Thursday, May 16, 2013

Character Differences

One thing that's always rubbed me the wrong way is character creation. Especially in a computer game, character creation is perhaps the most interesting part of the game in that you have the most freedom, the most options, and the most ability to express yourself.

Like many people, I've never "beaten" an Elder Scrolls game, despite having played most of them for 100+ hours each. This isn't because they're 100+ hours long, really. It's because I like replaying the first 5-10 hours over and over and over with different characters. The choices I make during character creation make those hours play out completely differently each time.

But there are very few discussions about the role character creation plays in your game!

So many people talk about balance, or flow, or level design, or content... but character creation is usually the first thing a player encounters, and it's also usually the densest thing a player encounters, both in terms of options and in terms of effect on the rest of the game. So... let's talk about it.

A part of this is obviously driven by my work on the avatar creation toolkit for Unity. I've gotten into thinking about how to offer the radically expanded character customization abilities without confusing the players, and that's got me into thinking about what the character is for.

You see, there's a common mistake in character creation systems: creating a character for the wrong game.

I don't meant that the player creates a character for the wrong game. I mean that the character creation system is geared to produce characters for other games. More specifically, the most common default for whatever the genre is. For example, in the Elder Scrolls game you create what is essentially a D&D style tabletop character. Many of these skills and options don't fit into the game very well. For example, if you want to be a deadly assassin, you literally have to frolic through the meadows picking flowers due to the bizarre dependencies forced into the framework.

The Star Wars games are even worse. They also make you create a D&D style tabletop character. So much for the lethal instant-killing space samurai. Now every fight is a slugfest.

The character creation doesn't result in characters which fit the game's tone.

You could try and fix this by changing the mechanics around, but in many cases the mechanics are rather opaque. Especially in a game with as high diversity and complexity as the Elder Scrolls or Star Wars games. There are just too many mechanical options that would fit, and no strong guide as to which ones would work best.

So I recommend starting with character creation.

Imagine a player has graced your game with a chance to impress her. "Okay, the universe looks cool, I want to spend some time there."

Instead of imagining her tweaking dials in your interface, imagine her sitting across from you at a table, a cool stack of glossy images from your game world scattered across the table. She looks interested in some of them. So you ask her "what sort of things do you want your character to do?"

What does she reply?

Not "I think I want to have a higher strength" or "I'd like to be an alchemist." She replies with phrases like "this combat scene where this dude cuts through fifty droids looks awesome, I want to be like that!" or she says "This wizard lab looks pretty cool. What sort of stuff can I build in that?" or she says "I like the idea of being a space pirate, ARRRR!" or she says "Whoa, rock the world with explosions!" or whatever.

That's the character she wants to create.

Now, in the end it should ideally come down to dials and stats and skills, sure. That kind of super-detailed optimization is very useful in allowing the player to have more control over their character, to express themselves more freely. But the dials and stats and skills are related to the things that happen in the world.

"Strength" isn't a part of any Jedi situation. There are no iconic Jedi battles or scenarios where being super-strong matters. Endurance, also. Jedi have superb endurance, so it makes more sense for exceptional endurance to be another trait/perk on top of a very high base endurance, rather than having a stat for it.

The battles a Jedi gets into aren't images of the Jedi standing over a mountain of corpses. They're images of a Jedi passing through a crowd of enemies leaving a few missing limbs behind, or deflecting a line of blasterfire, knocking a few of the enemies over with their own shots. The Jedi will only kill or maim a few in order to get where they are going or get the rest to back off. That tension - minimum application of force - could be the driving core of your game mechanics.

You'd end up with a radically different game feel! Now your Jedi character creation screen isn't about whether you're better at murdering people, supporting other Jedi, using ranged attacks - those concepts are secondary to the Jedi. Your Jedi are instead about the methods used to minimize their use of force in favor of their use of Force. A "combat-centric" Jedi is not actually about using more devastating techniques. He's about using less devastating techniques more effectively. It's the counselors that end up cutting down a hundred storm troopers, because they don't know how to control the flow of battle well enough to only cut down three. Its also the counselors that end up overrun and killed when the enemy's numbers grow too many for their limited control to handle.

On the other hand, the counselor would walk through politics and bureaucracies easily, setting local law enforcement scrambling to their bidding, getting crime lords to cooperate... but a combat-centric Jedi would be forced to use heavyhanded threats and entreaties and bribes.

Wouldn't that be awesome? That'd be a Star Wars game worth playing.


This also extends to completely different categories of games.

For example, I was thinking about a social game. In a social game, you could build your characters with stats, and there probably is some element of that. But in a social game, a major part is going to be how and why you do social things. So your stats might be in things like kindness, moderation, empathy, sarcasm, insults, and so on. Your "class" might be more about what you want out of life than how you actually talk.

So, if you want my advice about these things:

Start by laying down some iconic situations that happen in your universe. This is you slaying a dragon. This is you piloting a starship through debris. This is you mind-tricking. This is you frolicking through the meadows picking flowers. This is you as the star of a party.

Then make your character creation about achieving those situations. After that, think about mechanics, understanding that you'll have to come back and redo the character creation after you've settled on mechanics.


Ellipsis said...


Craig Perko said...


TriviaGuy said...

I think Character Creation is addicting, and easy to obsess over, and fun in a weird sort of way, but I also think it can be bad for all the reasons I named above (addictive, likely to make you OCD, etc.)

Games with simpler character creation get you into the gameplay faster and get you playing. And often these games let you customize your character through the choices you make within the game. If there's no customization, I hate it, but if there's too much customization at the start I hate it even more.

Plus, as a truly new player, you know nothing about the game. Why are you supposed to make permanent choices about your character when you've never played the game? It's an absurd idea to me.

Craig Perko said...

Character creation is fundamentally about replayability and/or team play.

This is one reason that most computer RPGs use the same character customization styles - you come in knowing what the options are. So it doesn't feel like a blind choice.

But it means it's a crammed-in choice that doesn't work very well.