Unique Uniqueness is still Uniquely Unique

Barring the fact that “uniqueness” might not be a real word (it is), I’d like to briefly (for me) discuss what seems to me to be an unstoppable trend in today’s static MMO.

Ever in life are we striving to define ourselves as unique individuals. Some of us do that through things like stacking a single adjective in three different forms on top of itself in a blog title, while others do more practical things like following their dreams on a romantic vacation to Italy. The sense of identity is as important to each and every one of us as the blood flowing through our veins, if it wasn’t there then we wouldn’t be either. I think it’s important to consider how our identity transfers over into MMOs.

I bring this up because Roleplaying, at its core, is the assumption of a new identity for the sake of pleasure, and I don’t think that the static nature of MMOs today really allow for a sufficient enough expression of identity for the everyday gamer. Player housing is a step in the right direction, but everything is still stamped with the “Developer Stamp of Approval” and can only serve to represent an individual’s preference in the way they acquire and organize someone elses brainchildren.

This also overlaps into other areas such like player titles and rare gear. Every time I acquire a new piece of gear, especially one that has a rare chance to drop, I feel great. Every time I get a new title that I can show off by doing something difficult and/or obscure

The one thing that MMOs are doing right with respect to expressions of individuality is player naming and face/body customization (although this could use a lot of work to be really good, the technical whippidydoo would more than likely be expensive and time consuming). Surnames are even better because they let you develop your character on a deeper intellectual level. Now there are always problems with any system if you look at it in a context that it wasn’t intended to be viewed with, and nowhere do we see this more clearly than in characters named things like “Ibubblehearth” the paladin and “healzforfree” the cleric. The game is taken out of the context of a roleplaying game and put into the context of an MMO. I kind of made a mental leap there, but I think it’s fair to argue that MMOs aren’t necessarily designed solely as traditional RPGs so this naming “problem” isn’t really a problem at all, but rather a consequence of the social response to the genre not identifying itself strictly as a traditional RPG.

But so here I am with my legendary “First Blade of the Seventh Sun” and people now see my name as “Vulcar, Master of Elements” and I feel pretty cool. I walk into the bank at my local Wal-Mart city and I see another “First Blade” and two other mages with “Master of Elements” after their name. Any feelings of uniqueness are now shattered.

I can think of two equally legitimate ways to think about this situation:

1. Because everything in the world is static anything I can possibly acquire will inevitably be acquired by many other people. What my character looks like and is called is nothing more than a record of how good (and lucky in a lot of cases) I am at getting stuff. I’m not feeling the individuality vibe here, thinking like that makes me feel like one of a thousand mice all looking for cheese at the end of a maze, and I’m not even havin fun- I’m just hungry.

2. Individuality is expressed by which titles you choose to display and what gear you attempt to acquire. This mostly works for titles, except for the fact that some titles are invariably waycooler than others (I mean, “Wing Cutter” or “Warg-Foe”? Do you really have to ask?). But as I said, it mostlyworks for titles as long as there are plenty of them to pick from like in LOTRO. In every game there is a min/maxing feel to gear acquisition and if someone wanted to spend the time then they could rank every single piece of gear in the game for each and every one of your slots and you would always know what pieces were upgrades and what pieces were downgrades. There would be no excuse for equipping your cool looking robe if you had one that was twice as good, and once everyone that could use that twice as good robe had it you would all look the same. LOTRO also has a clothing dye and cosmetic outfit system so that you can appear to be infinitely cooler than you actually look in your poorly matching, although quite epic, gear.

