Nobody wants to be a
To the majority of MMO gamers, how you look is sometimes just as
important as how you play. To some, form over function is a way of
life, and it's not uncommon to overhear one player saying to another,
"I know the stats suck, but it just looks awesome on me!" This is
especially true in games populated by thousands upon thousands of
characters that look so similar to one another. Standing out from the
crowd is important.
Since the dawn of graphical online gaming, this subculture of MMOG
fashionistas has become such an omnipresent part of the overall
community that most developers frequently seek to curry favor with them
by lavishing a bajillion different customization options on the
players: Hairstyles that could put an eye out, sliders to make your
jawline range from non-existent to Disney-villain, and clothes... so
Resplendent in full
My introduction to this obsession with avatar appearances came while
playing the original EverQuest
way back in 1999 or 2000, when Rubicite
Armor became a really, really big deal on my server. Everybody that was
anybody had a suit, or was twisting the arms of their guild mates to
help them obtain it through countless hours of camping the old style="font-weight: bold;">Temple
of Cazic Thule. The breastplate was particular coveted as
one of the only regeneration abilities available on gear at the time.
But believe it or not, seeking out the stats was not the reason that
Rubicite Fever struck so many players. The reason was the color.
Up until its discovery, players had been getting by largely wearing the
standard graphical meshes available on any store-bought suit of armor.
Perhaps an occasional touch of tinting was thrown in, but usually
subdued and in the earth-tone spectrum. It was the equivalent to
wearing a burlap sack when you saw someone walk by in a full suit of
Rubicite - bold as brass, bright blood red, and so stark compared to
the palette of the majority of other gear at the time that wearing it
in a crowd drew in stares and admiration. It was like being on a red
carpet and having passersby scream, "Who are you wearing!?" only
actually wearing the red carpet. And for those of us in the first wave
of proud owners, we loved every minute of it.
A crowd gathers to share
Yes - I, too, camped for the coveted Rubicite. In fact, competition for
this beautiful but sub-standard gear was so fierce in the first few
weeks that guilds were shattered and friendships were torn asunder over
it. Ninja-looting and kill-stealing ran rampant. It was almost as if
the red of the Rubicite was the waving flag of a matador, inciting us
players to trample one another like raging bulls.
And it was all (or mostly) in the name of fashion.
Looking back at EverQuest
with the wisdom of hindsight, I can see now
how such a phenomenon was destined to occur. The game's initial
character creation offered each race only 4-5 face textures to choose
from, then another handful of hairstyles and colors. But eventually
you'd end up wearing a helmet anyway, so what did any of that matter?
When the players finally found a means by which they could stand out
from the crowd and finally be recognized across a crowded room, of
course they leapt at it!
This was a trend that was destined to not only continue in future
MMOGs, but outright flourish. Years later, and coincidentally also from
developer SOE (who had since taken over style="font-style: italic;">EverQuest), the
anticipated Star Wars
Galaxies launched with character customization
never before seen in an online game. Sliders! You could actually
fine-tune the contours of your avatar's face and body in so many ways
that it was almost guaranteed that every single person entering the
game was slightly different, and slightly unique.
SWG's catering to the visually-focused crowd didn't stop there, however
- not by a long shot. Built into the core class design and economy of
the game world were entire professions devoted exclusively to
fine-tuning character customization. This included clothing,
hairstyles, makeup and tattoos that were otherwise unobtainable through
normal character creation or even through questing or hunting. These
dedicated Image Designers
worked feverishly to supply their
wares to the player base, without a single thing to offer that could
impact the combat of the game, or the story arc of the war between the
Imperials and Rebels. As a tailor myself, by catering to players that
just wanted to look their best, I managed to amass more wealth than I
honestly knew what to do with. By the time I retired (shortly before
the NGE, thank heavens), I'd purchased at least a dozen incredibly rare
items worth several million credits each at the time, and owned four
full suits of the best armor that money could buy.
In four different colors.... <ahem>....
This is where my personal story of fashion seeking comes to an
unexpected twist, however. While other games across the market, such as
were beginning to emulate the near-infinite creation
techniques and rampant use of sliders that was present in SWG, one very
big player took an entirely different approach, and went back to
The very first time I created a character in style="font-style: italic;">World of Warcraft
I was so disappointed with the character customization that I nearly
lost all enthusiasm for the game right then and there. After years of
evolution in the MMOG industry,
here we were right back at square-one
with just a dozen faces and hairstyles to choose from, and an avatar
that ended up looking just like every other person starting out.
In fact, this was one of the primary reasons that, despite buying and
subscribing to WoW since release day, I ended up playing EQ2 instead
when it released right around the same time. After all, I could be
unique! I could stand out! Even wearing my newbie rags, I was a
beautiful and utterly original avatar in a world nearly devoid of the
dreaded doppelganger syndrome that troubled WoW in its early days.
