Stephanie Shaver looks at one of the defining features of their game
Let's talk customization.
Hey, y'know what sucks? Having to do what other people tell you to do. Sometimes this comes as a direct order and is the result of our own life choices. Like when I'm at work and someone says: "Hey, Steph, I want your TPS reports by noon." Or: "Steph, we need a seven-letter word starting in 'o' that means 'funeral rite'." Or: "Steph, put your pants back on."
And sometimes it comes in a much more subtle manner. Like, say, in an MMORPG. Pretend you're me, and you're playing a 50th level Swedish Pastry Chef in the first massively multiplayer online restaurant RPG. You love your Lake Woebegone baker, and you've put a lot of effort into making her a statuesque, blonde-pigtailed beauty who boldly bumps convention by wearing plaid miniskirts and halter tops in the kitchen. And then along comes a 60th level British Soux Chef who looks at you and says, "lol ur not using teh brioche armor of alton brown. learn to play!"
But like I said, you love your baker the way she is. And you know that while the legendary Brioche Armor of Alton Brown will give her a whopping +10% to her amazing bread-kneading skills, you want to keep her looking the way you want her to look. And the Brioche Armor is ugly. It's all pillowy and brown and crisscrossy and dude, what were the artists thinking when they added those sourdough pauldrons?
So what do you do?
You put on the damn Brioche Armor, that's what you do.
Because no matter what you may envision your character to look like, the game has already made the decision for you. You will look the way the game wants you to look because your character is functionally unplayable otherwise. By level 60, you can't tell one Pastry Chef apart from another. It's conformity through game mechanics. How awesome!
A driving concept behind Hero's Journey has been tapping the imagination of our players. Quite frankly, you guys come up with stuff we could never think of. An adage I doggedly repeated to other GameMasters back in my DragonRealms days was: "Players will find a way." And they will. Oh, they will.
We love games that let you look the way you want to look, and we've carried that torch throughout our design. It doesn't mean you'll be unable to find an awesome sword or a killer suit of armor; it does mean that you are 100% more likely to find or make one that suits your vision of your character, not ours.
"But Steph," you may say. "It's just visuals. What does it matter if my character looks the way I want? It doesn't make gameplay more fun."
Well, to you I have to say -- what the hell are you doing in my office? I locked that door for a reason, buddy!
I'd also say that when you love your character -- because it matches your vision, because it meets your standards -- you are more likely to achieve an attachment to it. Attachment to a character makes those critical strikes -- whether giving or receiving -- just a little more critical. It makes achieving a quest objective a little more satisfying. And it encourages community.
"That's a leap," you may say, as I shove you out of my office and lock the door behind you. And you might think so, my criminally intrusive friend, but when you care about your character, you probably care about other things. Like sharing that character's coolness with other characters. Or seeing what other people have done with their characters. Or making outfits for other people to wear. Or starting a guild of people who all dress like characters from the movie Serenity. (And yes, for those taking notes, I intend to work a reference to that movie into every article I write here.)
We believe that individuality is one of the building blocks of community. Check out any webforum that lets you upload your own icon. No one has the same icon by choice. There are whole communities on Livejournal completely dedicated to making nothing but icons so you can pick and choose which witty Family Guy quote you use to set off your devastating critique of the latest James Frey novel.
What does a game gain by making its characters all look the same? I know when I play my favorite restaurant MMORPG that I have no -- zero! zilch! nada! -- connection to the character on my screen. Yes, she's female. Yes, she's pursuing my dream of being a heroic cake decorator. But dude -- that armor. Those pauldrons. Ah god, if only I could wear halter tops and still solo the restaurant critics of the SoHo Dungeons...!
Our choice -- to let players customize their characters as much as reasonably possible -- has led to some interesting creative quandaries in Hero's Journey game design. For instance, whether you choose plate or leather doesn't matter. It is entirely possible for a suit of green leather armor to offer equal or better protection and bonuses as a suit of sparkling adamantine plate. And you could have the biggest sword on the server, but the six-inch cotton candy pink stiletto your girlfriend sports might do more damage to dragons.
And then there's the character manager, where you've got control of...well, just about everything.
The thread of customization stretches beyond just visuals -- it also applies to the abilities and profession choices. Multi-classing? Heck yeah! You want to be a Bard-Necromancer, go ahead! Customizing your character's abilities? But of course! Maybe your wizard is a pyromaniac. Maybe your bard prefers to charm rather than kill. We're designing with the theory that if we make it easy for you to make the characters you love, you will.
Within limits. I don't think you'll be able to make Chuck Norris in the game. Sorry, Elanthia, Texas Ranger fans.
Hey, y'know what else sucks?
Trying to come up with a way to end this article.
- Stephanie Shaver, Hero's Journey Designer
Any comments? Let's hear them here.