I have to admit that the second option seems pretty good with those ideas implemented in LOTRO, but I didn’t write all of this just to agree with myself that there’s something out there that’s pretty darn near perfect so here it comes. What LOTRO does just isn’t good enough if you really want to give people a sense of individual uniqueness. What titles you can gain in the game make you more a part of “the group of people that did that dangerous and/or obscure thing” than “the individual that did such and such thing.” Is that bad? Not exactly, I’m sure it helps the sense of community in LOTRO sometimes because people can bond over the experience of acquiring that title, but it can’t always be about the whole. Sometimes you just have to be yourself. Even with the clothing dyes/cosmetic outfits every piece of gear has been designed by your developers, and while they may have some cool stuff you may have an idea of something that you think might look even cooler, but you’ll never see it because the developers never thought of it.

The primary argument in all of this is that for true individuality to be expressed in an MMO setting players need to be able to create content, and the world cannot remain static. Who really cares if you killed the “Grand Ogre Magi Krogg” if they could just go kill him (or a renamed but identical version of him) right now. Who really cares if you pried the fabled “Sword of a Thousand Kingdoms” from the hands of the great “War-Tyrant Balzor” if they could just go farm him for a few weeks to get the drop themselves? Your house may look nice, but I’ve seen that orc’s head in too many houses for me to think it’s cool anymore. It’s great that you’re known as the “Scourge of the Seas” but I saw twenty people yesterday known as the same thing!

Now letting players go off the deep end and have unrestrained power to customize would be ludicrous. Even in LOTRO you’d have too many “Llegolas Uvmrikwoods” popping up everywhere and things like “Ihaveabow letmeshowyou” would even crop up. Customized titles could be even worse, but things like designing chairs/tables and even the pattern for your wallpaper would help housing out a lot. Custom armor would help you to create the character you want other people to see you as- and, combat system allowing (maybe the biggest “if” ever), even let you create a piece of gear with stats that reflect how you want to play your character (there’s not much choice in how you play a class in most games, does anyone disagree?).

This is by no means a demand for more customization options in MMOs, but rather an exploration of how more customization options could potentially benefit the player’s experience. I just see that in their current format MMOs have an unavoidable lack of individual expression, but perhaps that is a good thing considering how much time people pour into these games already. 😛


16 Responses to “Unique Uniqueness is still Uniquely Unique”

  1. Ysharros Says:

    I’m a huge fan of more options in games in general, so I won’t disagree there.

    With respect to your point/example 2, though, I’d say that gear and titles are just one way of expressing individuality. I only use gear and titles as a very small expression of my individuality, but I’m also not competitive as far as that stuff go. For people who are, then having stuff nobody else has is both an expression for themselves and a competitive one-up on everyone else.

    I would much prefer it if we could get way, waaaaay more customisation options for face/body/hair than we do in any game right now. I know it’s almost impossible to provide enough options so that everyone can be a unique snowflake, but if you look at a game like Oblivion, it was possible to make a whole range of quite different-looking face types. The problem with that, actually two of them, is that a) you can make some spectacularly weird-looking people when you have that much range, and b) you often end up in the Uncanny Valley, where people look like people only noooot quite, and it’s very strange.

    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley )

    I could blather on, but my mum is visiting and my blathering time is sadly curtailed these days. 😉 Just didn’t want you to feel all unloved and unread after typing out 2000 words 😀

  2. Tesh Says:

    I worked on the Tiger Woods games, and the face sculptor there provided a large range of options. It did take a significant amount of dev time, though. It made some sense because we’d use cameras that show your character. You don’t get the same thing in an MMO. For all the protestations about “looking at a character’s rear all day”, I still have to ask: “why are you looking at your character, shouldn’t you be playing the game?”

    The only times I see my character’s face while playing an MMO is at the character creation and selection screens, and the occasional screenshot where I swing the camera around. The rest of the time, I’m too busy looking at things *other* than my avatar, and the only reason I use the third person camera is because it offers a wider field of view for spatial awareness.

    To be sure, I’m all for more options, I just don’t see faces as that important in an MMO. I’d not complain if the options were there, I just wouldn’t bother with them.

