretty good variety of choices on where to go, where you’d continue your character advancement.

In SWTOR, there are 4 starting areas. When you progress, you all move to 1. They “get you on the highway” and then you’re on the same tour as everyone else.

I think stat and gameplay differences are good, but having a different *experience* is even better. Spend the time, create a world full of different races, with their own cities and surrounding areas. Pair that up with interesting racial traits (I think this was something vanilla WoW did extremely well) and you’ve got a game where your character race is more than just choosing a skin.

Solmyr - March 8, 2013

The problem with specific and obvious racial bonuses is that it turns into “you must be this race to be this class”. Sure, some people will choose differently, but most will take the bonuses, especially if there’s endgame raiding.

John - March 8, 2013

@Cthreepo: I do believe you and I believe that there are lot of people who will chose something for their character because it has a +bonus even if that bonus is small or tiny. But on the other hand there are people who will play the game as RPG and will favor unique customization over the extra bonus. Of course no one is right or wrong, I just don’t believe that all people will chose the +bonus and thats why developers have abandoned the “customization” part. That was an excuse of them..

when wow expansion after expansion have dumb down talent trees until they remove it entirely they had that excuse that people always will search on the net and will use a cookie cutter build, which is partialy true for lot of people but their main reason for doing this is because they were lazy enough to or they couldn’t balance all different specs and especially hybrid specs. I can go further and blame pvp for this as always “balance” kills customization and pvp is the number one cause of homogenization of the classes in almost every game.

For me and my friends was always about lore and aesthetics..even the crafting profession I would chose had a reason…My dwarfs always had something like mining for example. Also I could never play and Orc or a Dwarf as rogue since to me rogue need to be slim and agile, e.t.c.

xenovore - March 8, 2013

Races (and professions) should feel unique. Definitely provide bonuses and penalties based on race; e.g. if High Elves are supposed to be best at magic, then boost their intelligence and casting abilities (and reduce their strength and melee abilities). Provide unique languages, reputations, biases and prejudices for each race. Start each race/culture in their own home area; it helps define that race/culture. And make it a serious endeavor to travel outside the home area; then when you see a race far from home, you’re likely to be impressed that they traveled so far. (Like meeting people from India in Arches National Park.)

Everquest nailed this like no other; the races felt solid because they had well defined racial abilities and specific homelands. WoW and GW2 also did a good job with it.

Also, the achievers are always going to min/max everything, but you can’t base everything around how they play. Just allow players to make the characters that they want to play and leave it at that.

Shutter - March 8, 2013

I liked customization that leads to differentiation when there’s enough balance and variety (i.e. It was felt good when WoW made you bring a variety of classes to get the full range of buffs), but not when it lead to pigeonholing (You picked a class with a heal button, so you will do nothing but healbot for the rest of your career).

It’s a big hit to the dev budget, but I think custom animations do a lot for this. WoW always felt deeper for having unique sounds and animations for each Gender/Race combo. Dunno about everyone else, but one of the best things about WoW x-packs for me was seeing all the new animations.

One think I don’t have any desire to have more customization for is character graphics. Games like Age of Conan which provided a really wide range of sliders for appearance always ended up with characters that a) didn’t look wildly differentiated, and b) looked butt ugly. I’d much rather have a well curated range of preselects with some variety that’s in sync with the larger game’s art style, than have free rein and have everyone in game show up with immersion-breakingly ugly toons.

It’s one of the reasons I’m hopeful for Wildstar, it looks like they’ve got some variety, but are making sure it works in the larger art style.

Shutter - March 8, 2013

Also, gear design (and the increasing cost of modeling, and the dwindling of art asset budgets) matter a lot.

Even at lower levels, a game like WoW had a LOT of diversity in gear, and your toon changed appearance regularly. It was only as people finished off their optimal raiding sets did uniformity creep in. Whereas with newer MMOs like SWTOR and GW2, you often only end up changing your look every 10 levels or so. So player diversity is a lot lower.

romble - March 8, 2013

Never cared about character customization because in the end it is your gear and armor that made you look different and standout not your scar or potbelly. Only exception is superhero games where your costume is your look end of story.

As far as tweaking stats at the beginning, I like a little leeway to throw a few fluff points around but not allow too many to gimp yourself end game.

wufiavelli - March 9, 2013

I always hate it when Character customization does not let you make ugly characters. Many games do this, especially with female customization.

Cthreepo - March 10, 2013

@John Okay, I can see your point. But if you pick race because of aesthetic reasons, does that not render racial bonuses obsolete? Because they wouldnt matter to you, and the rest of us (okay some of us) feels we have no choice, but to pick the one that fitt our class

Gunfami - March 13, 2013

Character customization is the best thing in games really, this is the most key contributor to people playing from my experience. Without any good customization or lack of choice people will move on.

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