Evolving Character Creation

Written by Mik Furie

Drowning in dice

Do you want to know a geeky little secret that I swore to carry to the grave, but which I’ve slowly come to terms with as I realised we geeks now rule the world? I have a memory from when I was a kid (we’re talking way back here, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and a certain clown-fronted fast food joint actually cooked the food before serving it to you) of a die clattering across the floor, and whenever I see someone rolling dice this memory comes back to me in glorious high definition. I remember the number being rolled, and then I’d add six to it and scribble it down on a piece of paper that was covered in boxes. The paper had a hastily copied version of the character sheets from the fantasy game books that were popular at the time; books I’d played so often that I needed to make copies of the  sheets, otherwise I’d destroy them with constant erasing and writing in.

It’s funny that whenever I try to bring forth a memory of an event in those books it’s always that scene of character creation which comes to me, rather than a specific part of the plot or a phrase that has stuck with me. That was my first experience of the freedom of character creation: the ability to become someone else rather than the overweight kid that was my unfortunate reality at the time; imagining myself as a heroic, muscled barbarian or graceful elf and putting the pertinent details down on paper. Of course, then I discovered girls and a different type of role playing, but this isn’t the place for that story as this is an article about a different type of gaming altogether.

Ahem, moving swiftly on, as you can imagine it comes as no surprise to me that character creation is one of the few things to have successfully made the move from pen and paper role playing games to videogames. The sheer thrill of creating another identity can never be underestimated and, combined with the ability that this feature gives players to put themselves (or slightly mutated movie stars) inside the narrative provided by games, this is a feature that will never really die out.

Think about it, who would you rather depend upon to save the world from a zombie invasion: a guy who can’t walk without getting stuck against a wall and who ends up running in place, or a guy who looks a little like a camp version of you, but who still can’t walk without getting stuck against a wall and running in place? Yeah, I’d pick the special needs version of myself every time too. He kicks zombie ass, although he is still a little intimidated by any version of an undead dog.

Strength = 2d6+4

Character creation is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed over time and that it won‘t change more. In the grand scope of things it wasn’t that long ago that character creation first moved over from pen and paper to the digital medium. The first games to do so were M.U.Ds (Multi-User Dungeons – think of them as the text-based grandfathers of World Of Warcraft and also the most advanced games of their time), which usually had players roll their characters at home and type their rolled attributes into the game. Of course, this led to rampant cheating across the board as people suddenly had godlike characters who possessed perfect stats “purely by chance“.  Seriously, you couldn’t gain such power if you got bitten by a radioactive horse (change the animal from a spider, we can‘t afford a lawsuit – ed.), after falling in toxic waste and finding a mystical hammer. As time went on the character creation systems started to be built into the games so that everybody could see what numbers the random number generator came up with and the game could be a bit more balanced for all people. Of course this is all before my time as I may have slightly exaggerated my age at the beginning of this article.

My first experience of a computerised character creation system came with 1988’s Pool Of Radiance, a true gem of its time that brought the worlds of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game to life for me. I mean, just look at those wonderful graphics over there and you’ll see what I mean. Hey, it was the best we had back then, okay? It even won the “Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Computer Game of 1988” Origins award. Bloody whippersnappers don’t know they’re born with their ten second loading waits and realistic graphics…

The game was one of the better examples of an adventure game in its time and it allowed you to create a party of adventurers who would face off against the evils of the world. Character creation was pretty simple: you could choose the alignment, race, gender and character class of each of your six party members and that was pretty much it. It’s a far cry from today’s systems but in the eyes of a ten year old boy who hadn’t quite discovered that girls weren’t icky yet, it was an amazingly complex system with oodles of room for experimentation. All of the attributes in the system were randomly generated although the game also gave the option to re-roll if you ended up with a lame character.

This type of system was available in most of the games that followed Pool Of Radiance and tried to milk its success, but they all still carried over a problem that had been present since the early M.U.D days, as players could re-roll attributes for as long as they wanted until they ended up with a Superman who could waltz through the game. What developers needed was some way to balance character creation out, a way to take the random element out of it once and for all.

What Do Points Make? Prizes Characters!!!

Thanks for that header there Brucie, your cheque’s in the mail. You don’t mind if I adjust it a little do you?

Rather than coming up with their own way to evolve character creation, game developers turned back to pen and paper games and took note of the new trend happening there. Rather than creating characters by dice rolls, gamers were starting to use a pool of points and allocate those between a set of attributes and this was exactly what video game developers had been looking for, as it allowed them to balance characters from the outset of the game, ensuring that no one character would be able to perfectly handle every situation that the game threw at them.

That was the plan anyway, but games were still pretty simplistic dungeon crawling affairs back then so it really just meant that players stuffed everything they could into combat abilities and ignored things like Charisma that had no real role.  We still had plenty of radioactive horse-men running around the field and destroying everything in their path, but the new points based system brought something else with it despite the continued lack of balance: choice.

