Probably most of you are familiar with the concept of an avatar as a 2D image which you choose to represent yourself on a forum, IM network, or social networking site. Some games use that kind of avatar, notably Facebook games where the players already have such avatars as part of their Facebook account. This kind of image can either be provided by the player or chosen from a list provided by the game. That's fine, and if that fills your game's need to visually identify players to each other, well and good. But that's not actually the kind of avatar I'm going to talk about here.
Some games do not have avatars. These include 1st person games where you cannot see the main character because you are looking out through their eyes, and also large-scale strategy or sim games where your role is that of a general or business manager, and there is no point showing the player's body because the player doesn't do any gameplay through an individual body. In 1st person games sometimes the mouse pointer is characterized as the player's hand, or a gun the player is holding is visible in the bottom center of the screen. In strategy and sim games the player's identity is more that of their whole army or company, often combined with a color, insignia, or faction. Think of board games - it's common to say, "I'm red" or "I'm the blue army". Or for an insignia example, "I'm the shoe" in Monopoly, and for a faction example, "I'm the Orcs" in Starcraft. This can be a standalone system or included alongside more complex avatars. Games that allow the player to create a guild or corporations generally also let the player create an insignia for it, and games that allow building a castle or fortress often let the player design a flag. If you want this kind of system in your game it needs to be designed like any other graphical system - make a note in an appendix. But it's still not what I really mean by avatars.
What I actually wanted to talk about is the concept of the avatar as a playable character through which the player acts out gameplay actions and the main role in the game's story. An avatar is the player's primary worker, explorer, fighter, and problem-solver, and also a way of showing the player's physical and emotional involvement in the story. In a pet game these avatars may be humanoids or non-human creatures, depending on the player's role in the story.
Multiplayer games often have highly customizable avatars, and make avatar customization its own kind of gameplay. Singleplayer games often don't have much customization because it's not as interesting to players to customize their appearance when there are no other players to see that appearance. On the other hand singleplayer games have the option to pre-create a character with a distinctive appearance, name, and story like that of a novel or movie, and get the player to play as that character. This is less tolerated by players of multiplayer games. Some games equate one player with one playable character, while others allow the player to start a new parallel journey through the game with each new character, while still others give the player simultaneous control of a team or small army of characters. Is your player a pet owner or other person who works with (NPC) animals, or is your player an animal themselves? Some virtual pet sites avoid having a human avatar by giving the player a minimal role as a pet owner but delegate much or all of the gameplay to the player's active pet; the player thus acts through the avatar of this pet. This limits the possibilities for telling any kind of personal story about the player, so it's only an appropriate choice of you don't want your game story to be about the player's own heroic adventures, but instead about the pet's adventures. Some pet games have both humanoid and pet avatars; either their roles in the game are split, with the humanoid doing the interaction with NPCs and the pets doing the combat/competition, or the player controls a mixed team of humanoid(s) and pet(s) in combat/competition.
Some specific uses of avatars: Avatars are appropriate to tactical games where the player controls ten or fewer units in combat. (A unit is each humanoid or pet which participates in combat; real-time and turn-based RPG-style combat usually has 1-3 units while tactical games often have 4-10.) Avatars are also appropriate to time-management and energy-management games where the player can only act through their avatar and that avatar is what the player uses to run around trying to get all their tasks done in an efficient order. Avatars are appropriate to games where one of the game's activities is solving the problems of NPCs, since it is difficult to tell this kind of story about inter-personal interaction without giving the player a person with which to carry out their half of the interactions. (Though, dating sims are commonly 1st person, and they are very personal and emotional stories. This is because they are single-player games and the lack of avatar customization is extra-likely to alienate players in a game where the player is supposed to imagine themselves in a romantic relationship with one or more NPCs.) And finally avatars are appropriate to RPGs and action adventure games which typically have stories of personal growth (bildungsroman), adventuring, and exploration; again, it's difficult to tell a story about a character's adventures and progress without a visual representation of that character.
So in conclusion, the type of avatar system you choose for your game, if any, should be appropriate to the kind of actions you intend the player to perform within the game and the kind of story you want to tell about the playable character(s). If you want to tell a personal story where the player is equated with the main character, you need to either give the player an avatar or make the game be in 1st person POV. Avatars are appropriate to games where the main activities are those carried out by one or a few characters within an interactive world. (Or games which are primarily forums, where people want to present an image of themselves for social communication purposes.) On the other hand, games where the player's main activities are detail tasks like solving puzzles or large-scale tasks like acting as the general of an army can work quite well without an avatar, beyond the possible characterization of the mouse pointer as the player's hand or use of a faction color or symbol. And games which have neither a social element nor a story probably don't require avatars.
Avatar creation is often considered part of the pre-play or setup portion of a game; if all or most gameplay must be done through the avatar, the player pretty much can't play until they have created an avatar. However, avatar customization can be much more than a setup-type activity. Customization can be a major type of gameplay within the game. Avatar customizations make good quest rewards and thing the player can enjoy shopping for. Some games even include a ticker or progress bar where the player can set a goal item they want to buy and its price, and the game will display the player's current money as progress toward this shopping goal. Avatar appearance plays an important role in socialization between players, and changes of costume associated with holidays contribute to making a multiplayer game world feel alive to players. In class-based RPGs character appearance (especially weapon type) is commonly tied to class and can tell other players at a glance what the character's fighting style is, or if they are a healer or other support class.
