The Importance of Character Customization
I’ve been thinking about character customization and why it’s important, and why it’s of varying importance depending on who you talk to. One of the games I’m playing a fair amount of right now is Baldur’s Gate 3, which has fairly robust customization options, and another I’ve been playing is Dragon Age Inquisition because the Blizzard Watch Discord has been doing a play-along of that title, which I already had. DAI has some issues with its customization options — it’s a six year old game, after all — but you can get pretty deep into exactly what you want that character to look like, and Baldur’s Gate 3 is pretty advanced.
I bring this up because for some players, that kind of control over their character’s appearance is very helpful to their emotional investment in the game — and for some players, it isn’t. Some players never really look at their character — they get an above the shoulder view from behind and are more interested in the look of the monsters and the world surrounding them. I think it’s important to recognize that viewpoint, which as long as the character is ‘good enough’ they’re happy with it because they view the character less as something to identify with or play as, and more as a vehicle through which to encounter the environment and play the game.
When appearance does matter
Neither approach is wrong, but it’s worth spending the time to reconcile them. I’m an example of a player who began gameplay in World of Warcraft very much the latter. I barely even looked at my character — I deliberately paid more attention to things like stats than appearance. I’m the guy who infamously said that I didn’t see the point of transmog when it was introduced to the game during Cataclysm. And while it has become a joke that whatever new option or feature players want will ‘cost us a raid tier’ — and we know full well that World of Warcraft is a very sophisticated game and the same people who work on raids aren’t the ones working on things like new options for character appearances or transmog — there is still truth in the idea that development resources are finite. We can’t literally have everything we want all the time all at once.
We didn’t get transmog originally in the shape we have it today. The current interface — the options for legendaries and artifacts — was developed over time, built onto an existing system. Clearly, the original character appearance options for World of Warcraft weren’t nearly so robust as what we’ve gotten with the Shadowlands pre-patch. So the idea that what we have now isn’t enough may seem ungrateful, when what we have just received is so very much an improvement. It’s fantastic. I’m playing characters in WoW now that I never would have enjoyed thanks to what’s been added.
Part of this is due to the fact that World of Warcraft provides us with more options to see our characters than it did previously. In-game rendered cutscenes/cinematics are a brilliant innovation that have made our characters present during big storytelling moments in a way they couldn’t be before. Now that you can see your character up next to Anduin or Magni or Baine Bloodhoof during an important event, you want to see them — and you want the way they appear, their armor, weapons and even their faces to reflect something about the way you see them.
The story in our heads, now on the screen
For me this was a very long time in coming. WoW was a game where I mostly socialized — I would tank dungeons for others, or log on to tank a world boss for my guild. I didn’t play WoW for me. I played it for my wife, for my friends, for other people. That’s not a bad way to play the game — a community focus like that helps make group content viable, after all. My character was so unimportant to me that when my guild needed me to race change to push my character’s uncrittable state up to the point where we could do heroic Anub in Trial of the Crusader, I did it without thinking about it — my character’s silhouette, his appearance meant almost nothing to me.
Because the truth is, I’d always chased certain appearances. I hunted for Ashkandi for years, even though transmog wasn’t a thing yet and I just kept it in the bank next to my Sulfuras. I’d been perversely proud of my ridiculous clown suits, I was always on the cusp of allowing myself to care about the character as something more than a delivery system for gameplay. Because as time went by — as new expansions came out, as all the gear I collected became useless and I could only wear it when I played dress up in a city, I began to realize the treadmill was real. Once I had that realization, I began to think about my character as my character, as something separate from myself, and I realized I enjoyed playing that character.
Not everybody feels this way, and that’s not bad. But the benefit of character customization still applies to players who don’t particularly care about their character’s appearance, because it gives them the option in case they ever do — if you go from the character who only cares about stats to the character who spends hours hunting for that one perfect drop, it’ll be there waiting for you. If you one day wake up and realize you want a Dwarf with face tattoos? Now you can have them.
This feature gives old content new life
Another reason that character customization is a benefit to everyone is that it doesn’t add character power. It doesn’t make you stronger, and so, it’s fairly immune to things like level squishes, item squishes, talent changes, or all the other vagaries of gameplay over the years. Transmog and face scars don’t need to get nerfed. They won’t be here for an expansion and then gone when the next one requires us to go back to mere superheroes from the near-demigods we’ve become by the end of the previous expansion.
There’s something I find astonishingly compelling about matching my Night Elf to the story she’s gone through — giving her the scars and the tangled hair and the ruined eye that make the most sense for a survivor of Teldrassil. My Orc has been a lot more interesting to me since I got the chance to really make her feel like a survivor who grew up in Orgrimmar, who embraced a heritage she was separated from and who fights for her people, right or wrong. These options make it possible to take your headcanon and etch it onto the canvas of the game in a small but deliberate way. They make the character something you can more easily inhabit.
I hope Blizzard keeps developing more options for characters. Use transmog as the model — listen to player feedback. There’s a hairstyle that Orcs have that I want for my Night Elf, a wicked undercut with a long ponytail that looks absolutely savage. Meanwhile, my Orc would definitely enjoy some more scar options, and I think Humans still just need a lot more — just a lot more of everything.
Speaking as the guy who used to not care what mismatched junk I wore and who covered up his face at every opportunity, where we are right now is amazing, but it’s not the finish line. It’s just the starting point.
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