Thought of the Day: Is it better to be unique, or to look like someone else cool

Being different is cool.  People who dared to try something different have changed our world, after all. They’re also the avant garde who shape our trends.  And in games they probably were first to discover the best (and worst) tactics. I think in MMOs, there’s also some allure in finding a way to stand out and assert your personality in a gameworld where so many people take the cookie cutter route.

But at the same time, there’s a powerful drive to be like everyone else in MMOs. It’s what pressures people to get more hardcore, to want to hang with the elitist cool crowd. It’s why we check out other characters who have really cool gear, wondering where they got it from and where we could get it from as well.

In more chilled out games, you can be fairly unique and still go take part in public raids and PvP with the rest of the player base. In highly tuned ones, if you want to do that then you’ll have to find a way to be unique that doesn’t affect gameplay.

Costuming has been a fun and popular way to let people personalise their toons. And yet … still I find myself drawn to that especially cool helm that I saw someone else wearing and wondering, “How can my character look just like that?”

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Is your character race purely cosmetic?

There is a long tradition, stretching back to the earliest MUDs, that players have a choice of fantasy races for their characters. It has become part of the MMO scenery, even though in many games it will never much affect your play. So is a race just cosmetic, just another way to customise your character visually?

PvD posted awhile back about how races are sold in the cash shop for EQ2X at the moment. You can buy options for that game in packs of three, and each pack is arranged to offer one popular race with two less popular ones. Other than that, there’s no rhyme or reason in the selections. This puzzled me as a concept – the idea of picking a race because ‘it was included free in the pack with the one I actually wanted’ feels like a very unintuitive way to make that choice.

I was minded of this because I have a friend who has a really strong preference for playing elves. If a game doesn’t offer elves, her interest drops. One of the things she is most excited about in Cataclysm is the ability to play a blood elf warrior for the first time. And this has nothing to do with game elements like racial abilities. She just likes elves. If she played EQ2X I don’t think she’d be too thrilled to see the elf races split between packs (she’d probably just pick the one she liked best and not bother with the others, whereas she’d have paid more for a pack that included all of them.) I know others who always play humans, and prefer to pick a human character who looks as close to themselves (in some idealised form) as possible. So some players go into the game with a vague idea of how they want their character to look or act and pick the race that fits it most closely.

For other people, the most important thing about picking a race is any in-game advantage. So optimal racial abilities or starting areas would play a bigger factor in the choice. If racial abilities change, these guys may take advantage of a paid race change in game.

Others are more interested in aesthetics. Which race looks prettiest or most badass? Which race/ class combination has the coolest looking armour?

And in some games, that’s pretty much it for racial identity. It’s all about how you look and whether you get any minor mechanical perks. EQ2X for example does have racial lore, but it isn’t equally emphasised for all races. You can easily go through a starting zone that seems to have been designed for another race without learning anything about your own.

When races are more than a collection of stats and a skin

Warcraft certainly wasn’t the first game to emphasise racial starting areas and lore. But their commitment to doing so has always been quite impressive. When you pick a race, you’re also picking a starting zone in which you’ll have about 20 levels worth of race specific content. (Unless you’re a gnome or troll, in which case hang in there for Cataclysm!)

This is fertile ground for roleplayers, who might go with the strongest lore or most appealing backstory. As well as their own starting areas, races have their own architectures, racial leaders, history, and in-game racial stereotypes. So gnomes are not just small and squeaky but also crazy scientists with silly names. Forsaken are sarcastic, deadpan, and have no moral compass. Dwarves like beer and blacksmithing (is there any game in which this is not the case?).

Racial lore is about to get a huge boost in Cataclysm with the addition of Archaeology to the game. I think this is going to be one of the most popular new mechanics that the expansion brings. And as a side-effect, it adds more oomph to the races and their backgrounds.

Why is this big at the moment? Because of course Cataclysm will add in two new races to the mix. They’ll have very solid racial abilities, new lore, new cool models, and since players like new stuff anyway they’re bound to be heavily played. And also, many classes will have new racial options in the expansion.

This is most striking for druids, who soon will be able to pick from two races per faction instead of just one fixed choice. And one of the most asked for screenshots from the beta was the picture of the new troll and worgen druid forms. I’m thinking this shows that a lot of people are mostly about the aesthetics with their racial choices.

Is it mostly about the looks for you? I wonder if people tend to pick their first character based on look/feel/ prior idea and maybe explore the lore of other races after they’ve played the game and are making alts.

Dragon Age (PC Version)! My first thoughts.

dragonagegraff1 Trust me, I’m a dwarf

Dragon Age is the game I’ve been waiting for ever since I started to play CRPGs, and I hadn’t even realised. In fact, I’d all but given up on ever having a computer based RPG that came anywhere near the nuances of a tabletop game. But I was wrong.

Bioware have learned a lot since the days of Baldurs Gate and Knights of the Old Republic – BG had a large game world and lots to do but never really grabbed me as a story. KOTOR leapt for the jugular with a character based storyline but made the player so much front and centre that it was almost embarrassing to play. I felt awkward knowing that the game was so blatently all about me.

In Dragon Age, you are the hero. You will do great and terrifying things, but there’s a whole world in this game and a lot of other people too. You will affect them, they will affect you.

