Character Building

Progress? Character customization screens from Fallout 2 (top) and Mass Effect 3 (bottom)

Yesterday, Azuriel wrote an excellent post in which he responded to some of the current backlash going on regarding soling and solo-centric content in MMOs.  It’s an interesting argument, especially the “show and tell” element, and I encourage you to read it.

As with all good posts, it got me thinking on a tangent — specifically, how utterly lackluster modern single-player RPGs are in regards to their combat and character building systems.  Azuriel made the point that they don’t really have to be as deep as MMOs, because the time spent in the game will be quite limited in comparison.

Several of the newer RPGs I’ve played in the past year felt extremely basic in comparison to what I’m used to in an MMO.  Dragon Age II, Mass Effect 3, Skyrim, even Diablo III — all have some measure of character-building, but it feels like a token effort in comparison to the legacy of the single-player RPG genre that came before.  The stats are swept under the rug, the choices are made with BIG BOXES AND SIMPLE NUMBERS that convey the message that you’re not to be trusted with complex decisions, and the talent trees or class paths are a mere handful of steps from beginning to end.  Mass Effect 3, in particular, could have just chucked the entire character-building system and been just fine (and in fact the game does allow you to play in a mode that doesn’t require any combat).

They’re great games, for the most part.  They tell wonderful stories, have engaging cinematics, and are action-heavy.  And yet one of the most enjoyable parts of any RPG — online or offline — has been dumbed down to such a basic level that it’s no longer enjoyable to spend any time building up my character.  The system feels like a vestigial tail that’s there to justify the “RPG” moniker, instead of dropping it and revealing itself to be an action-shooter-platformer like these games apparently want to be.

I love, love, love building up a good RPG character.  It’s always been one of the greatest attractions that the genre’s ever had for me.  I used to pour over RPG sourcebooks just to look at all of the character-building options and imagine what I’d make.  When 1988’s Wasteland came out, I agonized for hours how I wanted to build my team and what skills I would take.  Likewise with Baldur’s Gate II, Fallout 2, Arcanum, and scores of others.  Even my Final Fantasy journeys were made more exciting because of the depth of the character building systems.  Engaging in this builds a connection between you and your character — you’re a vital part of their development and choices.

Yet somewhere along the line, the complexity and detail of character building was inherited by MMOs and forsaken by single-player titles, which is why I vastly prefer MMOs (not the only reason, but one of).  I’m not just building up characters for a short 50-hour stint; I’m building them up for an epic journey spanning months and even years.  There’s always so much to attain, to pursue, and to choose when it comes to my character’s growth that I’m rarely bored.

I vividly while not proudly remember spending many walks back in 2004 and 2005 planning out the lives of my World of Warcraft characters (this was back when hitting 40 was a huge game-changing event for you that included your first mount and first 31-point talent).  City of Heroes’ main draw to me was always the powerset choices to be made and how my character would gradually grow in abilities and strength.  And while I might bemoan how top-heavy LOTRO’s features have become, I’ll still take that complexity over Commander Shepherd trying to decide between shotguns and pistols while puzzling over tying her shoes.

It’s this complexity and depth that makes sticking with a character for a long journey fun and rewarding.  It’s why these characters often feel more alive to us than those of long-dead games that existed for a brief flash.  It’s why any time a new game is announced, the first thing I want to know is just how much I can customize and tweak when it comes to my character.

So while some may elect to lavish praise upon single-player titles, keep in mind that there are plenty of reasons to be praising MMOs for different reasons.

15 thoughts on “Character Building

  1. Rkik May 24, 2012 / 12:13 pm

    I agree, but one thing I dislike is building a character in a vacuum. I went back to play KOTOR a few weeks ago, and I had forgotten how detailed the character creation is in that game. I started building a Scoundrel with this grand plan to be a smooth talking hacker with an awesome pistol. Sadly when I started playing, I realized that I was terrible in combat and things just weren’t fun.
    I ended up starting over with a much simpler Soldier character and relied on my companions to help with the rest.

    The issue was that I had no idea what I was doing. There wasn’t any info provided by the game to say that building my character this way would make the game incredibly difficult. It’s not like a pen and paper RPG where the DM can tune things to the level of the players.

    As much as I enjoy designing a fun character, I like it when a video game makes the decisions early, when I have no clue what I’m doing, and I can grow the character as I figure out how things in the game work.

