Design at Start vs Design in Play

Here’s a thought experiment. You have just bought a shiny new computer RPG (it can be either a MMO or single player, your choice). You load it up for the first time and are presented with character creation.

Which of these types of character creation would you prefer to see?

Pre-Made Characters

You get to pick one of a set of pre-made characters. The character may come with an extensive background and backstory, carefully designed to fit perfectly into the game. You may have some customisation options – maybe you can change the looks, name, and tweak the stats a bit, but your choices are limited.

Pre-mades have the huge advantage that it is very very easy to write an immersive story about a pre-made character. The writer can give the characters some good solid starting goals and story arcs. They can easily have pre-existing links to other NPCs, places, items, and background stories. They belong to the world, they have links with it, and they are connected to it.

Best of all, the player can take the pre-made character and trust that the storyline will fit. Good examples of this are Planescape: Torment or KOTOR – you get very few customisation choices at the beginning but the story is absolutely front and centre all about the viewpoint character. Using a pre-made character also doesn’t remove choices from the player later on, but at least it gives you a very well defined starting point.

Pre-mades in an MMO are more problematic, because players will interact. If characters ALL have the same background story then it’s difficult to really take things seriously (“What? You used to be a raider too? Uh … what a coincidence, so did my 37 friends over there …”)

Design At Start

Your character is a blank slate. Before you can start playing, you need to spend some time deciding what your character will be like, what powers it may have, and everything else about it. You may wish to write a long personalised background story too. Picking powers might be a complex process with many opportunities to optimise skills, but with some time and effort you should be able to create the exact character that you want. It will be perfect, it will be your ideal character.

This can be great for players who have a very strong concept of the sort of character they want to play. If you always play the same role, like to fiddle around doing research and number crunching, and enjoy min-maxing, this might be for you.

The downside is: You may not yet know the gameworld very well. You may not know which power combinations are the most potent. You may not yet have a strong concept of your ideal character. Your ideal character might not even make any sense in terms of the story. You can certainly write a novella of background information but there’s no guarantee that anyone except you will ever read it.

In a tabletop game, you can work with the GM and other players to tell great stories about your ideal character. In a computer game, there’s no guarantee that the game will actually support the way you wanted to play. So you get a taste of your ideal character, but you may not actually be able to play out the stories you wanted to tell about them. Even in a non-railroaded game, the options you want may not even exist (eg. if your character is a dispossessed aristocrat but the game doesn’t have any kind of NPCs or stories that will give you a chance to get your land back or have your relatives try to bump you off … or in other words, the game may just not interact well with the story you want to tell.)

Design in Play

Your character is a blank slate. But after picking a few minor options and customising the look, you’re straight into the game. You will pick up powers and abilities as you play, or at least gain the ability to customise whatever powers with which you start.

The idea is that as you learn more about the game, both storywise and about how it plays, you’ll learn more about what type of character you want, and will have opportunities to mould your character into that shape.

Although this can play like a pre-made character at the beginning, you will quickly have lots of options to tweak both the background and the skills as you play. A design at start character is a bit ‘fuzzy’ when the game begins, very little about it is set in stone.

It’s all down to personal preferences

There isn’t a right or wrong way to do character creation but some players  have strong preferences for different methods.

I’m a big proponent of design in play – in tabletop games, I’m discussing character concepts and how the world works with the GM all the way through the first session, so I can tweak my initial character sheet later if what I wrote isn’t reflecting the character I create through playing it. In MMOs, I love how the WoW dual specs means that I don’t have to commit to a role when I create my character. My warrior can tank or it can dps, depending on how I feel later. I love systems where you get better at skills by using them, so the game itself can try to figure out how you want your character to develop in play. (In practice that’s not really how it works but I like the idea.)

I really dislike games that ask me to make large numbers of character decisions or carry out number crunching up front, especially when I don’t feel that the game itself has given me enough information yet on which to choose.

I was thinking of this when reading Regis’ dismissal of the Dragon Age Character Creator. I’m not claiming that it is the greatest piece of software since sliced_bread.exe but it isn’t fair to fault the game for offering a limited number of races and classes in the creator. They’re running with a mix of pre-made and design in play design. It’s going to make for much tighter storylines later on, and more choices to make later on in play also.

I don’t get on with design at start type games (it takes me some exposure to the game to get some good character ideas together) and I struggled with design at start players when GMing tabletop – it’s hard to tell a compelling story when someone has such a strict idea of what their character is like and won’t allow  it to change and adapt at all.

Options are great and all, but at the end of the day, my favourite CRPGs of all time (Planescape and FF10) left their choices until later in the game and they were all the better for it.