The Importance Of Character Customization

A topic that most people discuss when a new MMORPG is released is how flexible the character customization system is. Sure, everyone likes being able to look unique, grotesque, beautiful, weird or different but actually just how important is it to a game? Is it only aesthetic fluff or does it provide a deeper dimension to the player’s experience?

I think the answer lies in role playing. MMORPGs are (well, should be) first and foremost role playing games, something we often forget and overlook. Personally, the way my character looks is incredibly important to how I perceive him, how I want others to perceive him and how much I engage with him and thus the game. Being able to uniquely design my character within a MMO gives me the ability to identify myself as an individual, different from everyone else, and being able to customise my avatar to a high degree allows me to undertake the role play that I wish to pursue.

I know role playing is almost a dirty word now and one needs to look hard to find it many of the most popular MMORPGs (*cough* WoW *cough*) but, consciously or not, we all undertake it to some degree. Those moments that you spend choosing your race, face, hair, colour, build, gender and name all play a part of you creating your online persona. Even if you introduce with words like “yo, wassup dawg” instead of “hail, fine adventurer”, you’re still being perceived as a character and a role.

After playing a game like Age of Conan which allows a tremendous degree of customization, it’s difficult for me to strongly engage with my character in say, World of Warcraft. I loved walking into a tavern in AoC and being referred to as an “old man” by strangers that I met within. They could see my character, my role, and interact with it. Of course this type of role playing has a lot more to do with a game’s culture and environment but having that huge degree of character customization helped tremendously. I mean, when was the last time you actually studied someone’s face in WoW? Probably never at all because, honestly, they are so similar and hard to make out that they have almost no meaning.

It’s worth noting that I also think customization shouldn’t just be sliders for every dimension of an avatar’s face (no one really cares if your cheekbones are slightly higher up than someone elses) but rather it should be about bigger factors like age, weight, hairstyles, expression etc. We should be able to create any sort of character from a strapping young male with numerous scars to an doddery old man with a limp. Some games come close but none have yet to offer me the full features and flexibility that I desire.

So character customization is important and a very valuable part of any MMORPG, one that shouldn’t be overlooked or merely appreciated for it’s fluff value. Being able to craft a role for yourself in these games is highly important and can have a massive impact on the enjoyment that we, and the people that we interact with, get out of them.

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18 Comments

  1. Longasc says:

    It is quite amazing that almost every MMO has the facial features sliders, yet they almost make no difference, unless you push them to the extremes. While the selection of facial features and hairstyles is still very static and limited in most cases.

    • Gordon says:

      Yeah, it really makes me wonder how much time developers waste making it possible to customize your cheek bones and chin dimensions yet never think about the more important things like hairstyles, facial hair or age.

  2. [...] The Importance of Character Customization [...]

  3. Tesh says:

    Faces don’t interest me much. I don’t see my character’s face enough to care. Let me create an interesting cloak, like Guild Wars, and I’m happy.

    Also, I tend to want customization in how I play the game, not so much character creation. Then again, I want full respec and a classless or fluid class system. I’d also like it if I could change my character’s looks during play. Why does everything have to be frontloaded and immutable? (OK, it drives alts and thereby retention, but it seems underhanded to me…)

  4. Elleseven says:

    Customization that I would be most interested in is expressions. I don’t want a spacey looking perfect toon. I want my belf priest to look in deep thought with some crows feet. I want to look like I’ve been in the battle for along time and very experienced. Maybe the ears just aren’t as perky with age, maybe my mouth is slightly sad looking.
    I think this would help in PUGS as hopefully people would translate my “older” toon to an actual “mature” player who is not looking for a boyfriend or will tolerate immature comments.

  5. Thallian says:

    I think the face and all that is fun, but I really like to make my character unique, and the one good thing WoW did was let you design your guild’s cloak, so I made an awesome one. And everybody loved it. Conversely, you posted recently about a game needing a graphics overhaul, and WoW certainly has the funds to and needs one on the avatars in general. I loved to give myself cool looking mechanical arms and stuff and nifty unsymmetrical gear in City of Heroes. I wish more games were like that for avatar creation. I didn’t like Champion’s one anywhere near as much for some reason. It felt rushed.

    • Gordon says:

      Guild cloaks are definitely a cool thing as are any sort of emblems. Something I loved in DAOC that I never saw anywhere else was guild emblems on shields… it totally suited the game and it was so cool seeing knights all lined up with matching shield patterns.

  6. Randomessa says:

    Character (in this case avatar) customization is extremely important to me when opening up a new game. Whether or not I am trying to create a doppleganger of myself, the ability to connect on some level with the character I am creating is essential. A dead-eye stare or a limit of 3 facial options on a 2-color palette is unacceptable. It’s not necessary to have a slider for every square inch of the face, just a wide assortments of faces with differing complexions/ethnicities, hair style and colors, and expressions is good enough for me (a la Guild Wars).

    I care less about standing out armor-wise. I liked the Guild Wars ability to dye my armor, but more important than customizing my armor would be the ability to have social clothing, remove helm visibility, etc. to stand out that way.

  7. Thallian says:

    Guild emblems on shields would be way better than cloaks, you’d see them coming from afar instead of after they they ran over you. (or away from)

  8. Wolfshead says:

    I too almost always hide my helm because too often all that work you expend creating such a memorable face ends up being lost when the helm is displayed.

    I agree with Longasc’s point that it seems that despite the myraid of facial graphic sliders present in avatar creation all of the faces look the same in most MMOs.

    Would it be nice thought to be able to *earn* facial features?

    For example, let’s say you were in a battle with a Dragon and you end up with a particular scar on your face as a badge of honor. Even aging a character could be linked to a character’s experience (level). Older characters would look wiser and battle-work versus the fresh faced enthusiastic faces of youth.

    So much potential for an upstart MMO company here!

    • Gordon says:

      I love the idea of earning facial features! In fact, I’d love to see your face and physique alter depending on your deeds and over time. For example, if you did a lot of magic, your muscles would diminish as a result. I think it would be great if you were scarred over time too, as you said, in battle or during heroic deeds.

  9. [...] We Fly Spitfires re: Character Customization – “Sure, everyone likes being able to look unique, grotesque, beautiful, weird or different but actually just how important is it to a game?” [...]

  10. Buhallin says:

    “I know role playing is almost a dirty word now and one needs to look hard to find it many of the most popular MMORPGs (*cough* WoW *cough*) but, consciously or not, we all undertake it to some degree.”

    Not sure I agree with this. I think a vast majority of MMO players look at their characters simply as an extension of themselves. Apart from some level of visual distinctiveness, there’s rarely any element of the character as a different role – that is, someone other than the player.

    But even if it’s misused, character customization can be an important element for those of us who are trying to play a role. Even if most of them were invisible, I liked WAR’s trophy system a lot – my squig herder picked up every head he could strap on his body, not because they looked good (most were pretty bad graphically, honestly) but because he thought it made him look tough.

    I do think it can be taken too far, though. One of the greatest concerns I have about Star Trek Online is the apparent emphasis on character customization. Their previews created this, and the list of goodies in the Collector’s Edition really drives it home. In a pseudo-military universe, customization SHOULD be limited – letting characters wear century-old uniforms, or make their ship look like 200-year-old relics complete with funky blue phaser beams shows, IMHO, that Cryptic doesn’t know how to get away from customization even when it’s drastically inappropriate for the setting.

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