True Creation of Character

Dig through this blog and you will find a number of posts where I talk about the things that I think would make for a better MMO. These days I’m not playing (m)any MMOs, so I don’t pontificate about them anymore. But recently I got to thinking of an idea that just won’t get out of my head, so I’m going to put it down here in hopes to solidify it and keep it from nagging me.

City of Heroes - Character Creator

Kung-Fu Super Hero

One of my favorite parts of MMOs is character creation. Right now, most of you, probably nearly all of you, have an image in your mind that matches this screen shot. Selecting skin tones and body part shapes and clothing options. Admittedly, this stuff can be very cool. I absolutely adored the City of Heroes character creator. I probably built a hundred characters that I never actually played, because the idea of them was more grande than playing them would be, especially since I already had a few characters to play – and ultimately, once you start playing and you’ve picked your class, primary and secondary powers, characters play the same no matter what they look like. Still, a robust creator is a lot of fun and can ignite further character developments.

Which leads me to the other half of character creation, and the part that I end up liking more, when it works. As a role player, I love filling out the nooks and crannies of my character. Their back story, their hopes and dreams, and their personality. It is one of the reasons that I still hold the original EverQuest in just high regard. That game rarely ever tried to tell me who my character was, it was always left up to me. Since leveling was kill based and not quest based, I got to pick and choose which quests to do because they are what my character would do. This is completely opposite of what many people seem to desire in games: a constant barrage of “things to do”.

In EverQuest, I got to decide if I wanted to help the citizens of Qeynos with their problems. In World of Warcraft and other games, if I choose not to help the locals, not to do quests, I might as well stop playing because leveling my character without those quests is painfully slow.

Of course, dig through the posts here and you’ll see I actually advocate doing away with levels. Another thing I advocate is the design of EVE Online, because of the dichotomy of its character/skill system. In theory, it is a classless, skill based system. You get books to learn new skills, any skill you have the prerequisites for, and then you choose to learn it. (If you don’t know, EVE is a time based advancement system. You tell the game you want to learn a skill and it tells you how long. When it’s done, you pick another skill. You can do anything you want while training happens, nothing you do effects the speed.) However, in practice, EVE is a class based game. While any character can have any skill, once you leave port in a ship the only skills that matter are the ones that apply to the ship you are flying and the modules you have loaded in it. If you have level 5 in cannons and level 1 in missiles, when flying a ship with only missiles on it your cannons skill is unimportant.

The thing I like most about this design, and why I would like to see it implemented in a fantasy setting, is that it takes class choice out of the initial character creation. At the point you are making your first character, you don’t know anything about the class you are picking beyond the couple of paragraphs that the developers give you. Well, if you’ve played other MMOs, you probably can pick up on the tank/damage/healer elements of classes, which give you a leg up on the new players. And of course, the truth is, most classes play much differently at level 1 than they do at level 50 and beyond. I like skill based equipment limited design because it allows me to choose my role in the game as late as possible, and if I decide I don’t like being a tanking warrior, I can just switch and become a damage dealing light healer without having to abandon my whole character. I just get new skills and put on new gear. (And in a design without level based power curves, I could be useful in my new role immediately rather than having to power-level back up to join my friends.)

This got me to thinking. I want freedom, as much as I can get. But in my evolving design I still had new players making choices from limited sets before getting into game.

So, imagine this…

You log into the game and you hit “Create New Character”. You are then given a map of the world with the starting cities highlighted. Selecting a city takes you to a page (or pages) of the history of that city, a description of the land, the typical lives of the NPCs there (common professions, etc). You pick a story you like, this takes you to a more detailed description of the city, largely focusing on the factions within it. These descriptions leave out words like “good” and “evil” but instead rely on giving descriptions of the beliefs of these factions and their role in the history of this city. You have to choose a faction to align yourself with. Once you do, you are taken to the “character creator” where you get to pick the look of your character. On this screen is your character, in silhouette to start. Behind it is a representative selection of NPCs in the city you have chosen. Directly behind you and surrounding you are members of your chosen faction, and at the edges are members of the other factions. You aren’t limited in color palettes or textures based on any of your decisions so far, but the crowd around you gives you an idea of the world you will start in. You can choose to make yourself look like your chosen faction, or perhaps like one of the opposing factions – maybe you are a traitor! Or you can make yourself look entirely different from anything shown to you, a true outsider.

Now we get to the crux of my latest brain bothering idea. On this screen, there are a series of checkboxes and dropdowns and sliders and color selectors, all the familiar tools from every other character creator you’ve seen, but there are some differences. For instance, there is a dropdown called “Pronoun” from which you can choose “he”, “she” or “it” (or any additional pronouns we can come up with). This dropdown selects your character’s gender identity – notice, it doesn’t choose gender – and determines how NPCs and canned emotes will address you. Other checkboxes exist for “Breasts” and “External Genitals” (or something, it needs a better term). Checking those boxes will enable your character to have those items, no restrictions. Yes, you can have a penis, or breasts, or both, or neither! And all of them will have the appropriate sliding adjusters for shapes and sizes. There could even be an option for having only one breast, left or right – your choice. Are there other options? Any “normal” option that exists, like facial hair or tattoos or scars, would be available to everyone without limit.

Despite knowing that in such a system I would pretty much always choose to create standard built males, but that’s largely because I tend to create myself in games (No joke. Meet up with me in any game and if there is the ability to make a bald white goatee-wearing male that’s what I’ll look like. Meet up with me in real life and you’ll see I’m a bald white goatee-wearing male. I like to project me into other worlds rather than to become someone else. I want to meet other people, not be other people.), this idea that enables people to make any combination they want just seems awesome to me. Oddly enough, it’s because of, not in spite of, my predilection for making myself in games, because I want everyone to be able to do that, even if in real life they are a bearded man with breasts who identifies as asexual.

After building the look of the character, they would finally be taken to the skills area, where they would choose their initial skills. I wouldn’t want there to be classes, but I would want there to be sets of templates illustrating skills that would work well together and why, probably encompassing the traditional game roles for MMOs, with, of course, a Custom option where the player could pick their own initial skills from a list of all skills.

Essentially, I want to put as many decisions as possible into the hands of the players. And I want, as much as can be, those decisions to be informed decisions, and anywhere a player has to make a choices that may be considered less than properly informed I want them to be able to easily change them later without having to start all over again from scratch. I want them to choose what they play and how they play it.

Alright, I guess that’s enough out of me for today. Hopefully this all made sense.

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