I recently jumped into Red Dead Online and one of the first things to do is create your own character. I may be in the minority here, but I love customizing my own unique video game character. It instantly gives me a deeper sense of investment for the rest of the game. A huge reason why Mass Effect is so endearing to me is that the Shepard I played felt like MY Shepard and no one else’s.
So it’s amazing to me how most games still do the creation experience so badly.
Even a game like Red Dead Redemption II, known for its attention to detail (we’re talking real horse testicle physics here, folks!), is still widely mocked for how god awful the character customization is. Just take a look at some of these monstrosities:
Somehow I managed to make a pretty decent character, despite how much resistance I got from the game. This took a LONG time and some help from the internets…
In creating this cowgirl, I was reminded of all the criticisms I’ve accumulated over many games so I’ve dedicated a deep dive into what works and doesn’t work in how gaming approaches the creator tool.
I have absolutely no expertise in game development. I don’t know what the limitations are and can only guess at some of the reasons why things are the way they are. To me, it seems that most character customization boils down to stretching and morphing wireframes, and choosing different textures and colors. It’s reasonable to expect that there’s a set range that one can push and pull a polygon of a character structure while maintain the ability to keep scripted animations.
Mainly, my gripe is with the interface of the creation tools. I’ll focus mostly in that area. In cases where the default character options are so ugly like in Red Dead Online, I chalk those up to the dev being a bit lazy about the amount of work they want to do on presets.
Exhibit 1: Mass Effect Trilogy
As I already mentioned, I love this series. So it was always painful how limited the creation section was. Bioware didn’t even bother upgrading the UI or options between Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. Just shows how little care they put in to this aspect of the game.
The main problem is the reliance of sliders to do alterations. The sliders have no dividers or tick marks to indicate the number of options. Numbers or rough descriptors also would’ve helped differentiate between variations. Often, I’d slide through each option and then have to try to recall if the eye depth I liked was the second or third or one of the ones in the middle.
Even eye color options are in a slider! Why???
Bioware also infuriatingly decided that you can’t rotate your character freely in order to judge features, but the character would turn their heads in 90 degree angles.
Mass Effect Andromeda makes a few improvements such as allowing you to rotate the character any degree and using color spectrum fields. But the dreaded sliders are back, albeit with numeral indicators added, which I guess helps? Now I can try to remember that I prefer hairstyle 1.00 over hairstyle 7.00. Seriously, this is their method.
Here’s a full video pulled from YouTube of the Mass Effect 2 character creator (via MagicWithEarvin):
Exhibit 2: Destiny
First off, let’s just note how hilarious it is that you spend so much time creating your character’s face in Destiny only to have it instantly covered up with a helmet in about 90% of the game (including cut scenes).
Destiny also has a pretty limited amount of customization, allowing you to choose a preset face but not letting you noodle with any detailed features. I would imagine that was so Bungie could quality control how the face looks when it emotes or talks. Except your character famously never emotes or talks throughout the whole series.
Also sadly, like Mass Effect, Bungie basically copy and pasted Destiny‘s system to Destiny 2, again with little to no added options. Come on, guys!
What Destiny utilized fairly well are thumbnails for the options. This is a step up from the sliders in that you can more easily see how many options there are and get a basic preview of what the variation looks like. The downside here is that the options aren’t all that different so the thumbnails look generally the same.
The devs also mercifully mark your currently selected option. It’s a small feature but made me wish games with sliders would at least highlight your current or active slider position.
But the options here are severely limited. If I liked the eyebrows of Face 2 but the chin of Face 5, I’m out of luck.
Take a look at Destiny 2‘s creation system (via Generic Gaming):
Exhibit 3: Red Dead Online
Let’s take a closer look at the most recent AAA game.
It utilizes a matrix interface similar to what Rockstar used in GTA Online, minus the bizarre heritage selection step. The matrix basically crashes two attributes together into one interface. So in the nose matrix, you are simultaneously deciding on nose position and width distance at the same time.
