Tobold's Blog
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 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?
Short answer: Allakhazam's actually has a fashion section, and I used it extensively. Also, the ability to see how clothing/items look on my character before, I select the item, is one of my favorite WoW features.
As my husband can attest, I can spend a really long time in character creation, going through the options that the game gives me. I like trying out different looks and faces in order to create an avatar that satisfies me.

It's not exclusive to one game either -- and the more options a game gives me, the longer I take. (You would think that with the limited options in WoW, I'd be in and out of character creation in less than a minute, but no.) In EVE Online, for example, I would take so long in customizing how my portrait looked that by the time I got to naming the character, the server had already disconnected me (it seems they fixed this bug). In EQ2, I took less time agonizing over class choice than I did my character's looks. In both these games, I repeatedly clicked the randomizer to get a good base, then went through each individual option (hairstyle, color, whatever) to tweak them further.

Numerous times, my husband would inform me that I'd spent more time at character creation than I did playing a game. Heh. I remember taking quite a long time for my little superhero in my CoX trial, and barely played because I didn't like the controls and the way combat worked. I just got into the PotBS open beta, and about a quarter of the total time that I played last night was spent on going through character creation.

As for gear ... I like being able to pick up new equipment and changing the look of my character. I also really wish other games would adopt EQ2's Appearance Tab feature (the one Tobold mentioned), because that just solves the problem of wearing something for looks versus wearing them for stats. You may think that with my obsession with character creation I would go for looks, but I am rather obsessive about making my characters better so I would always go for stats.

My husband could not care less about character creation, by the way. In games like WoW where there are limited options, he'll spend a minute (tops) clicking through the options and making a character that doesn't look too disgusting. In other, more customizable games with a large amount of options like EVE, he just uses the randomizer and clicks it maybe two times before he accepts whatever it comes up with.
I'd claim that being represented by a humanoid avatar in a MMORPG is extremely important (especially in a RPG). For many reasons. But in the end, it all boils down to a matter of being able to identify with (and 'connect' to) something that represents ME (in a desirable way) in the virtual world.

A living, humanoid form is - after all - much more easy to identify with than a spaceship, SOL, car and so on.
I also would love to have an "for looks tab" and one for the stats. To solve the PvP issue you could't (regarding to WoW) just disable the looks Tab in Arena and BG and all would be just fine - so it will further be possible to tell at a glance how well protect the opponent is.
*grml* typo. I meant you just could disable the looks feature in instanced PvP.
SWG has a broad palette of crafted clothing and armour, that has no stats, but a socket. Crafters create the attachments that go into the sockets. Fully customized look with exactly the stats you want.
I come from the world of tabletap and MUD's, so an avatar is optional. I do enjoy character creation, but I also love Eve Online. The gameplay is the most important component, along with the community that exists alongside the game.

Community is why I'm with Eve Online. I play WoW the same way I played Diablo, I suppose. WoW's my dress-up game, Eve's my more-satisfying community-type game.
It's funny you mention MUDs, sithload. That's also where I started my online gaming all those years ago, but I guess I see my graphical avatar as an extension of all the descriptions I had to write for my MUD characters. I obsessed about their descriptions, too.
For me, how my toon looks is a lot less important than stats. But that being said, I would pay attention to my toon's appearance if it didn't affect my stats.

Oh, and I'm sure you already know this, but just in case, you *do* know that you can turn off your helmet and/or cloak in WoW, right?
Just from experience, I associate MMOs with avatars. I enjoy plenty of games from other genres without avatars, but it's something I've come to expect from MMOs. The only way an MMO could break that expectation would be to stray from the usual MMO model in many other ways.

If the emphasis of the game was on action, instead of character development, for example, then the avatar wouldn't have to be as personal. Perhaps we'll see an MMO similar to Star Wars: Battlefront one day.

Also, I don't think avatars must take the form of human-like characters. PotBS could have made ships into avatars through greater ship customization (visual customization, in particular).
Really depends on the game.

Key to immersion is being able to put yourself IN the game. For most people, non-humanoid or non-existent presence in the game environment is not enough.

In an RTS game or a tycoon/sim type game, I don't really need to be in the game as an avatar because I don't really interact with the game directly but rather through units or structures.

Likewise, where there is little or NO customization (nor persistence for that matter) as in most shooters or even hack and slash Diablo-clones, its not as critical to identify with an in game presence.

As so very often, Eve is a bit of an exception... there is just enough of an avatar to create a sense of presence and identity in the game separate and apart from the ships. Most interesting to me is that the lack of more of an avatar contributes to the sense of vastness and coldness of space. No Star Wars cantinas there...

This isn't scientific, but probably typical. My wife who plays WoW and SPRPGs wasn't particularly interested in PotBS until she started seeing the avatar options. Simply being a ship would be an abstraction one step too far for her.

Doesn't mean the game will be her game, but without avatars, I'm sure many wouldn't even consider it.
For me, I couldn't care less how much of a hobo my guy looks like, as long as the stats are where they need to be. The way I see it, if I'm fighting someone who looks at what I'm wearing and I kill them, it makes them feel worse about losing to me.

That's why I try to dye my gear pink whenever possible. It's all about making people feel inadequate imo.
I will point out that casuality has nothing to do with the importance of a character's look. Sure, some players may min/max to the complete exclusion of any sort of graphical look, but for the most part you can attribute a large number of the hardcore, elitist raider complaints about "welfare epics" in WoW to the fact that the arena sets look just like the raiding sets. Many people complain that they don't *look* special because they've completed the raid content, and that anyone who can pvp can get gear that looks like theirs.

I like the direction that Mythic is going with WAR, where your toons look evolves with the achievements or experiences that you gain.

There should be some way to distinguish your character in a MMO, whether that is an "avatar" or some other entity (like ships in EVE and potbs).

But allowing complete freedom with every facet is not only overkill, it always allows that 1% to do ridiculous shit. Why burn code on barbie dolling when you can show your toons identity with the scars of battle?
Looks are absolutely important. I typically have some notion of the type of character the avatar I create should be and preferably if the game allows it, to adjust the looks accordingly.
City of Heroes/Villains are great here - lots of customisation and you can have up to 5 different costume sets which you can switch between at any time.

If the game does not allow too much customisation, it should at least look somewhat good. I prefer a better look with somewhat worse stats than something ugly with optimal stats, if one has to choose. Some games has made an effort to try to have gear look reasonably ok in many different combinations, but in those cases the gear options are also limited.

As for "bragging gear", not sure if such gear really has the intended effect that the wearer might hope. At least for me, if someone wears some particular outfit I would typically not have a clue how that was obtained unless I had done that task myself. In either case, "bragging" would be lost on me.

I think titles of various kinds works better then - sometimes they are more explicit and people may have some idea what someone has done even without being a stat geek.
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