    As to the possibility of making a dent on the world and asserting your uniqueness that way, yes, I really would like that. Many of my articles deal with that in one way or another. The “everyone is super” cookie cutter mold works fine for an offline static game, but once you’re online in a persistent world, it’s a far cry from what really should be in these games.

    • Ysharros Says:

      Faces are only one part of avatars though, and you’re right, I’m sure it’s really hard to code in that many options. What I’ve noticed in recent years though is that there are plenty of ways to make oneself unique (or at least less uniform) in other ways — height, weight, musculature, hell you could probably even code for posture. And yet the trend in the last few years has been to REMOVE most of those options. In SWG you could at least make yourself short and tubby (or tall and tubby) with varying degrees of muscle — and while most people went for tallish/skinnyish, not everyone did and at least the option was there.

      Sadly it’s in the minority. Most other games I could name have no height slider, let alone a body mass slider or anything else *except* the freaking ubiquitous boob-size slider (/throttles rant before it gets started).

      Add to that the trend to have people define themselves almost exclusively by the gear they wear (WoW), and you end up with same-size same-shape same-clothes clones — it’s one of the things that eventually put me off WoW again. Not a major thing, to be sure, but a nagging thing.

      • Tesh Says:

        Character size (height and overall scale) is actually pretty tricky. You can’t just rescale the character’s skeleton; all of the animations would break. I’m still not sure how Guild Wars manages their variable height, but I suspect it’s a post processing trick. (Scaling applied *after* animations and such; purely code, so as to dodge the need for more art and animation assets.)

        Similarly, different postures would mean a whole new set of animations. You can’t just reuse a Troll animation on a Blood Elf. This also explains why most four legged beasties in WoW (or most other games) tend to animate the same way. Reusing skeletons and animation are even more important than reusing textures.

        (Yes, I spent a few years rigging and animating. Variations that affect animation are especially painful… which is probably why we get a lot of facial stuff and simple texture swapping.)

        …none of which is to say that it’s impossible, but I understand why the focus is on texture swapping and faces. It’s cheaper to produce.

        (Though an “appearance” tab in WoW is long overdue. The stormtrooper clone effect at the level cap is underwhelming.)

      • Ysharros Says:

        Aye, I know, EQ2 basically decided to go with a one size fits all for a given race because they have so many different races, the work of making armour fit and look right and all that crap was pretty huge.

        I’m just hoping someone will come up with a cool, relatively easy way to scale/smush that kind of stuff that can then be used in MMOs to come 😀

      • nugget Says:

        What I really, really miss about MUDs is the … customisation they make possible. Of course, they also give better writers better customisation, simply by virtue of being 😉 better writers, but hey.

        I haven’t MUDded ‘full-time’ as it were since I left my old MUD, and took up, then left WoW. But I have dipped a toe in here and there, randomly wandering around worlds from links on mudconnector.com, and one of the things that always hits me, when I fire up a MUD, ANY MUD, is…

        …wow, I feel like ME again. And not just the everyday me that most people would say is the ‘real’ nugget, but… any me I please. I can feel my personality ‘expanding’ again, squeeing, ‘FREEEEEEEEDOM!’ at the top of its squeaky little voice.

        I probably will go back to MUDding after I stop being so madly infatuated with Guild Wars’ combat system and design choices. Within its genre of graphical RPGs, I am utterly in love with GW. But I miss things about MUDs that graphics can’t seem (at this technological point) to easily supply.

        I miss the sheer *expressiveness* of text. How you can make it do… near anything you are capable of writing, even if it’s just a ‘special effect’ type echo. Sure, MMOs have text, but really, once you put those shiny graphics in front, no one really ‘see’s the text, because the imagination, to a certain extent, has been turned off.

        MUDs (and MOOs, MUSHes, whatever take your pick XD), for me, have always been much better at allowing players to *easily* express uniqueness and personality. They’re better at communicating emotions, especially emotions that you *wish* to communicate. Yes, Vent lets you hear the emotions of the player speaking, but unless the player is RPing (and I, for one, have never met anyone who RPs in Vent, YMMV), what you’re hearing is… the player.