Sadly, the beauty and uniqueness of my avatar could not be matched by
the lackluster armor design of the low and mid-range levels in EQ2, and
I felt myself slipping away from caring about my character, and the
game. Several months later, I decided to revisit Azeroth in hopes of
forestalling my growing ennui, and finally came face-to-face with the
fruit of Blizzard's grand design of character customization.
When I logged in, there was an orc standing right in front of me in
Orgrimmar. But not just any orc - this was a level-capped uber-raider!
Resplendent in his many-colored plate mail covered in spikes and
protrusions. His sword showed jagged notches unlike any blade I'd seen
and even his shield looked menacing,
So rare. So pointy. So
and yet somehow inspiring. This
was a hero! This orc, through the blood of his conquests and those of
his teammates, had conquered some of the most difficult content
available in the game at the time and had come home bearing the prizes
he'd won in battle, not just as trophies or stat increases, but as
shining status symbols that stuck out from his otherwise non-descript
frame in every direction. He was the best, and he looked it.
Almost immediately, something snapped inside me. If I wanted to be as
visually unique and awe-inspiring as this warrior, I was going to have
to work for it! That is the day that I became a raider. It was Rubicite
Fever all over again, but this time the palette was much larger than
just red. I left EQ2 behind me, and dedicated myself to learning the
ins-and-outs of the proper specs, group dynamics, sought out the very
best quest rewards and dungeon drops, and eventually began seeking my
own wearable status symbols by forming a raiding guild that would
follow my every whim.
Forward! For glory! And for Fashion!
The road was long, and I found that by the time I reached these upper
echelons, I was far from alone in my coat of many colors. And despite
the relative individuality most high-end players managed to squeeze out
by equipping one or two pieces of gear differently from their fellows,
I began to again feel the ache of a doppelganger syndrome. Even donning
a violently pink shirt didn't seem to help matters, as it was usually
covered by my other gear. The same gear every other shaman was wearing.
The continued strain of raid leading, coupled with very little visual
reward to fulfill my needs, eventually led me to leave the world of
high-end raiding behind me. I dabbled in PvP, but again found the same
thing around each turn - everyone ended up looking the same, when they
got the best gear. Even my pink shirt would mean nothing.
I filled every character
slot on every server with characters that never made it past level 15.
I moved on when my brother convinced me to purchase
style="font-style: italic;">City of Heroes. As
kids, we grew up reading Marvel comics, so the concept of playing as a
superhero was extremely appealing to both of us. And oh how my eyes lit
up when I beheld what could have only been called the Holy Grail of
customization! So many colors! So many pieces! So
many choices! For the first time in my MMOG career, I found that I
could be exactly as incredible as I wanted to be from the moment my
character entered the world. No more need for Rubicite Fever, no more
disillusionment with poor itemization, no more endless hours of raiding
the same content over and over. I had arrived! This was my Happy Place!
Eventually, I managed to fill up almost every character slot I had
available, on every server offered by CoH. Tons of originals, but I
also tried my hand at building X-Men lookalikes, and even a few "secret
identity" toons that I'd log in while my hero wasn't out on patrol,
just to hang out in Paragon City. While I honestly did not find the
gameplay compelling, I could still invent new superheroes for hours at
a time, fine-tuning them and then entering the game hoping that someone
would be holding another costume contest.
Another costume contest
in City of Heroes
They were happening all the time in the lowbie areas. And I adored not
only participating, but simply the fact that they existed! Here,
finally, was not only a game that embraced creativity and encouraged
you to craft your own unique look, but a community that had taken up
the mantel of rewarding those that stood head-and-shoulders above the
generic, poorly-crafted or outright lazy costumes that others might
come up with. I won quite a few of these contests, and relished the
solid recognition for my creative efforts and keen eye for esthetic
At the same time that I was enjoying my time as a spandex-clad
supermodel, a group of friends that I'd previously played EQ with
convinced me to try out Anarchy
Online. To be honest, I don't even
recall what character creation was like, which probably speaks volumes
about its unimpressive features at the time. For the longest time, I
only played this game for the sake of teaming up with these longtime
online companions, and I enjoyed running missions alongside them and
finally being able to immerse myself in a high tech sci-fi world,
instead of yet another realm of elves and magic.
I didn't do a lot of exploring on my own in AO. COH was my creative
outlet and I only logged into AO when I knew my buddies would be
online. I never stepped outside of this comfort bubble to discover on
my own the feature that would change my entire outlook on the game. One
of my old EQ buddies that'd camped for Rubicite with me so many years
prior had to take me by the hand and walk me through the front door of
a civilian clothing store. I had no idea they existed! Here I was
mucking around in a full suit of heavy armor that I had to install
special implants just to equip, and I could've been in a suit all this
From then on, I eschewed all of the complicated buffs and
implants necessary to get my armor equipped and stuck with gear I could
easily don and remove at a moment's notice, and preferred to spend my
time roaming the streets of Omni City in slick new duds. I'd also
started logging on and hanging out at the clubs they had in-game, even
at times when they were populated only by NPCs. Even when there was
nobody around to check out how cool I looked, it was still important to
me that I looked great.
