The debate on characters in games goes back and forth over the decades. There are countless video games with an infinite number of characters, some iconic, some obscure. However this debate is not about who is more popular: Sonic or Mario. It is about how games present character choice to a player at the beginning of the game.
The Customized You
Many MMOs start you off with a character template that you build in the beginning of the game. RPGs do the same. Some of the most popular character customization systems have come from City of Heroes, Elder Scrolls, or Fallout. I think City definitely set the bar very high for what a character generator could be. The superhero game offered an immense amount of freedom, uniforms, powers, and symbols to build your perfect hero or later, villain, with the expansion. Games had custom characters before, but MMOs changed with City of Heroes.
In creating your character many people ask how much it matters. You’ll eventually be covered in armor and cloaks anyway right? It seems like the huge options in the creation engine at the start of the game are kind of pointless? See, that is where I disagree. I love making my character in the beginning of the game. I like options for face, hair, tattoos, etc. Star Wars: The Old Republic comes to mind as a fantastic customization system which has depth on both the Jedi and Sith sides of the game. In these options, it always felt like you became unique to the game world. Many systems offered enough change that almost no character looked the same, despite thousands if not millions of players.
Over time MMOs became deeper experiences just growing in levels and the grind. In some ways, this gameplay aspect eventually dulled the creativity you put into your avatar from the beginning. It always felt like rewarding an MMO player for some unique creations would be a fun mechanic.
The Comic Book Approach
In current games like League of Legends and Overwatch, you are seeing a different approach to characters. You now have a menu of characters to choose to play. This theory follows a comic book universe similar to Marvel’s library of heroes. You pick your favorite iconic character and eventually become so good at their play style that you feel a connection. Artwork, design, and story come into play much more as the company now has to tell the story rather than the player customizing one for themselves.
Blizzard has done a fantastic job building out the Overwatch universe with heroes that everyone can relate too. They have even gone a global route with heroes representing cultures and populations all over the world. These characters are boxed though, you can customize their looks with various skins, but overall it is the same.
So which style is better for the player? I guess it all depends on the game you are in. MOBAs and arena shooters seem to do much better with a comic book approach to characters. While RPGs and MMOs need the customization to support their depth of world building. Both systems work well for the fans.
The real question is if we would ever see a combination of styles down the line. A game that allows you to customize your character in a PvP heavy game online would be very interesting. I for one fall into the customization side myself and really enjoy detailing up a character, I do not go crazy though keeping things pretty simple. That being said, I do own two Junkrat t-shirts. So, I guess it is a mixed bag. What do you prefer as a player?