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A Casual, Cornered: The Best Character Design in MMOs

Columns By Beau Hindman on April 28, 2015

The Best Character Design in MMOs

Character models are possibly the most important aspect of a graphical MMO. After all, the avatars that we create and play through are us in many ways, so they need to look and feel like extensions of us, into the game world. For some players, that means the avatar should look heroic, or beautiful, or needs to offer a ton of customization. Whatever the particular player wants in an avatar, the good news is that there is probably an MMO out there that offers just for what they are looking.

I am by far not a graphics player. In other words, I care about gameplay above all things. On the other hand, I like to escape into a world, and the proper graphics and character models can help me do just that. Sure, one day we might find ourselves surrounded by holographic imagery and 3D creatures, but for now character models are the way we connect to an MMO.

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I tend to like MMOs with stylized character models. I prefer stylized everything, but only the right kind of stylized. I don’t like cartoony, necessarily, but need the characters to look unreal. Some of my former favorites are games like The Chronicles of Spellborn with its incredible details and otherworldly creatures and environments and Free Realms with its warm and playful world and character models.

Blending In

Those character models worked for me because they looked like they belonged to the world in which they were fighting. They looked as though the stuff the world was made of went into making them. If you want another great example of a game that looks wonderfully constant, check out Allods Online. The entire game sparkles and shimmers and casts a filter on the screen like an in-motion Instagram. When you create a character in the game, it looks like the NPCs in the game, and the NPCs look like they belong to the world.

Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is one of my favorite MMOs. It’s gone now, but I have very strong memories of exploring that game and getting to know its community. While many of you might say that it showed off some of the best graphics in MMOs, I would agree with you. If you looked more closely, though, textures and shapes didn’t flow together. The character models were clumsy and stiff much of the time, (although individual animations were sometimes very nice) and it often felt like the game had borrowed parts from EverQuest 2 or other titles for use in the world. I hate to play Captain Hindsight, but it’s possible that the graphics in Vanguard helped lead to its dying popularity.

Ryzom, on the other hand, is a fantastic MMO that shows off a world of character models that look like they literally sprung from the ground. Yes, the organic costuming helps, but the models are unique and strange just like the planet of Atys on which they are all living.

Body Shape and Style

Character model animations are crucial, but not as important as the shape of the characters they are animating. While I prefer MMO character design that allows characters who are not shaped like 25-year-old bodybuilders or gymnasts, “heroic” is a tough mark to hit. These days, many MMOs come with very good character creation tools but shape is often left out or is very minimally affected.

Look at the character models of Lord of the Rings Online if you want to see something truly horrifying. They’re not ugly, they are eerie. They run, stand and are shaped like a creation that came from an alien child’s imagination. Sure, the character models resemble real people, but they walk or run and stand like puppets. Despite being hosted in one of the more beautiful environments in MMOs, the character models in Lord of the Rings Online are some of my least favorite. The problem comes from the fact that they are attempting to show heroic or fit character models, but miss the mark and create animatronics.

Second Life’s default character models are hideous as well, but that judgment comes with a caveat. The character models in Second Life are, like everything else in Second Life, meant to be adapted. They are blank spaces, meant to host the player’s shapes and textures. Still, when you first play in the world of Second Life it can be shocking; you’ll often move from a hideous scene filled with clumsy-looking avatars in a bland environment to an amazing scene with glorious digital citizens resting in a magnificent piece of art.

Old School

Many of the issues with character design started years and years ago. I remember distinctly the love I felt for my character in Ultima Online, my first MMO. Sure, he was just a tiny little guy on the screen but in hindsight he was really well designed. Unfortunately we moved on to EverQuest and the avatars were very ugly; my first Halfling was a monster with blocky hands and square feet. Although things have improved dramatically for EverQuest over the years, their old models still haunt me.

As much fun as City of Heroes was (when it wasn’t a mindless grind) its character models were boring and very non-heroic. The customization was superb, of course, but the models themselves felt empty and devoid of life.

Star Wars Galaxies – the MMO that seems to have a special place in many gamer’s hearts – was a great game in many ways (again, when it was not a mindless grind) but its character models resembled those wooden drawing models that everyone had in college.

My Favorites

The situation is not as glum as I have made it out to seem. In fact, MMOs now look fantastic and those splendid graphics only add to the genre’s value. You might like the more realistic looking games out there, but I enjoy the ones with a stylized tint. Let me give you some examples of my favorite MMOs for character design.

Wildstar – Hot damn, I love the character models in this game. They are absolutely brilliant and look like animated movie characters more than something you’d normally be playing in an online game.

Allods Online – This one has always been a great game for artistry. It’s still ahead of the pack, and will remain that way for a while. I seriously do not know how they pulled some of it off. Seeing your awesomely-animated character on the deck of an Astral Ship is priceless.

Guild Wars 2 – This is one of those MMOs I wish I could find the time to get into. I know it’s fabulous, but just cannot get past a certain point. Still, it’s a really good looking MMO and its character models are finely detailed and animated.

Neverwinter – You’ll be surprised by this MMO if you give it a chance. One of the first things you’ll notice is how amazing it looks while also running like butter.

Vindictus – In some ways, I wish that Nexon had not created an MMO with such beautiful character models. The models in this one feel more realistic, but having such pretty models in-game means annoying “dancers” hanging around in every town. Ugh… creepy dudes with keyboards.

Ryzom – This “ancient” title still holds its own with games half its age. Yes, the textures and animations are really starting to show its age, but what other planet allows you to live as a tall blue creature with a mask that was surgically grafted onto your face? Also, check out the game’s weather systems. Perfect!

Many of the issues with character design would go out the window if more MMOs featured character design that wasn’t meant to show only people of a certain body type. We need disabled characters, characters of all age ranges and shapes; we take a trip to the uncanny valley when everyone is supposed to look so perfect, whatever that might mean to the developer.

What do you think? I’m sure we all have varying ideas on what make for a lovely character model, so let’s hear ‘em!

Beau Hindman / Beau is a writer, artist, PR/CM, game designer and pro moderator, and he's been blogging since 2002. He lives it up in Austin, Texas with his community manager wife. He's also the author of Anna the Powerful, a sci-fi book about the world's only superhero. Buy it here: http://my.bookbaby.com/book/anna-the-powerful