Maybe this makes the experience more economical but for someone like me who likes to scrutinize the details, I’d prefer focusing on one thing at a time.
Like Mass Effect, rotating and zooming are extremely limited. Often times it’s hard to tell what a slider is affecting because the changes can be so minute and your viewing angles do almost nothing to aid you.
It’s simultaneously disappointing and unsurprising at how bad this experience is on Red Dead Online. Rockstar never seems to put a high emphasis on good UI and the resulting characters usually look awful.
Here’s a video to showcase Red Dead Online‘s character creator (via Generic Gaming):
It’s always easy to criticize what’s wrong, so let’s try to examine a few examples of games that do things right…
Exhibit 4: Black Desert Online
Widely considered one of the best character creation interfaces in gaming, Black Desert Online allows for some truly beautiful custom creations. It’s almost the opposite of Red Dead Online, where a lot work went in here and much of the appeal of the game seems to be just playing around in this robust tool.
The devs open up a huge array of options for players, allowing customization to poses and vocals. Even attributes with presets, such as hair, have a deep set of variables such as how it falls onto your shoulders.
As for the interface, Black Desert Online begins to feel strained due to the density of the options. It uses sliders and thumbnails as well, but some of the descriptors are too vague or unclear.
But what it does well is allow players to directly manipulate features with their cursor. So to alter a nose’s position, a player can just grab it and move it around until it looks the way the player wants.
Viewing is also great since the controls allow for zooming and positioning of any angle. I can’t understate how important it is since I’ve created characters in games that don’t allow for any angle and will only be able to see how horrible a character looks after I start playing.
YouTube video to showcase Black Desert Online (via Unreal):
Exhibit 5: Eve Online
Eve Online uses a lot of the good practices in Black Desert, such as direct mouse manipulation, free viewing angles, and a good amount of attributes to affect. The customization doesn’t go as deep as Black Desert but that might just speak to how crazy that game went.
I didn’t love its take on thumbnail presentation, using the Apple cinematic viewing cover art method, since you can’t get a good overview of all the options.
What I found to be very unique and interesting is that Eve Online’s creation system has a history feature. So if the character was looking great but a few bad choices has turned things very wrong, you can just slide back to a prior state!
Video of Eve Online‘s system (via Astarta Atrax):
Exhibit 6: The Sims 4
Again here are wise choices to use free camera movement and direct mouse manipulation (see a trend here?).
Due to the game’s nature, we even see a unique option of being able to choose a character’s age range from toddler to elderly!
I like the minimal interface, where options don’t appear until you start messing around with the physical feature on the character. A lot of presets are provided and again, I don’t like that all options aren’t immediately viewable. Sliders also pop up for fine tuning, but mouse controls are the way to go.
The aesthetic of the game is much more cartoony and stylized than other games so the options are often more distinct from each other. Plus, the simpler look seems to make public modding easier and a wealth of options can be found and added to the game.
Possibly anticipating this, the game has the unique feature of filtering items. For example, one could limit the viewing options to just athletic wear. The Sims 4 also allows for different sets of outfits that characters wear depending on the activity or time of day!
Here’s a video for The Sims 4 (via AcidoxYT):
In researching this post, I was heartened to find that there were more good examples than I had initially thought. It seems as if the industry is figuring out the importance of this part of gameplay and are dedicating more time to craft good experiences.
Here are some core principles, I’d suggest to any devs:
- Don’t limit viewing controls. Let players rotate and zoom however they want.
- Select and alter features directly on the character. Sliders are okay as a supplement but shouldn’t be the primary way to change features.
- Have an undo or history feature. Often creation is about experimenting and sometimes those go wrong and we want to be able to go back to older settings.
- Use clearer descriptions. “Nose 8.0” or “Z Control” aren’t helpful
I know I’m probably shouting into the ether here. But seeing as how video game development continues to increase in polish and scope, I can only hope that the next game I play where I can create my own character, that it won’t be such a battle to get it to do what I want.