Identity Crisis

I’ve always been enamored by MMORPGs. Riveted by the social aspects, I’ve read countless articles on the online happenings of these virtual worlds.  But there’s something that itches under my skin when I play these games. My avatar never seems personal; it’s never a unique reflection of my character. The common MMO clumps me into restrictive archetypes, funnels me into builds, and leaves the physical customization up to loot. All of this makes it difficult to feel distinct in a sea of players, and MMO developers haven’t sorted this issue out.

When creating a character in the typical MMO, you’re given three options. It’s always the same three options that will define the way you play the game. Will you play Tank, DPS, or Support? It’s the golden trifecta of the MMO experience. Sure, there are variations of this triangle, but there are also variations of dairy, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not allergic to it. Whether or not these archetypes are fun isn’t the issue, though; the issue is that it restricts the players, confining them to certain roles within the game’s world. It hardly defines anything special about the players themselves. Advancing through skill trees doesn’t address this issue, either.

Allocating points to your attributes becomes irrelevant quickly in MMOs. The archetype choice that was initially made is dependent on specific attributes. DPS, Tank, and Support all rely on different stats, be it Dexterity, Strength, Will, etc. Breaking away from each archetype’s favored attributes can be detrimental to your character’s effectiveness. Subtly directing character leveling into right and wrong choices, MMOs shepherd the players into builds. Each class may have various builds, but in the end, they’re cookie cutter constructions. You will see other players using the same builds, and the effective ones will be the most prevalent in the game’s world.

Builds don’t stop at stats, either. They bleed into other aspects of the game, influencing your decisions of personalization at every turn. Deciding between loot becomes an arbitrary decision, resting on which piece of armor offers a better boost to your stats. There’s nothing worse than getting a piece of equipment that you feel suits your character, only to discard it because it doesn’t augment your class’s stats in the correct way.   It’s no longer a question of what personally resonates with the players, but what improves their builds. If you play an MMO for long enough, chances are you’ll be able to determine a player’s build just by looking at them. You’ll end up categorizing other people by their builds, and not by anything uniquely definitive. Characters become cogs, and it ends up feeling shallow.

Physical appearance should transcend statistic altering loot. It shouldn’t describe which stats you want to acquire; it should illustrate who you are, where you’ve been, and your achievements as a player. Guild Wars 2 took a step in the right direction when they introduced transmutation stones, which allows the players to use one item’s stats with another’s appearance. Letting the character don what they want, it allows them to be more imaginative when creating armor sets. You want to tackle a dragon in your underpants? Sure, go for it. You like the way you looked in that level 5 helmet? Pop that cap on your noggin! Does it really matter if you don’t want to wear high-level items? It doesn’t, and allowing the players to wear what they want adds more diversity to the mass of avatars exploring the game’s world.

There isn’t an MMO out there that has me more excited than CCP’s World of Darkness. I feel like they’re on to something with their character designs. Instead of relying solely on gaming concept artists, CCP has hired fashion designers onto their staff. While there’s no word on this yet, it would be great to see World of Darkness focus on the players’ style choices, rather than relying on loot. Have the players dress the way they want; let them determine their stats in other ways. I’m sure this, coupled with what they’ve learned from EVE’s robust character creator, will lead to unique avatars.

CCP also has a history of focusing on player freedom, instead of focusing on player direction. It lets the player take on roles that exist outside and inside of combat, roles that invoke player interaction, diversity, and most importantly, roles that create stories. EVE is far from perfect, but it does a wonderful job of letting you express yourself through your actions. I’d say the avatars in EVE reflect their players on a deeper level than any other MMO. They fill the roles that the game universe is reliant on; the players are the economists, the traders, the miners, the corporations, the pirates, the political hierarchy, and this list goes on.  It’s important to let the player distinguish who they are, and their role in the game’s world is a huge part of what defines that.

MMO servers hold thousands upon thousands of players, each representing themselves through an avatar, a vessel for their distinct personalities. In theory, it’s a world where the players can make a name for themselves. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case. MMOs will guide players into restrictive play-styles, a variety of stagnant tropes, and right and wrong equipment choices. Developers need to stop relying on solid class structures, structures that reinforce linear character development paths. They hinder the connection between the avatar and the player, pushing them to blend in, rather than stand out. There’s a need to refocus on what’s important: letting the players define who they are. So, next time you say, “I’m a level 80 Paladin,” ask yourself, “Am I?”