        In MUDs, the IC/OOC line is much more solid for those who wish it to be solid. Hence the statement about emotions, tied to RP. Text (as of now) seems like a better vehicle for emotional content in general. I don’t remember where I read this, but I do remember thinking it brilliant. In a graphical world setting, you can tell if someone is close enough to shoot/punch/toast with a fireball hadoooouken! … but in a text environment, you can tell if they need a hug.

        Also, I don’t make ugly characters in MMOs, not because I don’t make ugly characters, but because (oddly enough) while I’m happy enough to accept ‘generic’ beauty in MMOs, if I am going to make my character ugly, I want them to be MY uniquely ugly snowflake. 😉

        In MUDs, I made ugly/inbetween-normal/gorgeous characters in a very balanced number. In MMOs, I make pretty girls. XD (And sometimes pretty boys, if I like the models.) One of my MUD friends that I’ve fallen out of touch with, but still remember very fondly, had a character description like this one: ‘An immensely overweight youth floats here, a few inches above the ground.’

        I have heard that Champions Online is amazingly customisable, a friend has showed me Aion’s creation process, and I’ve played around with CoH’s stuff myself. SL was too clunky for me when I tried it, didn’t like the interface. But for this nugget, none of those options could match what my friend did (his name was Crackerjack, not that it means anything lol), with a single line of text.

        Not to mention, text also gives the room for some really surreal wordplay and impressions. >.> I’m nugget because I sorta won some small player awards for <.<. RPing a McNugget. I know it sounds bizarre but… XD, and it stuck. Text, as a medium, also allows you to bring across other aspects, that once graphics come into it, become much more difficult. Examples: Scent and sound.

        One of the things that made Saruman so powerful in the LotR books was his *voice*. That gorgeous voice that made you want to agree with him and do whatever he said. In a text medium, you can do an approximation of such 'voices', and the readers will fill them in (if you do it right anyway XD). MMOs as they are right now leave no such options. I haven't tried voice changers but if my playing with Audacity is any indication… the effect is less than ideal.

        Additionally, many MUDs allow you to eventually rename/change the descriptions of your gear to whatever you'd like it to be, so you can actually put together wonderful 'themes' of what your character looks like, when someone well… looks at you. THIS is the kind of gear customisation that I really love. Yes, I like GWs gear mix-n-match and gear cap – love it really. But that's more of an ooOoh dollies! feeling. Not – the creation and projection of an image that is mine (or my character's depending).

        I know I've gone off on a bit of a deep-end tangent here since you guys are talking about MMOs and I'm raving about text-based worlds lol. But it just seems to me that in terms of ease of implementation, and the things I love about virtual worlds, graphical games just have such a long way to go, at least for me.

        =/ Tangentty Spammy Nugget is Sorry for Tangentty Spammy Spam 😦

      • jedioftheshire Says:

        Tangents can be useful- you’ve helped illustrate how MUDS are far superior to MMOs at letting players express their individuality. I think this is good evidence that MMOs should focus a little more on the issue since their predecessors have it down so nicely. Thanks for your comment and welcome to my blog 🙂

      • nugget Says:

        Something from what I’m reading elsewhere on the net (dealing with design, but it came to me that it was relevant to my irrelevant tangent here lol).

        “One of the great advantages of writing is that everybody does it, even if they do it badly. A text document is a truly agnostic medium, that everyone–absolutely everyone–has at least some ability to produce, interpret and modify. While a sketch, model or rendering can come down from on high as evidence of the designer’s vision, a written document is an approachable, modifiable entity.”

