It is not without some irony that this post started out being about trying to determine why I often can’t stick with one character for any length of time, and it ended up being about something else entirely. I’ll re-roll the other post soon, I just want to get this post to level 20 and see how it parses once it has its new abilities.
It’s clear that developers recognise their players’ desire for their characters to appear unique and for outfits to look, for want of a better word, coherent. Several games have implemented a ‘locker room’ functionality that allows players to try on items of clothing, especially bind-on-equip items, before they commit to actually wearing them. This allows you to reject Voton’s Elemental Leggings of the Almighty Moon which turn out to be tight leather trousers with a hole in the back that allows your fat dwarven buttocks to hang out, for the ever so slightly more appealing full plate helmet with a flaming halo around the crest, which is unfortunately named Chizwizzle’s Chamberpot. This is a Good Thing, but also typical fire-fighting and ignoring of the base problem: people care what their character looks like, and it’s only the most dedicated of munckins that will pick the +5 Str Hat of Stinky Tom the Local Tramp over the +4 Str Hat of Captain Jack Sparrow’s Sexual Appeal.
Incidentally, I think they missed an excellent opportunity to make the locker room a shared area between players, with some sort of mini game where you can gain modest XP by whipping other character’s buttocks with a rolled-up towel. I know, I’m a game design genius.
I like the idea of starting off with poor looking equipment and working up to more heroic gear: LotRO does this very well, with low level hammers, for example, looking like something the character has grabbed from his tool shed to go chasing after those goblin kids from three doors down the street, “I know your Dad, young man!”. Actually, if it was a dwarf, he probably has their dad’s head hanging over his mantelpiece, in which case – in some crazy liberal society – you might view the goblins’ retaliatory attacks on the dwarf’s prize begonias as vaguely justified. Eventually you perform some epic or class quest and your character obtains a shiny weapon that you can actually believe has a bit of history to it, that has been crafted by a master weapon-smith and that wasn’t just picked off the shelf at the local DIY store:
“What is that?”
“It is my mighty sword, Meeshurar, with which I shall smite my foes terribly!”
“That, my friend, is a small metal ruler, and the only thing you’ll be smiting with it is the self esteem of the colleagues who have to fight alongside you.”
Some people don’t want to be the most powerful, some people just want to look cool, and of course the definition of looking cool is a very personal matter a lot of the time. The ePeen brigade who strut around in WoW with their swords that are twice the size of their own body, which they wield one-handed alongside a shield that doubles as the keel of a small luxury yacht look pretty daft to me, but those people probably think they look cool because in many games the size of your purple epic weapon reflects your relative power, although some more cynical members of the MMO community might say it inversely reflects something else.
The main problem with this ‘size reflecting power’ thing is that as a developer expands their game they generally have to create bigger and more exotic weapons to impress the people who are prepared to spend an inordinate amount of time grinding away to get them, and you quickly begin to realise why the majority of MMOs haven’t implemented player collision routines or friendly fire damage: with the size of some of the one-handed swords currently in World of Warcraft a player would only have to back out of a narrow doorway and they’d have six people impaled on the weapon at their side. They’d spin around quickly to apologise and decapitate the bemused audience, who were standing five hundred yards away. Boss mobs in small confined dungeons would actually be defeated by laughing themselves to death through the comedy value of watching twenty melee fighters trying to draw their weapons and getting them stuck in the floor, the walls and each other. Having achieved the drawing of weapons with only a thirty five percent fatality rate, the melee players would raise their weapons in the air in a triumphant salute and promptly get them stuck in the vaulted ceiling.
It’s not just size, though. You might get some of the more outstanding weapons glow with a ghostly light, or have flames springing from the blade as if the weapon itself was trying to manifest its inherent ability to cause pain and injury as a warning to others. As if a twenty two foot long serrated blade wasn’t convincing enough. The problem lies with where the developer goes next, flaming swords become passé and ‘so last season dahrlink’, and so bigger and more enviable effects are applied, until eventually you have a bunch of people running around with weapons that have miniature galaxies orbiting the hilt and the ePeen brigade are comparing whose weapon has the most advanced civilisation living on it.
