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MMO: Spectrum Of Design - Part 1 To Avatar Or Not To Avatar?

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MMO: Spectrum Of Design
a blog series by sunandshadow
aka Mare Kuntz

Blog #1: To Avatar Or Not To Avatar?
(No, not that movie with the blue cat-aliens.)

One of the most basic divides among game types is one of the least talked about, because it's one of the few that doesn't provoke much controversy among players. Arguments about group play vs. solo play, PvP focus vs. PvE focus, permadeath, and many other topics sweep through MMO gamer communities like seasonal forest fires. But I think the only time I've heard the topic of whether a game is avatar-focused come up is in the context of EVE Online. Player A was recommending that Player B try EVE Online, and Player B replied rather calmly that they just can't get into games where their role in the game is a ship or a nation rather than a specific character running around the world doing stuff.

That specific character, assuming we are talking about a player-chosen or customizable character, is called an avatar. The design question of whether to make an avatar-focused game or not is actually closely related to the issue of whether and how to design a game to enable and support roleplaying. Roleplaying is, in fact, one of those often-argued topics, but I think a lot of people don't understand what avatars have to do with it. Probably because some games are so good at giving a player character-developing things to do with their avatar while other games are so terrible at this, that the average player's experience of avatars is quite mixed. Either way, focusing a game on an avatar is one of the biggest silent distinguishing factors of an MMORPG, as opposed to either single-player RPGs or other types of MMO. Please note, I'm not saying MMORPGs must be avatar focused. Rather, I think it's interesting how many single-player RPGs are not avatar focused, yet this type of RPG has been largely ignored in MMO design. On the other hand, there are a notable number of non-avatar-focused MMOs, but for some reason hardly any of those are MMORPGs. Is this a coincidence, a result of history, or is there some reason non-avatar-focused RPGs don't work as MMOS? Let's investigate! ^_^

Type 1: Mouse or Man(y)?
There are three types of non-avatar focused game. The first type doesn't usually include RPGs, but rather strategy games, puzzle games, SIMs, and adventure games; these are the non-avatar-focused games most heavily represented among MMOs, though many compromize by adding a still-image avatar, as described below. In these types of games the player is generally represented by the mouse cursor (sometimes in the shape of a hand) and the player's body is not shown on the screen or simply does not exist. Though in strategy games the player may regard themselves as having multiple bodies, in the form of the units of their faction, none of them are customizable, and even hero units do not count as avatars. The closest you get to a non-RPG with an avatar focus is a game like Minecraft or the Harvest Moon series where the player character is what you use to run around building and tending plants.

Let's look at some history. Single-player RPGs of the 80s and 90s were rarely avatar-focused because they faced technological limitations that discouraged designers from choosing to give the player a customizable avatar-type character. Changable character appearances had a high development cost, a high game storage size cost, and often resulted in overall poorer-quality character graphics. Linear stories where the player could not make any meaningful choices also won out in terms of cost-effectiveness against interactive story games where the player could customize their character's personality. We'll get to interactive story in a later blog entry though. So, there were several reasons for single-player RPGs to avoid giving players customizable avatars, unless the avatar could be limited to a cheaper system like non-animated portraits. Even this was pretty much only possible in games where the player's character neither walked around the world nor participated directly in combat; so basically, mostly non-RPGs or strategy-RPG hybrids, where combat occurs by means of a card game or moving units around a chessboard-like tactical battlefield. Still-image avatars were common in the earliest networked graphical games, which were mainly card and board games converted to computer games. The use of the term avatar to apply to user-chosen still images in web forums and other social media descends from this type of minimal avatar. (Check out the comments below this blog entry for some examples! ^_^ )

Type 2: Found This Cool Character Just Lying Around
But back to single-player RPGs of the 80s and 90s. When they did give the player control of a single character, because of the high cost of enabling the player to customize anything, instead of an avatar the game usually gave the player the predefined main character of the game's story. This is the second type of non-avatar-focused game. A predefined playable character is great for storytelling, as long as the story doesn't need to be interactive at all. Predefined main characters are a characteristic trait of jRPGs. (Japanese-style RPGs) It's actually quite difficult for a writer to tell a good story when they can't dictate the main character's personality and actions. If you took a survey to find out which single-player games of all time are felt to have the best stories, most of the winners would be linear RPGs with predefined main characters. Though there would be some adventure games in there too.

However, predefined main characters can interfere with one of the main appeals of games as a medium, which is that the player can take action rather than just reading or watching. Players can find it frustrating or uncomfortable to be put in control of a character who is taking actions the player wouldn't choose or saying things the player wouldn't say. So, in an effort to avoid imposing a personality on the player's character which might be contradictory to the player's own personality, some games try to compromize between avatar and non-avatar playable characters by having a main character whose appearance is pre-created but whose personality and dialogue are left blank. This is a 'silent protagonist', a character who is given no lines of dialogue. In the Zelda series in particular, the main character Link is not only silent but almost uncharacterized, because the designers of this series wanted Link to be more of a silhouette that the player could step into than a character of his own. Amnesiac main characters were also a common way to try to give players a character who is a blank slate personality-wise, and as clueless about a fantasy or science fiction game world as a new player is.