        Full article here:

        …but it might only be of interest to graphics and visual design folks

  3. jedioftheshire Says:

    Thanks for the quick comment Ysh, you help me feel loved in this readerless wasteland of the internet that is my blog. You too Tesh! Both of my readers have commented! What a great day! 😀

    I had never heard of the Uncanny Valley before though, thanks for the link- that’s an extremely interesting hypothesis! But you have a good point about the problems with face customization. I once made what, to me, seemed like the perfect orc face in Oblivion but when I changed the race the dimensions that seemed good for the orc made everyone look like twisted sub-human things straight from what I now know to be the Uncanny Valley.

    You’re also right in your comment about my 2nd point/paragraph. Everyone has their own uniquely perfect form of expression of individuality, and I only addressed a few ways that individual expression can be achieved. I’m sure that this is my own personal preferences showing through. My face is so frequently covered in WoW I’m not sure I could tell you what color my characters hair is anymore even. But so yes, I am all for more customization options, not just the ones I mentioned! The more the better in my opinion.

    Tesh: “why are you looking at your character, shouldn’t you be playing the game?”

    I agree. I think EverQuests 1st person camera is the best way to immersively play a game, but it seems to me that games have moved away from immersion and into the realm of eye-candy action games (In WoW your character does flips and spins in combat while you have to be able to watch and react to mobs in a 360 degree radius of yourself). In EQ I felt like I was the character, like in the Elder Scrolls games, but in WoW I feel very detatched- almost like the character is its own entity instead of a digital representation of myself. I don’t know if that’s common, I imagine it could be, but if it truly is then maybe someone should look into those implications a little more.

    • Ysharros Says:

      Noooo, don’t force me into first person mode. Some people adapt very well to it, but it only ends up making me nauseous. As I’ve said before on my own blog, I will *only* consider first person when the coding can approximate some sort of decent peripheral vision, because as it is now it’s anti-immersive for me. I feel far more part of the world when I see my character as part of the world.

      I understand the arguments about stuff being more immediate if you can’t see critters coming up behind you and whatnot, but I don’t play Silent-Hill type games and I only do combat when I’ve got nothing else to do (which doesn’t happen often 😉 ), so for me it’s not a particular issue.

      Ideally, I’d like to see games offer both a third-person view *and* a good, peripheral-vision-included first-person view. That way players could pick what they preferred, or even switch around depending on what they were doing at the time.

      • jedioftheshire Says:

        Hah! I have to admit that a lack of peripheral vision could be exremely frustrating, but the only true solution to that problem that I can see is 360 degree around-the-head monitors (or maybe just 180 degrees, but I like the idea of spinning my head around to check behind me(or maybe we just skip the crazy monitor idea and just go straight to VR helmets)).

        EverQuest definitely did not feel like silent hill to me though, you just have to be aware of where you’re looking. Now maybe that’s exactly what you meant, and I know some people that hated levitate back in the day because it made them sick to be in first person with it on. I just feel like the third person camera lets you settle into a pseudo-game where you are manipulating your AOE effects while gazing down, much like a god, upon the tool of destruction that is your character instead of assuming the role of Joe Schmoe the Grandiose Magus. Perhaps it is mostly just me though, if I’m the only one that cares then it doesn’t really matter.

        Letting people switch it up between third person and first person is a good idea in theory, but I don’t know how you could possibly balance your game to a point where one did not have a distinct advantage. Oh, and in EverQuest I often would hit the F-key that switched to third person perspective. The camera angles it cycled through were varied and usually you could find a good one. That let me watch my character- because I, too, enjoy seeing myself do stuff sometimes -but the importance of first-person view was preserved. It’s just a thought after all, first-person cameras tend to be more easily manipulated by the younger generation anyway, and I don’t think those are the people that MMOs should be designing for if it means leaving everyone else behind.

      • Ysharros Says:

        Which is why I prefer choice. From what I’ve seen over the years it’s pretty much a 50/50 split with some who distinctly prefer one mode over the other (1st or 3rd) and a bunch of people who don’t care one way or the other.

