Friday, December 07, 2007
How important is an avatar?
If you play EVE Online, all you ever see of the character you play is a portrait, and the ship he is flying. Pirates of the Burning Sea in its early development was like that, but later the developers decided that they need to have players controlling avatars, including the ability of using that avatar in swashbuckling combat. It has been widely remarked that the avatar combat isn't quite as good as the ship combat in PotBS. But on the other hand people keep blogging about character creation in PotBS. Character creation is considered important, and was for example one of the main selling points of City of Heroes. So how important is it for a MMORPG to have an avatar and to have lots of options in dressing up your character?
One school of thought is that how your avatar looks isn't important, the gameplay is. Back in the days where I hung out at Grimwell.com we used to call the dressing-up avatars part of the game "Barbie Online", but that was before Mattel actually created a Barbie Online virtual world. While I didn't play EVE Online very long, the fact that I didn't have an avatar played absolutely no role in my decision to quit that game. In World of Warcraft I normally choose equipment based on stats, not on looks, although sometimes very bad looking gear annoys me, or good looking gear pleases me.
On the other side there is a notion that the more casual a player is, the more important the look of his avatar becomes. Having avatars and dressing-up options becomes part of the drive to make a game more casual player friendly. Of the short list of features announced for the next World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, one was "Customizable hair styles and additional dances for new and existing characters". Something I would never have put on a list of the top 10 features of a new expansion, but apparently Blizzard thought otherwise.
Customization of avatars has it pitfalls. Games like City of Heroes or Pirates of the Burning Sea let you choose the look of your character at the start, and unless you go to a tailor shop to change the look, this is how you will look for the rest of your virtual life. In games like World of Warcraft you create a character in basic dress, but every piece of gear you equip changes your look. So if you had epic adventures and killed mighty boss mobs, that will be visible to everyone in the look of your avatar. Both methods can go wrong. If you choose your look yourself, you have the option of creating a look that doesn't really go well with the game, Kill Ten Rats has this wonderful example. In City of Heroes the devs had to remove colors from the palette that looked flesh-colored, because some people insisted on making nude looking avatars. But if your look is determined by your loot, you're desire to wear something good looking might clash with your desire to wear something with good stats for your class. My troll warrior in WoW looks plain stupid in most plate helmets, and I'd love to wear lets say a hat instead, but of course hats only exist for cloth / leather wearers. One of the best compromises is probably Everquest 2, where you have two paper dolls: the default one where you put your gear that gives you stats, and a "for looks" one, where you can override the look of your real gear by putting something better looking on this second paper doll. But then that system has been criticized for allowing one class to look like another, which can be relevant in PvP.
So how important is an avatar and the ability to dress him up to you? Would you rather choose your clothes at the start of the game, or do you prefer your equipped gear to determine your look? Would a game not having an avatar deter you from playing it?