A tale of two amazing MMO character creators

Let me ask you a question: When is the last time that you created a new character in an MMO and felt, by the end of the character creation process, that you had a firm grasp on who that character was beyond superficial looks and combat prowess? Almost never, right?

If you have ever played a good pen-and-paper RPG, that is certainly not the case when you whip up a new character. You know a name, a backstory, a list of feats and weaknesses, native languages, personalities, and the like. It’s part of playing the role of that character, that you need more than just hit points, bust size, and damage output to partake in the game. When I was a kid, I always loved pouring over PnP RPG manuals to dream up an army of characters, each with their own unique place in the world.

Some single-player CRPGs still carry forth this legacy. Some actually give a damn about making an involved character creator process that gives the players lots of options and ways to customize a character so that, from the first minute of the game onward, he or she has a good grasp on who that character is.

MMOs? MMOs have largely given up on this. Character creation is boiled down to “pick a faction, pick a class, pick a race, pick a look.” We might laud them for having MANY classes or SEVERAL look options, but there isn’t a lot of width there.

Yet I can point to two strong examples of very different fantasy MMOs that nevertheless put a premium on establishing deep characters inside the creator itself rather than hours later in the game. The first would be Guild Wars 2, which astounds me today as it did nearly a decade ago with a 10-step (!) process to make characters.

Sure, some of those steps are pretty standard — look, class, race — but others help establish the outline of a backstory and seed future narrative events in the first part of the game. You pick choices that illustrate the personality and history of your character, such as the god you worship or your greatest ambition. You even select your character’s predominant personality trait, such as charm or deceit. These choices are often limited, but they’re immersive and often have some impact in the game down the road. I’ve always loved it, and by step 10, I feel like I am far more connected to my character than I am in other games.

The other game I want to praise is perhaps less-known, especially for this feature, but no less robust. Villagers and Heroes bowled me over the first time I went through its character creator. It’s apparent that a lot of love went into this part of the game, as the choices you make are not only written up as a multi-paragraph biography, but a narrator asks you questions and talks about your picks.

You can choose things such as your place of origin and pick a starting gear set. Not only do you select your combat role but also your village role — what gathering or crafting skills you have and what house you want. A game that gives me a house out of the gate? Get out of here!
I feel that the character creator is a lost art in MMORPGs. I don’t just want to pour over what I look like, I want to agonize over choices of who my character is and what motivates them. I want the game to recognize and respond to that. Maybe it’s a silly thing to champion, but it matters to me.

4 thoughts on “A tale of two amazing MMO character creators

  1. C. T. Murphy November 20, 2019 / 9:42 am

    I agree with you. I wouldn’t call it a lost art though since no one seems to intend anything by a character creator other than “get in the game quick”. I miss simple things like choosing your starting city, picking a religion, or even doing a customized loadout of skills (in UO).

    Heck, I even miss having that text box when your character was inspected where you had space to write a background if you wanted. Sure, few people used it, but that matters less than the intent it signals by existing in the first place.

    There are plenty of ways the modern approach could incorporate old school design without sacrificing much. A simple question like, “Which weapon does your Paladin prefer?” could do little more than start you with that weapon, for instance. Like so many things in current MMO design though, it all requires a return to focusing on smaller details, building worlds, and getting away from the far more profitable “arcade” style approach to things. It can be done, but its about finding the right balance, the right market, and the right execution.

  2. Whoom November 20, 2019 / 10:07 am

    I think the saddest part of the GW2 character creator is that most of the cool information is just tossed by the game after those first few quests in the main storyline.

  3. bhagpuss November 20, 2019 / 10:46 am

    I could scarcely disagree more. I always found the preparatory writing of a background for pencil and paper characters to be superficial verging on fatuous. I’m extremely glad that self-indulgent trope was largely left on the table by video game developers.

    In both tabletop and online rpgs, characters need to be played to reveal their personalities. They become what they’ve done, just as we all do. Whatever they notionally did before we, the players, appeared to look over their shoulders or out through their eyes is supremely irrelevant.

    As for GW2, I loathe that creation process. I posted my distaste for it even before the game launched and nothing has changed in the seven and a half years since then. The only good thing about it is that it has no effect or resonance within the game itself. It’s just a pure waste of a few seconds and half a dozen mouse clicks.

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