Tobold's Blog
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Dragon Age: Faces & Facebooks

What would you say if you logged into the MMORPG of your choice and found that your character's nose had grown by 1 cm due to a bug? Probably nothing, in fact you'd be likely to not even notice. In third-person view the camera is behind your character most of the time, and even if you turn it around, it's probably too far away for you to notice minor facial detail. In first-person view theoretically your nose should be displayed at the bottom of the screen, but in reality isn't, so you can't see it at all. So why does the Dragon Age Character Creator, which Bioware just released ahead of the game, would need *nine* sliders just for the nose of your character?

The answer to the question is that in fact the program isn't a character creator at all, it is a thinly disguised face generator. And as face generator it is an excellent one. You have far more face generation options in Dragon Age Origins than you have in The Sims 3, or any other character generator I remember.

But as a character generator, the program is a disappointment. Not just because it doesn't deliver on it's ESRB label promising "Blood, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content". But because outside of face creation, the character generator is extremely weak. For example you can't modify your character's body at all, not it's height, not it's stature, not even the ever popular boob size of female characters.

Of your 79 attribute points you can only distribute 5, the other 74 are preset according to your class. On the bright side the attribute system is very intuitive, borrowing heavily from D&D, so at least you have a good idea how to distribute the points. There are screens for skills and talents, but you can't set anything at all on those. Probably the nicest feature of the character creator is the "portrait", where you can determine the camera angle, position, background, and even facial expression of your character in his portrait.

And then you can upload your character's face to Bioware's new social network, a facebook for game avatars so to say. I haven't quite understood what the purpose of that would be. Unlike the real Facebook, you are unlikely to be able to find your friends on the Bioware social network, as they will be present only under some character name, not their real name. I couldn't even choose "Tobold" as by Bioware social network name, so nobody will ever find *me* there. But well, I don't really "get" social networks anyway, I'm probably the wrong generation for that.

So all in all, as long as you regard it purely as a face generator, and if maybe you are interested in the social network for the game, the Dragon Age Origins character generator is okay. People looking for something to rival a costume creator in a superhero MMORPG are in for a disappointment. I sure hope the game itself uses your created face heavily in various cutscenes, because otherwise I don't see the use of it. Spinks thinks that choices about your character are better taken somewhat later in the game, and not before you get to play it, and maybe she has a point there.
Hopefully this doesn't end up like Eve's character creator, where the incredible detail (like the angle of your eyes) isn't exactly making much of a difference in a 64x64 portrait. :-)
Well, the social networking aspect might be a sign that Bioware aim at using Dragon Age as a basis for online play in a similar way as NWN was used as an online RPG tool. Not an MMO, but something more along the lines of a traditional RPG, with a small party and a Dungeon Master, perhaps.

I downloaded the character creator and tried it out.

The ability to shape your character's face to such an extent is conceptually very cool, but in practice it can become overwhelming. DA's saving grace is that, unlike say Oblivion, it has some very decent presets. The 'right way' to make a face is probably to find a preset that appeals to you and then modify it slightly as desired.

Still, there's a lot of room for improvement here. This isn't really a Dragon Age specific problem though, very few games seem to get this part right.

Also, as you mention, there's no ability to customize your character's physique, which I find disappointing. It's probably blasphemy to hold this up as a shining example, but AoC's physique system was really quite nice. I think it provided a great compromise by providing a 'basic' interface and a more advanced slider system. If you didn't really care about the details, using the simple triangle interface alone usually got you good results.

Beyond appearance though I'm a bit worried about the other character creation options, in terms of stats, background, and the like. I can only hope that what we see in the character creator demo does not reflect the full range of options that will available in the real game.

As for their own little "social networking" thing... I'm just not interested in the slightest. At this point, if it doesn't integrate with Steam, I pretty much ignore it.
I can see the logic behind some of the choices. "Everyone will just put the boobs to maximum level, why bother with a slider?".

A face generator is a nice tool but you have to use it at the wrong time. Let's say you just bought a new game like Dragon Age. Now I want to start playing asap. Not spend twenty minutes in a face editor.
A face generator is a nice tool but you have to use it at the wrong time. Let's say you just bought a new game like Dragon Age. Now I want to start playing asap. Not spend twenty minutes in a face editor.
I know what you mean, I usually spend that 20 mins at the character creator and an another 20 trying to come up with a name.

Spinks is correct in that decisions that can have far-reaching reprecussions to gameplay should be reserved until the player has the necessary knowledge to make that choice. With that in mind, releasing a character creator early is perfect, because the main requirement here is your own sense of aesthetics. Spore also did the same, but there the creatures were a strange mix of both functional an aesthetic design: the cost and bonuses of certain body parts were crucial in the creature stage.. but only there.
I've always thought that the face was the least important customization choice. At the distance most players stand in third-person perspective games, it's almost invisible. Much more important are hairstyle, body shape, stance, and walk/run/attack animations. Other than hair, those are largely used as distinctions between "races".

If players could choose whether their character slouches, the angle they hold their necks, how deeply they bend their knees, how gracefully they place their feet... these would make major differences in how a group of characters looked, even if their faces and proportions were identical. Add a five or six proportion options and suddenly each person looks very unique indeed.

It would also be a lot of work for animators and modelers as they made sure each action didn't cause clipping errors with different armor and weapons.

Faces don't change animations at all.
As a MMO player I love to have LOTS and LOTS(caps even needed!) choice with character creation.

Will I use it all? proberly not, but have that option to if you want is such a good, free feeling, so I see why they've done it, but from reading this it seesm they've not spread there attention evenly on all sectors of generation, which is a baad thing :(
Detailed face creators are stupid. I'm not an artist, I paid my $50 so the game company would hire an artist to make my character not look stupid. This is the same reason games need a UI that doesn't suck, even if it is heavily moddable. It needs to be playable out of the box and your character needs to look decent without any artistic skill.

They're basically abdicating their role as designers by shifting this work onto the playerbase.
Yeah, the customisation outside of faces, is pretty underwhelming. The art style rather puts me off as well.

I wonder whether all the face flexibility is not really there for creating the Player Character, but instead for creating NPCs -- who definitely will be appearing in cutscenes, and won't necessarily be viewed from the rear -- for custom modules?

Dragon Age seems to have a fairly large modding emphasis, with the toolset supposedly downloadable on the same day as the release of the game.
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