        Interesting that you say God-like view though — the first thing I do in combat is zoom IN, in fact, and my camera is almost always just above shoulder-height on my chars. I don’t think I could stand the top-down view (or even much of an angle beyond about 20%) unless it was one of the old-style isometric game views.

        Aside from balance/nausea issues though, I prefer 3rd person view because it lets me actually see the world. So many of these MMO worlds are very artistically accomplished these days, and I like to see my char as part of some of these greater vistas.

        It may depend to some extent on how people think or perceive the world in general. Dunno.

        What I meant by the Silent Hill comment was that the usual argument given for forcing first-person on folks is that it prevents you from seeing behind you, thus making it more suspenseful blah blah blah. The thing is, *I* don’t want to be forced to have my game suspenseful, it’s not why I play —

        — which ultimately boils back down to the old “Why do you play?” question, and the die-hard combat types (of which I’m not saying you’re one, but you know the type I mean) think that the only reason anyone would play would be the reason why *they* play. I play _least of all_ for the combat aspects of a game, and it still boggles my mind that some people keep telling me to get away from MMOs just because I don’t play for the same reasons they do.

        I’d better stop before I start ranting about intolerance — it’s not like it’s confined only to MMOs, heh. People have difficulty understanding or empathising with what isn’t them.

  4. Tesh Says:

    I’d love to have a three monitor setup to pick up peripheral vision. I still remember playing Mech simulator games (Earthsiege comes to mind, as well as MechWarrior 2) where you could use hotkeys or joystick switches to shift your view 90 degrees right or left to see what was out there. The cockpit first person view made sense for those games, and you really needed the other views for proper situational awareness. (Though a good radar goes a long way.) Privateer and Wing Commander games had the same thing.

    Morrowind was pretty much first person, and I never did get used to it, though. Diff’rent strokes and all that. (Different games have different expectations, too.)

    Going back to the uniqueness, though, here’s another tangent. Yes, player-generated stuff is flirting with disaster, but the Guild Wars cape system works pretty well. If you give players tools and let them express themselves with them that way, in a more constrained environment, you can still do a LOT for individuality. Also use the dye system and appearance tabs, and you’re sitting pretty. (Runes of Magic has a fun system where you can graft one item’s stats onto another, which is yet another interesting way to handle things.)

  5. jedioftheshire Says:

    Oh, I don’t like first person because it keeps you scared/worried, it just fits the way I feel that things ought to be seen. [insert something about how people think or perceive the world in general here]

    I also agree that dyes/outfit tabs/capes are good. I think there’s a lot more room that we should be exploring on the other side of the fence than what will soon be considered “normal.” Imagine a world where you get to create not only your tabards/capes patterns/shapes but go so far as to create your own armor style and mount barding. It wouldn’t have to go off the deep end, but letting people scale different parts of the item and add pre-approved enhancements (spikes, etchings, etc.) at pre-approved hardpoints on different weapon types seems to me like it would be simple enough to implement without letting things getting out of hand. I am aware that any such system would require extensive programming, but I think it could be worth it if executed well.

    • Ysharros Says:

      Ya, I can see some sort of system where you have multiple choice menus for how your armour looks — not everyone is an artist so it’s wise to provide choices, and besides if the developer provides the options, they at least have some control so that people aren’t making 20′ shoulder spikes or something. Easier all round, not entirely impossible even now, and a great way for people to express themselves even if underneath the bling we’re all wearing Chest of Ubertude 003.

      Excellent discussion 😀

    • jedioftheshire Says:

      Multiple choice menus is a great idea, but I was actually thinking about LETTING the artist in people express themselves in the game as well. That could be achieved with a system much like SPORE’s where you have premade shapes you can place on predetermined hard points- and there’s a restriction on the number of additional pieces you can add to armor.

      As always it’s about giving the player options, not forcing them to be an artist to look unique.

      It IS a good discussion! I’m happy 🙂

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