A simple example of personal preference: in LotRO I like the half-kilt/half-mini-skirt item of clothing for the dwarves, you can see evidence of it in the picture from yesterday. Yes, yes, I love dwarves, and more specifically dwarves in kilts. Read into that what you will, I’m sure Freud would have a field day. Actually, it’d probably be something really boring: “Dwarves in kilts? Ah, now that means you have a slight aversion to cranberries. Now if you’d said you liked cranberries, well, that would mean you’re a hypertensive erotic cavalier with a penchant for fondling bowler hats at passing strangers”. I’m not so keen on the full length smoking jackets though, they look excellent on elves, especially with their dandy hats with a feather in them, all very suave. On a dwarf the long jacket that almost reaches the floor looks like someone threw an old paisley sheet over a traffic cone and glued a weird bearded head to the top of it, like that one poor kid at Halloween who had ideas of being Frankenstein’s monster, and ended up as ‘kid under a sheet’. Dwarves don’t do trenchcoats. It’s the same with gloves: I like big chunky gloves, of which I’ve found examples in both medium and light armour, but I always seem to find better gear that is, unfortunately, in some skin-tight bondage-ventilated version; those gloves probably look foxy on elves, but on a dwarf it looks as though he’s just escaped from a freak-show at the local circus, where he probably had to bite the heads off of chickens, or worse, pretend he was a Cosplay convention ‘babe’.
And let’s not forget colours too; LotRO, like Dark Age of Camelot and others before it, tries to remedy the ‘I look like a principal from the Commedia dell’arte who was tragically involved in an explosion at a paint factory’ by introducing dyes in order to allow players some freedom of choice. This freedom does come at some expense to the character, and there’s the fact that it never seems to dye the part of the armour you actually want, it generally changes the black stitching to the Honeysuckle White With A Hint Of Saffron dye that you used, and leaves the main bulk of the armour colour as Oh My God My Brain Is Bleeding Out Of My Eyes. With a hint of lavender.
The really strange thing is, developers do sometimes put a lot of effort into character customisation, but it seems as though it’s in the wrong place: the face. In the game of Real Life we’re forced to play in a first person twitch gaming environment, and the resolution on this reality is pretty good, thus facial expression and facial individuality is a very important initial factor in determining the motives and attributes of a stranger. In most MMORPGs the majority of players play the game in a third-person view and zoomed-out quite considerably to allow a decent view of the surrounding terrain, therefore that elf running towards me may have the most stunning face ever, with a cute little dimple in her chin and a mole just above her top lip, but I’m never going to see it. I’ll see that she is tall and thin; she isn’t entirely naked, therefore isn’t a warrior class in full plate, and I’ll also see that her outfit has an interesting colour scheme that seems to be making my nose leak meninges. And that’s with the elf wearing a hat: half the characters will be wearing a full-face helmet.
Ok, Moon On A Stick time: what would be nice is the ability to apply a ‘template’ to your armour which you could perhaps buy from a vendor for a nominal value, which would change the way that item looks in line with the template description whilst maintaining the existing stats. Better still, give this ability to tailors and armourers: they could create the templates instead of the armour items, you could imagine them applying a template as reworking a piece of armour to fit the client better. It could be that more expensive templates exist that change all items into a matching set of armour. What’s more, why do I have to be shown wearing armour at all? I’d quite like my character to look like Conan the Cimmerian, for example, with a loin cloth, fur-lined boots and perhaps a green silk girdle for ultimate protection. I’ve played games where I can create this look at character creation, but before long you’re wrapped-up in more armour than a Sherman tank. I can’t understand how you can’t have a Conan-like character charging around slaying stuff because ‘it would be unrealistic and immersion breaking’, when most female characters in most MMORPGs are forced to slay enemies whilst wearing a chain-mail thong; that part in Return of the Jedi where Princess Leia is a slave of Jabba the Hut is ruined now because all I can think is ‘Pfff, as if he’d dress a slave in epic plate armour’.
Let the great chant of City of Heroes ring up to the heavens, because they got the idea of character customisation so right, it’s a shame they forgot about game-play a bit towards the end there, but you can’t have everything. The few promotional videos of The Chronicles of Spellborn that I’ve seen floating around seem to have a similar take on allowing freedom to customise character appearance, and I have to say I’m looking forward to trying it.
Giving the players a little more control over how their character appears is not beyond the ability of developers, we all understand that you have an artistic vision and that customisation is possible but a non-trivial factor to add to a game, but apart from our actions, appearance is one of the fundamental enablers in allowing players to express who they are.
And I’m a dwarf in a kilt.