Monday 4 December 2006

Character Customisation

What does your character represent in a MMOG? The unconscious self, the id, finally given free reign in a world with no constraints? An idealised version of ourselves as we'd really like to be? Or a nice ass to stare at while playing?

City of Heroes has an incredible character customisation system. You can change almost anything. Sliders for the overall character size, as well as individual body parts (leg length, chest broadness etc etc). Hats, helmets, hoods, masks, coats, robes, tights, gloves, belts, trousers, boots, etc. etc. etc., all individually coloured, for literally millions of combinations. You can spend hours just working on a costume.

Starting World of Warcraft after that was a bit of a shock. After selecting your race, customisation stretches to a few skin tones, some hairstyles and facial hair, and off you go! The whole of your starting area populated by a series of clones with slightly different hairstyles...

Of course after a while in World of Warcraft, you start picking up different weapons and armour (ironically, if your character in City of Heroes uses a weapon like a sword or axe, that's one of the few things you can't change). But it's a very different philosophy of customisation: the way you look is almost a direct representation of your power (and thus time spent) in game. You start off in tattered rags and scraps with a stick/rusty knife, and work up to a set of armour that will take someones eye out if you turn around too fast, and a weapon you nonchalantly heft in one hand even though it's twice the size of you.

That fits with the genre for each game. A superhero's costume seldom changes, whereas the protagonist of an archetypal fantasy story frequently finds a magical weapon and/or armour on his journey from humble beginnings to mighty feats. A superhero's powers aren't necessarily reflected in their appearance: an innocuous looking chap in a T-shirt might have skin as hard as metal, or amazing regenerative powers, or be able to shoot blasts of energy. For a fantasy hero, appearance is usually more closely related to role.

Even so, the limited customisation of World of Warcraft still irks when compared to City of Heroes. Due to the nature of loot outlined before, you'll normally end up wearing whatever useful items happen to drop for you. Your outfit is random. And your outfit *is* your character customisation, as by the late game, even your limited selection of hairstyles is covered by a helmet unless you turn that off. True, you can buy "casual clothes" (before they added the "see what this item would look like on my character" feature in WoW, I'd often buy several cheap pieces of low level cloth armour just to see what they looked like), but you can't have them around at any time unless you devote bag slots to them, and much as I like playing dress-up I've usually got better things to keep in my bags. If you devote time to raiding (or PvP), you can get the "Tier" armour, sets of matching armour, usually very impressive, but looking identical to someone else with the same set of armour. And if you don't like the design of the armour, well, tough.

Blizzard are aware of the issue, and it's not really a deal breaker. Wielding the katana-looking Assassination Blade and Hanzo Sword was nice for my inner ninja-samurai-monk-pirate of whirling death, but when I got the rather drab looking (but harder hitting) Sword of Zeal I didn't seriously think about not using it (a Krol Blade, on the other hand... that thing just looks foolish!) Still, it would be nice to have a few more options.

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