The game is a solid blend of CRPG sections where you can explore the scenery, talk to other characters, do quests, and take everything that isn’t nailed down; and party based combat. Both sides of the game seem exceptional to me from what I have played so far. But the story and the immersion is where the game really shines.

The origins of the title are long intro sections for each combination of race/social background which ease you into your character and flesh it out a bit before the main storyline kicks off and you are taken away from everything and everyone you once knew. I’ve played through a few origins and thought they were all effective – although I can see how some might appeal more to different players. The mage background, for example, offers an insight into a life lived entirely inside the mage tower, with some moral and ethical dilemmas thrown in. But because of the moral choices, it doesn’t feel as streamlined as the city elf background where you’re given a fairly arse kicking revenge fantasy (no moral dilemma there!). The dwarf commoner is my favourite so far but none of the ones I tried were clunkers. They all worked at getting me to like my character and connect with it, and offering some long term character  based goals as well as purely quest based ones.

Voice work is great, although there do seem to be a lot of people who talk with posh English accents around the place. I’m a convert to voice work in CRPGs now, although I can’t imagine what sort of resources Bioware must have at their disposal. As others have commented, it is a little jarring that everyone except your character is chatting away – it makes them come across a bit grim, like the man with no name. But appealing voice work brings even the least convincing character models to life. The animation is also pretty good. I especially loved watching my city elf warrior heft a two handed sword around. I’ve seen people do real life swordplay with those and the moves looked right to me (none of this swinging it around your head like a rhythmic gymnast).

The heart and soul of the CRPG is in the companion characters who will join you along the way, and how your main character develops a relationship with them. There is always a danger in CRPGs that because the player is in the driving seat, all the other characters feel weak – they are always deferring to your opinions and letting you make the decisions. That does exist here, but they will also step up and challenge you when they think you are making a mistake. It’s not like having a full AI on board, but they do feel convincing to me as 3 dimensional characters.

For example,  as my dwarf rogue, I was commenting to my husband that I liked Alistair but thought he was naive and a bit of a tit. He said that as his mage, he liked him because he felt that they had a lot in common – they’d both been taken from their parents at a young age and sent off to an institution to be raised. So the character and conversation options were there to support both of those experiences.

The fighting sequences are fast paced, although you can pause the action as often as you need to, and can be as tactically deep as you care to go. Easy mode is a lot easier – you won’t need to pause the game too much and area effects won’t harm your party through friendly fire. Normal mode (which is quite hard in places, even after the last patch) requires more thought and hands on interaction. Although you can set programmable tactics for each character, mages need a bit more babysitting to get the best out of them. If one particular fight is kicking your butt and you get frustrated, you can change the difficulty to easy for that, and then back again afterwards.

Or just play it through in easy mode if you’re more about the story and the character than the tactical combat. That’s just as valid a way to play and I enjoy that the game gives me those options.

And really the one flaw with the character classes is that mages feel as though they have many more options. As a mage, you can have crowd control, you can nuke, you can have AE, you can heal, you can buff. Fighters and rogues are a little more one sided, although my rogue has some stuns and can set traps and throw bombs so I don’t feel restricted with her at all. The game is not set up to assume you always have a healer along, but if you don’t, take a lot of healing poultices and have one of the party train in herbalism (to make more cheaply).

And about the maturity? They’re not joking. Even if you ignore the blood and the entertainment on offer at the brothel (it’s all fade to black) or the options to romance your party (I can’t report on that since I’m having enough trouble getting them to stay with me at all, let alone anything more), the issues and moral dilemmas raised in the game are a step beyond most fantasy fare. How do you feel about casual in game racism? Would you kill a child if you knew for a fact that doing so would also destroy a demon? Free the condemned prisoner, even if you know he might kill again? This is a game where you will be facing those types of choices, and you’ll have to take responsibility for where they lead.

As if all that wasn’t enough, there are also achievements to unlock and lore to discover – Bioware have used something similar to WAR’s tome of knowledge where new pages open up to inform you of what you have learned about characters, items, gameplay, lore, and so on. Lore entries may also be expanded later as you find out more. I found that worked very well, although indexing it by number doesn’t make it easy to search.

My dwarf just hit level 10 with *cough* a fair amount of hours played and I feel as though I’ve barely touched the surface of the game. I’m thoroughly enjoying it, as you can probably tell. In fact,  I absolutely love it and will plan to spring for the warden’s keep DLC at some point, if only because I’m happy to have the chance to throw more money at Bioware for content of this quality.

Tell me about your character

Let me tell you about my character in Dragon Age. She’s a feisty dwarf rogue who began her life as a casteless commoner. She doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, she hates rules, and wants to do the right thing but doesn’t see why she should do it for free because that made you a sucker where she came from. Her story is of someone who came from nowhere and is struggling to learn what ‘doing the right thing’ really means.

When I compare notes with my husband, he keeps saying, “You’re horrid,” or “You’re evil” when I tell him about my dwarf girl’s exploits. But I’m not playing as evil, just as someone who doesn’t know any better and really really wants to try anyway.

Her companions aren’t very happy with her (except for Morrigan who she gets on with very well), and I think being motivated to try to stay friendly with them is probably having a good effect on her. I feel like I actually have a character that could change and grow through the game – it may not be Oscar winning material but it could be a solid fantasy pot boiler! To me, that lifts the whole game up another dimension because I actually feel as though I’m role playing.

So, tell me about your character?

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.