An interesting question was once posed to the masses: "Where's your will to be weird?"
As players of massive multi-player online games, we don't worry too much about being weird enough, at least to the outside world. Inside our virtual worlds, however, it seems our thirst is for that element of strange. It's not enough that our characters have bizarre powers, and sometimes look even more bizarre than anything to be seen on our own world. Everyone in our virtual world is equally unnatural, and so it becomes our personal quest to become even more different, to stand out among the cut-cloth clones that surround us.
The character creation screen is our first task in the quest to be different. We aim to create a character that is both a combination of our vision: a goal with either an intent to convey us as we want to see ourselves, or with a specific character concept in mind. We often, over the course of a few games, settle on a general persona that we like to take with us wherever we go. If it isn't this particular persona we seek to emulate, we usually go after a very distinct and 'ultra-unique' look, like the ugliest possible combination of customizations.
One thing that holds true about our perception of the character creation process: the more options, the better. Limited character creation options turn us off, often clouding our view of the rest of the game. How many of us, on the opposite side of the spectrum, happily spent hours in character creation screens for games like City of Heroes or Aion, flipping through random selections and tinkering all the options to the extreme? It isn't even necessary for us to want or need the multiple options out there; we're simply comforted by the fact they exist as we make the next clone of ourselves that we'll find a match to within our first ten hours of playing. Give a person a menu with five hundred options, and the likelihood is, they'll still select their favorite comfort food every time.
Eventually, we move on with our selection and settle complacently into the hum of virtual life for a while. This is an observation phase, in which our goal is to find out what everyone else is doing, wearing, and riding. Once we've spent enough time learning the status quo, we move on to planning how we can break it: how we can be different from every other white-skinned, purple-haired female hero class character that we were sure no one else could take. A plan calls for action, and this is where MMO players begin their real quest for identity.
The more obvious way to do this is through scores and rankings. When you're on the top of a leaderboard, no matter what it's for, your name suddenly matters. Plenty of players go for the 'high score' angle, trying to be on top of whatever score rank is available. Often, this is PvP ranking: arena team scores, most player kills, highest honor earned, and other highly competitive areas where many players will force themselves to adapt and do whatever it takes if they can get their shot at fame. There's the time trials, where players race to be the first or fastest, often in the leveling race. There are also the quirky scoreboards that some games keep, like achievement points, most starfish collected, or number of times the player blows a kiss at a random stranger.
Branching off scores and rankings are the more ambitiously creative deeds that players hope to catch fame with. To these players, achievement means more than a virtual medal; achievement means doing something no one's ever done before. These are the players that solo Patchwerk and Rotface, the players who look to be the first to expose "off limits" areas, the players who set out challenges like leveling without killing a single monster, and the players who set out to kill the 'unkillable.' Often searching for fame through YouTube, these players are doing more than seeking attention - they're seeking to make a little virtual history.
A quest for identity in a world of virtual clones isn't just about fame seeking. It's also about expressing oneself differently by looking different. One of the less obvious ways players do this is through player housing.
Player housing seems out of place in a quest for identity, but consider this: traditionally, player housing has offered little actual benefit to players. Player housing has, at most, offered extra storage, access to crafting utilities, and a place to hang out with friends in private. These are all a small touch of convenience that could easily be built into the game otherwise, through things like larger banks and non-persistent instanced crafting halls or zones. What makes player housing so appealing is, instead, its ability to reflect the individual personality of its owner.
Some people make a good living being weird.
Unlike gear, player housing doesn't benefit the player in any direct way. Whether you have two chairs and a painting, or one sofa and a table, doesn't make a difference to your character's performance. Thus players, even while being softly forced into specific gear choices (and therefore, a specific look), can freely express themselves through interior decorating. That's right, we tune in to our inner Todd Oldhams and Kelly Wearstlers, tap into that pizazz, and head straight for the decorations that fit our style. Our house, then, becomes an excellent way of expressing who we are, of helping complete the quest for self-expression.
If we're so intent on finding ways to look different from the crowd, then there's clearly a problem in where we can't express our diversity in game. What, then, is the solution?
Character creation is where it starts, and that's where many players focus their gaze. Certainly a lot of games, including some of our favorites, take a light approach to diversity in character creation - from limiting skin tone, faces, hair styles, and even forcing players into a standard physical build. Change the hair, skin color, and make-up on a Barbie, though, and she's still a Barbie. A good handful of games have gone to embracing a freer character creation for players, which players have certainly embraced, but the human imagination has its limitations.
The real solution doesn't lie in character creation, because what you look like on the character select screen rarely reflects what you will look like in game. That comes down to gear, and that's where the meat of the matter is. Most MMOs are pushy fashion consultants; the closer you get to end game, the more fitted your gear becomes to you and your class. The more fitted the gear, the more you're bound to look like every other member of your class out there. Gone are those cute pigtails, the bad-ass expression, because they're a minimal part of your character's overall look. You become simply another warrior, another priest, another mage.
A few games have adapted a new system to combat this, which will allow players to redesign armor to the sets they already like. Take, for example, Earth Eternal's Re-fashioning system. Players can take the piece of equipment they want to use, based on its bonuses for their character, and a piece of armor they like the appearance of, and fuse the favorite appearance to the new item. Other MMOs, most notably free-to-plays, offer a fashion system which allows players to purchase special "fashion" items that offer no bonus, but appear in the place of regular armor. Fashions are cycled out on a regular basis, giving players a chance to own something that has a rarity value to it.
It's not just about looks, of course. There's also the issue of cookie-cutter perfection, an attitude of min/maxing and a failure from developers to balance all specialization options across all classes. The entire MMO experience is, in a great way, homogenized, from the quests we complete and zones we visit to the end experience and final goals. With so much of our experience standardized, it's sometimes hard to find the fun. If any game in development has promise of changing this, the bets would be on Guild Wars 2, which will offer a personal storyline based on a personality embedded as part of the character creation process and which will develop with player choices along the way. Guild Wars 2 will also offer dynamic events in lieu of pre-scripted quest-and-grind systems, and if the innovation promised holds true, the game will be the first in a series of saviors that will usher in a new era of MMO gaming.
Whatever the future holds, there's little more that any of us can do to stand out from the crowd other than seek our own personal levels of excellence. If you're passionate about a favorite MMO, come up with useful ideas and pitch them to developers for ways they can help break the clone syndrome. Aim to be the best at what you love, the first to do something you find interesting, or just be a stellar personality in your realm's community. Remember, games should offer more ways to be unique than the way your character looks - and if they don't, they're of a breed that is thankfully going extinct.