  2. Ocho May 24, 2012 / 12:31 pm

    With a very complex system, there’s usually only a handful of choices that turn out the best character, which leads to an illusion of choice. Hence why character “builds” are so popular. If you don’t use a “build”, you’re purposefully making yourself weaker. Honestly, I don’t know where to draw that line. With simplified builds, like ME3, you drop the illusion, but don’t feel as attached to your character, and the game is easier to balance. With complex builds, you become more attached, but with greater chance to end up with something non-optimal, and a more difficult to balance game.
    Personally, I prefer a more complex system as I enjoy a deeper character, but just wish that one wouldn’t be derided for choosing a non-optimal build (like what happened to me in WoW).

  3. postal1 May 24, 2012 / 12:31 pm

    I think this is why The Secret World is going to do so well. You can’t change your stats so much (like the old days of Fallout2) but there is so many interesting ways of working with your character’s skillsets.

  4. Tesh May 24, 2012 / 1:16 pm

    For what it’s worth, there’s still some great character building in single player games, especially tactical ones. I’ve been playing PSP games lately, and it’s a blast building my loadout of skills in Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, making my team interesting in Jeanne D’Arc, Final Fantasy: Crisis Core looks like it has good customization, and then I’m looking forward to diving into Final Fantasy Tactics again. (Yes, an oldie, so maybe not all that relevant.) Oh, and the Disgaea games have a stupidly huge amount of customization and growth potential.

    Maybe the big tentpole “cinematic” RPGs are slacking, but they aren’t the only games in town.

  5. biophazer242 May 24, 2012 / 1:18 pm

    I like to believe things work in cycles. I know you and I are just about the same age Syp and both grew up on those now ‘old school’ RPGs that seem to have been abandoned for a stream lined approach by most studios. Dragon Age was such a throwback experience for me as a gamer when it came out, and the endless amounts of mods made me think back to the days of Neverwinter Nights, just countless hours of fun. DA2 was such a let down. They crafted a wonderful viewing experience, but not one that I enjoyed playing as I felt almost now connection or choice in my character.

    Now we are starting to see some of those old formulas work themselves back into games but by the hands of smaller studios. Legend of Grimrock, Xenonaughts, Shadowrun, Wasteland 2. All of them take the more detailed and involved approach to gameplay. Time has shown once a void is created someone or something will come along to fill it.

  6. Moon Monster May 24, 2012 / 5:22 pm

    Yeah, except every time I leveled up in ME3 I had an interesting decision to make about what improvements would help me now, and what builds towards what I want in the future. When I level up in Fallout I just say +guns +a few social skills and move on with life.

    Lots of numbers does not mean complex decisions.

  7. Void May 25, 2012 / 8:53 am

    I actually like the trend in single player RPGs at the moment. While not all advancement systems are executed well, it seems like the developers are trying to give players the meaningful decisions without all the filler.

    Practically it means that I have to spend less time thinking about which stat to put points into and I get more time playing the game. It also helps keep players from crippling their characters by making bad decisions. There’s nothing worse than getting 15 hours into a game only to realize that you can’t continue because you’ve been building your character wrong.

    I see where you’re coming from, but I respectfully disagree.

  8. Gina May 25, 2012 / 3:22 pm

    I’m kind of sad that they redid the whole skill tree thing for Diablo 3. What I loved most was running around spamming AoE’s with my Sorceress. (So sue me, I’m easily amused.) But now they’ve added cooldowns and it seems that there are less skills to choose from.

  9. camazotz May 29, 2012 / 5:53 pm

    Although there are some modern single player RPGs that do trend to “simple on-rails advancement” or something like that, the truth is that the scale of complexity/options is still there, but it’s skewed toward a different range of features, and its been designed specifically to offer up rewards with every choice. In Mass Effect 3, for example, you have a fairly narrow range of options for Shepard, but you’re also leveling your companion characters, modifying weapons, armor, and (if you’re engaged in the full experience) leveling up your multi-player characters. You’re unlocking/finding/earning all sorts of items, but the range of options is designed primarily and specifically only to reward you for your choice; this is not a mechanical approach that favors system mastery. I think ME1 still had features that rewarded system mastery to a certain extent, and it’s same range of options was effectively more complex than what ME3 has evolved or transformed into. On the one hand I really wish it had more complex and role-play focused options. On the other hand, I have a young child and a demanding job….at the end of the day, I appreciate that I can sit down and get an hour or two in of a game like ME3 without having to spend half that time speculating about my choices; I know that anything I choose will be useful to me, ultimately. For better or worse, developers have been recording the metrics, and I suspect that the focus of most players lies within that narrow range of “choices, but always good” and considerably fewer have favored the “many choices, not always good, play for system mastery” types. But then again, Dark Souls and the like seem to be bucking that trend. There is a demand for hard core and choice-rich gaming in our RPGs (and I’d certainly like to experience such when I have enough time to properly enjoy it….ah, the good old pre fatherhood days…) but maybe AAA titles aren’t going to be the source of the scratch for that itch.

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