Type 3: I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes (Walt Whitman)
The third type of non-avatar-focused game is any game where the player in put in control of a whole group of characters. (In terms of gamer psychology, these are quite interesting because players make statements like "I'm the red team." or "I'm Cloud, Vincent, and Tifa right now." showing that players are capable of putting themselves into roles that don't correspond at all to their real existence as a lone human being.) The group of characters under the player's control can be an army or a sports team, but in RPGs it is most commonly 'an adventuring party'. They also often include compromizes where a more avatar-like silent and/or amnesiac protagonist is in an 'adventuring party' with vivid precreated characters - Final Fantasy VII is a well-known example. The sheer popularity of adventuring party RPGs is most likely due to J. R. R. Tolkien. (Though he in turn was probably inspired by the tales of the Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood, among other sources.) Video games didn't exist when Tolkien was writing, of course, but his books were a major influence behind the creation of the first tabletop roleplaying games in the 1970s. However, from the beginning it was standard for each tabletop player to control only one character, usually a self-created, customizable avatar. That's the tradition that went on to spawn MUDs in the 80s (MUD stands for multi-user dungeon, and a MUD is a text-based online RPG), and MUDs are what evolved into the first MMORPGs in the 90s.

Some single-player RPGs, mainly wRPGs (western-style RPGs), did try to stick with the tabletop model of avatar-style characters, despite the development costs. Roguelikes were lone-adventurer dungeon-crawlers which commonly had simulated dice which the player 'rolled' to randomly generate the main character. The player was generally able to choose a gender, race, class, and name. Some wRPGs adventuring party games allowed the player to recruit party members from randomly generated characters (usually found in taverns); this was sometimes combined with allowing the player to create one custom character as the party leader. As hardware evolved, and storage space became cheap, especially on personal computer platforms, the virtual paper doll system was invented. This system used image layering to allow a player to combine an avatar base (a blank body, usually with a choice of gender and skin color) with customizing elements like hair styles, clothes, and weapon. (As a personal note, the single largest solo game-related art project I have carried out was creating a virtual paper doll system.) In its basic form this system only generates a still image, not an animated sprite. But when 2D MMOs were created, the paper doll system was expanded to create a full animated sprite set including all the visual customizations. This is still the base of all 2D MMO avatar systems today, though technological advances like color-pickers, vector graphics, bone animations, and ragdoll physics have all modified the under-the-hood details of how 2D avatar systems work.

Forget TESO, I Still Want My Skyrim MMO
It has only been in the past decade that we've really begun to see avatar-focused-games overcome all hardware limitations and some development cost issues to really show what they can do in single-player games. The Fable series and Skyrim are two of the major examples of recent developments in allowing players to control their character's appearance and to some extent interactively affect where the game's story goes. Usually MMO design lags behind single-player game design due to the extra-long development time of MMOs, which in turn is due to the greater complexity of enabling player interactivity. Giving players the ability to customize their characters has been one of the few areas where MMOs have consistently out-performed single player games; but Skyrim made such a big splash partly because it was clearly able to compete on equal footing with MMOs in the area of visual character customization, and surpass them in terms of story interactivity. AAA games aside, even indie games can do great things with customization now because it has become possible to buy whole 3rd party avatar systems, both 3D and 2D.

So, have advances in gaming tech and the availability of 3rd party game development resources created a situation where avatar-focused games have won out over non-avatar-focused games? Well, not really. What we've got is an increased ability to combine avatar-focused gameplay and non-avatar-focused gameplay into the same game. For example, imagine that Starcraft 3 comes out, and it's still all about networked strategy battles, but now it has a customizable avatar for which you can earn hats via in-game achievements? And from the other direction, we're seeing avatar-focused MMOs that have increasing amounts of minigame play where the player's avatar is irrelevant or would even get in the way of the player controlling their units, cards, or puzzle pieces. Though avatars can be integrated beneficially into some minigames, like racing and fishing.

This tendency to combine the two approaches does not make the question of whether to focus on avatars irrelevant. Cost and development time are still an issue, especially for anyone trying to make their first MMO, and there are always going to be benefits of either trimming off less-useful features (like an avatar system in a strategy game) or planning to add those features in the 2nd or 3rd update, after the game has a steady income. The issue of avatars can also help identify under-exploited areas of the MMO market - there are very few MMOs where the player can control an adventuring party or small army in turn-based combat, and the few that do exist are well-loved by their players, so to me that looks like an opportunity for a few more of these games to be made. Avatar appearance customizations are often totally wasted in the character creation phase of current MMOs, when they could be a lot more valuable if incorporated as earnable rewards within the game. Ugly avatar systems can severely interfere with players' ability to get immersed in a game or feel motivated to earn or by appearance customization items. Gender-locked classes are a big design no-no that we still see cropping up in new games like Crowfall because the developers apparently don't understand the problem with them. Understanding how avatars and precreated characters interact with roleplaying, storytelling, and interactivity are also very important for designers, especially of RPGs. Perhaps in the future we'll even see a game innovative enough to offer players a choice between a pre-created character with a scripted jRPG like story and an avatar character with less story and more freedom to explore, appealing to both people who like story and people who like the freedom to explore (or perhaps the freedom to avoid reading). ^_~

Finally, some questions for all of you! Are your favorite single-player RPGs avatar-focused or not? How about your favorite MMOs? Would you prefer to make or help make an avatar-focused or non-avatar-focused MMO? Topic suggestions for future blogs are still welcome too.

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