In games where there is one avatar per player, the data for the avatar may be stored directly in the database entry for the player's account (or saved game file for a singleplayer game). If multiple characters are possible, the player's account database entry should contain links to the database entries for each character. In singleplayer games instead of allowing multiple avatars per player the game may allow multiple players, which may be equated to saved games, or may be allowed multiple saved games. In this case, if a player wants a new avatar and a new journey through the game they can simply create a second player account (because it's free, unlike in many online games, and it's easy to create a player account and switch between them).
In some games a human avatar's appearance is its only relevant property. Appearance traits typically include: gender, species/race if the game has multiple kinds of playable humanoids, body build if there are multiple options per gender, skin color, hair color, hair shape, and face (sometimes the shapes, sizes, and positions of individual facial features can be chosen). In more highly customizable games eye color, makeup, tattoos, height, and animalistic accessories such as horns, ears, tails, and wings are all possible avatar traits. In some games where a pet is necessary for combat the player may need both a human avatar and a first pet which is also created like an avatar.
Pet avatar systems depend on whether the pets in the game have predetermined appearances, with or without animations, or whether the pets' appearances are genetically generated from either layers of 2D images or body part models and textures. Even when pets are highly customizable via a genetic system, most of this system will be closed off to a starting player, as unlocking the branches of this genetic tech tree is usually a major part of the gameplay. So the player's creation of a first pet will be limited by that. Some systems do not allow the player to create a pet, but instead limit the player to choosing from a small selection of standard starter pets, adopting a pet another player has abandoned (or the game has randomly generated). Or the player may be required to start with a specific type of pet. For example, in a system where all newborn pets are amoebas which evolve into different animals through gameplay, it would be logical that all players must start with an amoeba. Some systems require the player to start with an egg or egg-equivalent, whether the pet type is choosable or not. That egg might appear as the player's avatar until the player manages to hatch it. Some pet systems do not have gendered pets, or do not visually distinguish between male and female pets. Some pet systems allow the player to choose the color and/or markings of a pet, some do not.
Avatar Clothing And Other Equipment
Then of course there is the clothing. Newly-created humanoid characters are usually given default clothing. This could be a universal default or a default for their gender or class. Occasionally the player is allowed to choose the colors of this default clothing, or chose between a small number of clothing styles. Some games allow pets to wear clothing, but even when they do newly-created pets often have no clothing at all, or only a collar. But once the player begins playing the game, many more clothing choices can become available. Clothing in games can come in a wide range of customizability, from a non-customizable whole outfit, to different colors of that outfit, to 3-piece mix-n-match gear (waist-up, waist-to-knees, and knees-down), to separate hats/masks, cloaks, shields, weapons, and gloves, to a highly layerable wardrobe and a wide assortment of jewelry, and even to objects which are not clothing but instead visual effects such as glows, sparkles, or falls of petals or feathers, backgrounds that appear behind the avatar, decorative borders or symbols near the avatar's name, or accessory objects either attached to the character or following nearby.
A character's mount may also be considered part of the character's equipped items, and that mount itself may be customizable with different saddles, barding or body armor, headgear, leg armor, and/or mane and tail styles.) The same goes for a character's currently equipped pet (or pets if the game allows more than one to be equipped at once). Current buffs and debuffs (aka status ailments) applied to a character may also be considered part of that character's equipment; they may have visual effects such as causing the character to appear transformed into a monster, causing the character to glow red with berserk rage, white with healing power, green with sickness, etc.
In some games, especially RPGs and RPG hybrids, the avatar may have dozens statistics which describe its abilities. Many of these are only relevant in combat, and those will be discussed in the combat section, along with whether classes and races are actually a good idea. But some may affect the character's behavior outside of combat: level, class(es), race/species, faction alignment, reputation with various individual NPCs, running speed, jumping height, ability to lift and/or carry various items, resistance to damage from falling, resistance to harsh temperatures and poison, swimming ability, flying ability, ability to sit or meditate to heal, available emotes and gestures, ability to identify and gather different kinds of resources, and learned non-combat spells and skills. The actions a character is able to perform can further be enabled, disabled, or altered by a spell, skill, tool, consumable item, equipped pet or mount, or currently applied buff or debuff.
Now you should be able to add the following to your features list:
- [Number and Type of Playable Characters]
[indent=1]- [What role does the avatar serve within the game? Exploration, combat, sim-play, picture next to forum posts and messages...?]
- [Describe a default avatar's stats and abilities]
- [Describe a default avatar's appearance. Is it Customizable? Is it tied to class? Is it genetic? Can characters be customized before play begins, during play, or both?]
- [Describe the equipment part of the customization system. Is there a clothing system, and if so how does it work. Weapons, tattoos, and jewelry are included, as well as backgrounds and special effects. Does equipment affect the character's stats, and if so, how?]
- [Are there mounts? If do, are they customizable or all of one type or of a few specific types?]
- [If the pet has both humanoid and creature characters which have different customization systems, repeat the above entries for the second type of characters.]