It was around this same time, probably inspired by all of my
people-watching during COH costume contests and my time hanging out at
the AO dance clubs, that my focus began to shift from just being
another fish in the vast sea of MMOG subscribers, into actively seeking
to understand more about the inner workings of the industry. And the
trend that obviously interested me the most was examining why so many
players like me felt the need to always look our best in a completely
virtual environment. This question led me to take a broader look at the
industry as a whole, and develop a series of theories and
generalizations on character customization concepts and how they affect
not just the visual enjoyment of your own avatar, but also subscription
longevity and community interactions across each game's entire
Let's go back to WoW, for example. This game has established dominance
based largely on the vast amount of content that it offers, much
of which dwells at the "end-game" levels where players are expected to
repeat the same content time after time in order to obtain their next
great piece of gear. This gear, again, which not only advances them
stat-wise and performance-wise, but also allows them to usually appear
different. Grander, more impressive, more "uber."
Imagine for a moment if WoW allowed all players to assign their own
outward appearance at the time of creation in the same manner that
games like COH and Champions
Online do. Without the incentive to
improve upon their outward appearance, would as many hardcore raiders
exist? Without being able to show off their awesomness by standing out
from the crowds, would uber guilds run the same content five, six or
seven times a week in hopes of obtaining that one last coveted piece of
shiny merely for the stat upgrade, when they already look exactly as
they wish? I theorize that they would not. At least not quite to the
degree that currently exists.
You can look this cool
on day one in Champions Online.
You see, on the far other end of the spectrum, we have games that allow
that very thing - look as awesome as you'll ever look from the moment
you enter the world. In worlds like Champions Online, your avatar's
shape and appearance never changes unless you choose to modify it by
hand. COH got by for quite a long time with barely any end-game
content, and while this was frequently mentioned in reviews and
criticisms of the game, the bulk of players didn't seem to care. After
all, what's the incentive to strike out and defeat the end-game
content? In a game where loot is only numbers and icons, far fewer
gamers convene to bash their head against difficult content. The
perceived ratio of risk-to-reward is too out of balance to warrant the
same type of grind that is present in other MMOGs like WoW.
And to be perfectly frank, as vile as it may seem to some gamers, MMOGs
need gamers to get addicted to repeating the same end-game content on
an almost-endless basis in order to maintain high subscription numbers.
It is this repetitive nature that keeps so many subscribed to these
games long after they would've thrown in the towel on another. Very
rarely do we gamers subscribe to a game solely for interaction with our
fellow gamers, or in order to craft another widget out of stray
doohickies that somebody sent us. We're here to explore the content
that's being offered to us! Even if it's the same content that we saw
last week, it's more exciting than paying $15 per month to stare at a
chat box. As a result, even the folks that get a kick out of designing
incredible costumes will eventually move on to a game that offers more
As the industry continues to evolve, new combinations of these two
extremes have begun to emerge. The most noteworthy, in my opinion, is
the system of character customization introduced in SOE's style="font-style: italic;">DC Universe
Online. This title is breaking down MMOG stereotypes in
categories, and character customization is no exception. In this title,
you're given a multitude of options to fine-tune about your avatar's
appearance at the time of creation. But although the options are quite
varied, they still pale in comparison to the total number of
customization options available in the game. All the rest of these
styles must be unlocked by obtaining new equipment pieces and new
On Right: Uber
This unique combination of a versatile full-body customization at the
time of creation, and a visual progression scheme based on collection
and exploration, is likely to get a lot of attention by folks all
across the MMOG industry. It comes close to scratching the itch of
folks that just love to create new characters with unique looks, while
at the same time addressing the needs of progressionists and achievers
that want their hard work to be reflected in their outward appearances.
You'll always be able to tell a low-level toon from an uber-toon, but
neither will look like a scrubby little newb wearing rags and sandals.
It's going to take some time to see if DCUO's gamble of balancing these
two extremes pays off in the long run. But I can tell you this much -
they've hooked this vain gamer. I won't be tied down to the next
iteration of Rubicite Fever, or suffer the disappointment of having
nothing to look forward to after creating my avatar.
what about you? Do you care how your avatar looks in-game,
it at least play some part in your overall progression and dedication
to the game? Does it matter whether or not you're another doppelganger
in an army of clones, or a beautiful and unique snowflake? I want to
hear your stories, whether they're as simple as clicking the "random"
button until you can log in and kill rats, or if you're the type to
spend hours upon hours customizing every fine detail of your outward
appearance. And which games stand out as the best examples of
customization in this industry?