The Myth of Character Customization

With LotRO open beta rolling out and the official release later this month, more and more people are getting a chance to take a more serious look at the game.  The same occurred as Vanguard went open beta and into release.

In reading comments and forums posts, one thing I find interesting is the amount of weight people put on character customization.  Yes, everyone wants to be unique and above average, but let’s be serious, does this really matter in the grand cosmic scheme of things?  It certainly seems to.  When its bad, it really does seem to matter.  But when does “better” become the enemy of “good” by consuming resources better spent elsewhere? 

By “character customization” I do not mean item and clothing textures per se, but I do mean the ability to say, thin or thicken one’s eyebrows, or to select between slightly blue and slighly more blue eyes, or a bold chin or a slightly less bold chin.  Mea culpa, I certainly spend a fair amount of time on the character customization screen (even in WoW if you can believe it), so I’m not immune to this anthropomorphic narcissism.  I assume that game devs are simply responding to increasingly loud player demands.   Go them.

But does any of this really matter?  Consider that if you play in first person view (*shudder*), you never see your character at all.  Consider also that if you play in 3d person over the shoulder view, you will become intimately familiar with your character’s backside.  And that backside (your dorsal surface, not your derriere), from nearly the first moment you enter the game, will be covered by armor, a cloak (if you choose to show it) and a helm (likewise).  Even if you don’t show your cloak and helm, you are treated with the view of the back of your own head, so maybe hairstyle matters.

But doesn’t customization then at least make you appear unique to the rest of the game world?  I’m not so sure that faint scar I put above my left eyebrow is really going to help my guildies or friends pick me out of a crowd, nor the slightly-less-than-[blue][green][purple] eyes, etc.  Or the fact that my handlebar moustache with double braided beard is a particular shade of red.  You get the point.

Since I run in 3d person mode most of the time (and, as a healer, typically zoomed fairly far out for maximum situational awareness), I find I visually identify my friends and guildies mostly by what they are wearing or by the oh so convenience billboard hanging over their head with their name on it which I recognize…

So I ask the humble question, is all the time and effort spent by devs to create highly customizeable avatars really the best spend of limited development resources?  Doesn’t it really just turn into a performance hit at somepoint as the client needs to keep track of a thousand different bits of information for each character rather than say, a hundred or ten?  Would some of that dev time and money be better spend on better mob AI or animations or polishing the combat system?

Yes I recognize this is heresy, but the deeper question is what do we really need in an MMO to create a meaningful and unique character identity?  Is a floating player name enough?  Height and weight/build?  Hair/facial hair style?  Skin tone? Player customizeable clothing items (cloaks, shields, standards, tabards, etc.)?  Or am I completely missing the boat and do we, in fact, need infinite variability in all aspects (even more than mere sliders for variation of a trait)?  Is it an identity thing or a world-diversity thing?

One interesting tidbit for further thought.  I posted in the LotRO beta forum asking for an NPC eyeblink feature, something I thought that is subtle but goes a very long way to adding to the living feeling of a game world (much like the now standard character breathing and fidgeting animations).  The response I got was telling: such a task would be a collossal undertaking (I don’t disagree) and considering how much time and effort the team had recently been putting into further avatar customization efforts, it was unlikely that such a frill would be undertaken prior to launch.  A completely rational response.  Character customization 1, immersive world feeling 0.

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Character Customization”

  1. I was finally writing up a review of LOTRO and I noted the same thing, it’s nice to customize, but once you’re out and about, everyone pretty much looks the same. In LOTRO this is even worse than WoW since it tries to be so realistic that while there is more customization of the face and body, even coloring your armor etc, it’s actually within a much narrower range of possibilities.

    I never thought about the missing eyeblinks until now, but yeah they add a whole new level of believability.

    People in Second Life seem to spend their time doing almost nothing but customizing. So.. perhaps the problem with games that have all this customization is that, like LOTRO, there is too much realism – we want more fantastic choices. Maybe customization works only if you can customize just about anything at all?

  2. All I can say about character creation is… City of Heroes.

    I totally agree that tinkering with eyebrow width and cheekbone pointedness is a bit daft, even moreso when you’re going to be wearing a full helmet over the top of it, and then looking at the back of that helmet. When you can go clean bonkers over every aspect of your entire being, though… well, a choice of four haircuts is a bit underwhelming after that.

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