Rant: Character Customization
As we play MMO's and interact with literally thousands of players on our server communities, we strive to grow our characters and advance them through various methods. Different MMO's provide different options for advancement in the ways of equipment, level, talents, trade skills, and other methods depending on the game. One problem that is starting to plague MMO's is that a serious lack of advancement options often leads to a serious lack of customization.
Now before I get rolling here, let me preface this by saying that I completely understand that the virtual worlds aren't perfect. Everyone wants to be that unique little snowflake that stands out of a crowd. In real life, we sometimes see people go to extremes in order to stand out in a crowd and look different. While at times I feel the overwhelming urge to yank a giant piercing from some giant sasquatches nose or take a chainsaw to someone who thought a mullet was a good idea, everyone has the chance to be different for better or worse. In the MMO world, coders can only do so much to help us be different, but the amount of room to customize they give us is sometimes questionable.
There are 2 aspects to character customization as I see it, Physical Appearance and Character Ability.
This starts at character creation. Some people might argue that the decisions made at character customization are trivial due to the fact that armor may end up covering most of your body and ultimately hide your features. I would argue against this. I am the type of person who will often times turn off my helmet graphic when given the options to show off my hairstyle and face. The difference between some MMO's in the amount of options at character creation is shocking in many cases. City of Heroes / Villains offers what many believe as the most expansive character creation in any MMO. Everquest 2 offers probably the next best character creation by almost copying the character creation of the popular offline RPG Oblivion. Not only do they give you a variety of choices, but they add sliders and color pallets where you can make any color you can imagine. Probably the worst character creation I have personally witnessed belong to RF Online, which sported probably 4 difference appearances.
The second aspect to your physical appearance is equipment. As newer MMO's start to shove epic armor sets down our throat as the only real viable option for gear, we start to encounter a serious problem. All the players of a certain class make it their goal to pursue the set armor for that class because devs design their itemization with little creativity. The end result has all players of the same class looking the same. Now maybe some people can't spot a Paladin unless he has giant bananas coming out of his shoulders, but give me a break. The only thing worse then forcing us all to get the same armor is making that armor look like Michael Jackson's court jester at the Neverland Castle. The sad thing is that we as players make this our goal. We strive for this equipment because of the benefits, but the reward is that you end up looking like a clone of everyone else. Years ago in Dark Age of Camelot, they had dyes you could buy to make yourself look different then someone else who had the same exact armor. Why in God's name has nobody picked up on this? Armor Dye should be a standard issue feature in every MMO.
This encompasses everything that can not be seen. Character Ability is a combination of stats, spells, skills, Talents / AA, and other character development. Developers need to really focus a lot more on ways to make 2 people playing the same class at the same level as different as possible. In a class-based system which most MMO's like to follow, developers effectively tie their hands. A class system by its very nature is to pigeon-hole people into a forced role that is the same the from level 1 to the end. The only way this system can add flexibility is to add talents or AA type abilities found in games like WoW and EQ2.
WoW has 3 talent trees in which you can spread your points across in order to specialize in a certain area. The problem with WoW's system is that while it does help a little bit, there is a serious lack of viable choices that you can chose from and remain effective. Most people usually end up going with the same cookie cutter templates, and thus defeating the entire purpose of the system.
EQ2 as usual one-ups WoW with this area. EQ2 allows players to earn up to 100 AA (Talent) points over the course of your career currently. Each class has 2 Talent Pages, 1 shared by classes in the same class type (Warrior, Priest, Mage, Rogue etc.), and a second page for your specific class (Guardian, Berserker, Templar etc.). Each page allows you to spend 50 points in each, and each page has 4-6 trees each. This gives a lot of balanced and viable choices for people to chose from, advancement past max level, and can easily add new pages as new expansions come out as they have in the last 2 packs.
The alternative to the class system is a skill-based system. Skill based is the ultimate in character customization. You can be whatever you want to be, and fulfill any role you wish as long as you spend your points there. Asheron's Call 1 is the best example I have seen of a skill system in an MMO. Skill systems have 2 main problems which may be the reason we don't see them as often as I would like. The first problem is that it is very hard from a developer stand point to balance upwards of 100 skills to make them all desirable and not overpowered. The second arguable problem is that a player needs to accepts a lot more personal responsibility. No hand holding here, you need to think and plot your course or you will be faced with the chance that you may end up as a gimp. Games today however do give the option to respec yourself, so I think this can be minimized.
In conclusion, developers need to start remembering the importance of character customization. On the Physical Appearance side, I want a robust character creation. I want to decide my hair color from a palette, hair length, eye color, height, weight, age, ear length, and ass hair. I want it all! If your going to give us these armor sets, give us dye! Instead of designing epic armor that looks like it was pulled from the trash can of a Megaman boss artist's office, code in dyes! On the ability side I would love to see more games go skill-based. Darkfall and other games really look attractive by going this route. If your giving us classes, I want a lot of viable talents. I understand we all can't be the unique little snowflake but throw us a bone. Stop rewarding us by making us clones.
Co-Leader of Inquisition