Lifetap #5 - The Great Character Creation Conundrum

Posted Fri, Dec 13, 2013 by Sardu

Lifetap MMO Daily

Welcome to the 5th Edition of Lifetap

Searving up steaming piles of MMO awesome all week long

Over the years we’ve seen some sweeping changes to core systems and mechanics in MMOs. While I’d be reluctant to say that no stone has been left unturned, some of the biggest and most obvious aspects of the genre have definitely been given plenty of love.

  • Combat has evolved into something far more akin to action gaming
  • Healing has gone under the microscope in an attempt to make that archetype or role more interesting to play. GW2 even went so far as to nuke the concept of primary healing professions entirely.
  • Quest systems have gone public, and game worlds are far less static than they once were
  • Guild systems are beginning to account for the idea of characters belong to more than a single in-game social circle, mirroring how we interact with other users on social networks
  • Business models run a massive spectrum from the truly free, to the absurdly pricy buy-ins of crowd funding, and everything in between
  • Cosmetic armor or costume systems have become the norm, as have armor previews

That list could easily go on for a very long time. But all of the above – the combat, social, cosmetic, questing, and persistence – all of it means nothing if you don’t help gamers make informed class decisions during character creation.

The thing is, I’ve yet to see a single game where the issue is properly addressed. The closest I’ve seen to an attempted solution in recent years is the intro for The Secret World where you’re able to equip each of the available weapons to get a feel for where you’d prefer to start out. However, as a skill-based game that initial selection matters far less in the grand scheme of things since you can unlock all available options over time.

Developers have also somewhat aggressively moved into self-hosted solutions for things originally handled by fan and community sites for their games. For example, long before there was a WoW Armory, Magelo allowed gamers to fill out online character profiles. Yet when it comes to detailed information about the available classes, even the most robust official game sites offer little more than marketing fluff on their class pages.

The Matrix - Blue Pill Red Pill

Try Before You Buy

I commend SOE for testing the waters on the concept of trying out a class before making a long-term commitment via the Legendary Characters introduced this fall in EverQuest II. The only issue there is that it still fails to address things from the new player perspective starting fresh with their first character.

If you think about it, many of the systems mentioned above that have seen some of the most widespread changes have drawn heavy inspiration from other real-world models. The notion of trying before buying also saturates our daily lives when it comes to financial decisions that will stick with us for longer periods.

  • We tour homes and apartments before buying or signing a lease
  • We test drive vehicles
  • We try on shoes or clothing to insure a proper fit
  • We often have access to game demos or betas before committing to a full purchase
  • We listen to previews of new music before purchasing songs or full albums (well, those of us who don’t steal music on the web do anyway)

The model that class selection most closely mirrors at present is selecting a major course of study at the university level. You can research and read up on your various options, and even sit down with staff members to discuss those options before committing.

What happens if you change your mind after a couple of semesters? Well, you can always change majors, but typically take a financial hit in the process for any credits that don’t neatly transfer in the process. That’s not all that different than rolling a character, playing for 20 levels, and then deciding to roll a new character.

File Under Crazy Design Ideas: MMOs need a “try before you buy” feature during character creation. The perfect tutorial would not only introduce you to your character’s place in an unexplored world, but would allow also you to get a feel for what your actual options are.

It’s a shame that EverQuest II completely did away with its original archetype system, as it was a major step in the right direction nearly a full decade ago. It definitely suffered from some serious issues, but rather than address them directly, the system was removed wholesale, much to my chagrin.

While it wasn’t a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination, it allowed me to do something that I feel is vitally important, yet lacking from class-based MMOs. If I knew I preferred playing casters, I could begin life as a Mage, and over time get a feel for what type of Mage I ultimately wanted to play. It was brilliant, forward thinking, and gave me a much better idea of exactly the type of caster I wanted to commit to for the remainder of my time with that character.

Instead of seeing meaningful iteration on the archetype concept, we’re basically stuck with the major decisions made during character creation, for better or worse.

Adventure Time Sir Slicer

Leaps of Faith

Back when I was in middle school, our guidance counselor asked us the quintessential question: what do you want to be when you grow up? My answer was pretty simple and straightforward, though vastly confusing to the cardigan-clad hairy beast of a counselor seated across from me. “A Transformer”, I replied. Who wouldn’t want to be a robot in disguise? It made perfect sense to my twelve year old brain at the time.

Could you imagine if you were stuck with that decision the way you are in an MMO’s character creation? I’ll tell you one thing; it would definitely make air travel an even bigger pain in the ass than it already is if I had to explain every single time that I’m a robot who turns into a vehicle, and loves nothing more than collecting energon cubes to take back to my home world, Cybertron. Unless, of course, I was already an airplane like Starscream. Which would totally rock.

But that takes me back to the heart of the issue: saying “I want to be a Transformer” is pretty much the same as saying “Warrior” or “Esper” or “Necromancer”. You honestly have no way of knowing what that really means, or what the life of that character is going to be like until you’ve taken it out for a test drive.

That wraps things up for today’s bone-rattling episode of Lifetap! Drop a comment below if you feel so inclined, or you can also do the whole social thing and follow my babble on Twitter and Facebook. I promise I won’t bite. Hard.

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Another incredibly positive reason for a game developer to utilize a "try before you by" mechanic is heightened anticipation and motivation to see the game through it's rough patches to it's full late-game glory.

I suppose it's significantly more complex in a MMORPG, but your article reminded me of the opening scenes of nearly any Need For Speed franchise game. Right in the very beginning you are thrust into a top tier vehicle with all kinds of mods, power, and ability to it.

You're in a narrated introduction where you get to experience the late-game power and entertainment very early on.

Not only does this give you incredible incentives for fully progressing through the game - but it also gives you a very good idea of what late game play looks like.

In so many current MMOs a lot of the game content is structured around players operating at (or near) their level cap. If you think about old EQ AA's - all that content was post-level cap (or very near the cap). PvP battlegrounds, PvE raiding, there are plenty of examples I can present.

I think an extremely interesting idea for an MMO game would be to put them in the hands of a (simplified) top tier character, perhaps even their own character they've just created having a future vision - where they get to move around, explore, and utilize some of the standard end-game abilities and functions of said class.

Sure it wouldn't completely eliminate the problems of selecting a class early on and then regretting it later - but it would at least mitigate it somewhat.

You could hop in your brand new toon and test drive them at full power (maybe with a very limited ability set - to reduce the complexity and confusion of getting all the top level abilities thrown at you from the start). Now instead of having invested hundreds of hours into a class/role/character you really don't enjoy after all - you've actually just spent 15-20 minutes, or maybe even an hour and you can scrap the choice and start over.

That is just one way that an MMO could help address this problematic issue with pre-defined class choice that everyone is usually forced to make at character creation. I'm sure there are many other ways to address the issue.

Good article - lots of interesting ways you can tackle the issue.

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