Visual Identity, Character Customization Tools, and the End-Game Dress-Up

“Unique” is a powerful word in online games. Developers continually try and fail to catch this golden goose, bound by technological limitations, project deadlines, and financial restraints. Despite this, every online world harbors its share of players trying to squeeze endless fashion possibilities from their limited tools. Every single one of these games, from virtual chat rooms to multi-million dollar MMORPGs, relies on character customization to keep players invested in the experience. Developers have realized that players like to look good, and that catering to the fashionable majority is the best way to stay relevant in a growing market.

In the majority of MMORPGs, the first opportunity for players to customize their character appears at the character creation screen. Advancing technology and an ever-increasing demand for powerful customization tools has resulted in more and more ways for players to create their own unique look for their avatar. Older MMOs (circa 2005-2010) offered impressive customization options for the time, but technological limitations meant that many players would share identical combinations of faces, hair, and body types. However, many of the most recently-released MMOs allow players to customize their appearance in staggering detail, from facial bone structure to the style of makeup their avatar wears. In the near future, it might be possible for no two characters to look alike.

The recently-released MMORPG Black Desert Online boasts some of the most technically impressive character creation tools available today.


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Character creation tools vary from game to game, but in every case the player is eventually forced to finalize their look and step into the game world proper. How players visually express themselves after this point varies slightly between which sub-genre the game in question happens to fall into—the “sandbox” or the “themepark.” By order of popularity, we will start with the second option.

Linear, directed MMO experiences like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, and WildStar all focus on gameplay pitting the player vs. the environment (PvE) in encounters where statistical advantage rules the day. End-game content revolves around completing combat encounters to achieve better gear to complete harder encounters, ad infinitum. In the genre’s earlier years, this introduced a dilemma in which players would only aim for a select handful of the best statistical gear in the game, resulting in homogenized appearances at the endgame. The audience’s craving for customization led to a few popular solutions quickly rising to the top and spreading in popularity across the top games of the genre.

World of Warcraft’s The Burning Crusade expansion became infamous for providing players with aesthetically mismatched gear, dubbed the “clown suit” by players.


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Modern-day MMOs eventually distilled these solutions into convenient gameplay systems such as a cosmetic “wardrobe” or “transmogrification,” in which players can choose to apply the look of certain armor pieces without affecting their combat effectiveness. Many games also include the ability to dye armor and weapons in a variety of colors. Older MMORPGs without these systems have introduced these features to keep up with their more modern competition.

Pictured: World of Warcraft’s transmogrification system (left) and Guild Wars 2’s dye system (right)
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What few sandbox MMORPGs that remain on the market have implemented similar customization systems, though they are less essential due to the open-ended nature of a sandbox game. Without a linear progression path to follow and no one set of statistically “best” gear, players are free to experiment with their looks. However, the ability to have a specific look without compromising your effectiveness is enough of a draw in itself to make it a necessity for many players.

Sandbox MMORPGs also tend to attract an audience that enjoys role-playing as their character in an open environment, so players that seek this style of gameplay benefit immensely from this visual freedom. Suppose a player wants his to play as a roaming highway bandit, and look the part while he pillages unsuspecting players. However, the gear that makes him effective in combat does not look at all like what a highwayman would wear. The aforementioned wardrobe system sidesteps this issue gracefully, and is a useful tool for anyone else aiming to be effective in other parts of the game without sacrificing their dashing good looks.