Rather than letting a random number decide what sort of character you were going to be, games now allowed you to place points into stats that suited your playing style. While this didn’t make much of an impact back then (as we all chose pure warriors due to the way the games were set up) it did give us our first taste of truly creating a character to our own designs, something that would be a driving force in RPGs as time went on. The points system is still the standard in character creation systems, though the games have arguably become more interesting and can throw more complex situations at the player, so every attribute is equally useful now. An offshoot of the points system is the personality test where the player is asked questions about what their character would do in certain situations and the answers they give determine where the points are allocated. Personally I’ve never found this to work for me as there’s always something I want to reassign afterwards, but it’s an interesting way to take the number crunching out of the system.

Creating Avatars (No, Not The Giant Smurfs)

Having seen in their sales figures the obvious reaction to allowing the player more choice in the character creation process, developers began to look for other ways to let players influence who their character was. Their latest solution was found not in games this time, but in books. The popular Cyberpunk genre had, for a long time, talked of people creating characters to represent themselves in games and on the web and this was the latest step taken by developers to allow gamers more control over who they would become.

For the first time, players could create crude images of their characters from bits and pieces, and those characters would show up as created in the games. While systems like this had been tried in the past, it was only when they were married with the points-based creation systems that they really took hold of players’ imaginations.  Gamers could create the look of a character and then spend points to allow them to live up to their image, something we’ve been doing ever since.

These two methods of character creation are even starting to be married together so that how you look affects what you can do. One example of this is the WWE series of games, where larger characters can’t be picked up and slammed by smaller ones. Another is the upcoming shooter Brink where larger characters have more health, but are slower, while small characters are faster, but have less health. While this method is still in its infancy and hasn’t yet allowed for stats that are completely based on how the character looks, it is an interesting concept and can only evolve further.

It was this addition that allowed character creation to make its leap from role playing games to other genres, starting with sports franchises. Specialised character creation systems showed up over time that allowed players to create their perfect snowboarding dude or wrestler, rather than a dwarf or halfling, and players of those sorts of games responded to this, just as players of RPGs had when the system had first shown up. Character creation was the big thing of the 90s and it was here to stay. Now we’ve reached a point where a game with a large enough budget (Dragon Age: Origins, The Sims, Spore) can release its character creation system ahead of the main game to allow players to really get everything the way they want it with their characters, and expect to make a profit on the release, which is quite sad when you look at it that way.

The Problem With Character Creation

And finally we reach the point of this article – the problem with character creation. As the systems get more and more complex, allowing more realistic representations of characters, those characters seem more out of place in the worlds in which they exist. Basically, the more variables the system has to offer, the more generalities the game uses to describe the character and that breaks immersion, unless of course you’re one of those who fully believes in worlds full of people called “stranger” who wander around helping people. No? Me neither. It breaks my suspension of disbelief just enough to grate on my nerves. I’d much rather take the guy who runs into walls and doesn’t look like me if they’re gonna call me “adventurer”.

Unsurprisingly, for something still viewed as a hardcore RPG element, it’s Bioware who have come to the rescue with what can only be described as a conditional character creation system. Starting with the Mass Effect series, but now moving over to their Dragon Age franchise (much to the annoyance of many existing Dragon Age fans), Bioware cut down the freedom of character creation a little so that characters would fit more naturally into the narrative. While you can still pick your character class, species is predetermined as human. Your stats can be set, you can change the way you look and you can even name your character, but that character will have a set surname which never changes.

These small concessions allow more realistic interactions with other characters in the world, as they refer to your character by the preset surname rather than the clichés of “hero” or “adventurer”. That one small change helps us as players to feel a part of the world, rather than an intruder in it. Interactions that might have previously been designed in multiple ways to cope with a number of races (one of the big selling points of the first Dragon Age) can just be written as though a human were involved with them, freeing the development team up to make more interactions, rather than multiple versions of the same one, and this can only be a good thing for players as we end up with a larger game containing more things to do. Gotta give it to Bioware, they may have lost popularity amongst the few who were determined not to be human, but they’ve married an extensive character creation system to a compelling narrative for possibly the first time in history.

From that first die roll back when I was so small I needed both hands to throw the dice, all the way up to current systems, I’ve loved character creation in games and I know I’m not alone. In a world where people will spend money to get an advance copy of the character creation system so that they can spend the months up until the game’s release defining every detail of how the character they’ll mostly be seeing the back of in the game looks, I’m not so alone. Even the consoles we play games on have incorporated character creation systems into their software to great effect (read this as profit if you’re a cynic like me) this generation.

Character creation has a defined place in games and the process is getting more and more streamlined as time goes on, and developers are stealing “being inspired by“ one another’s ideas. I can see a future not far off, where a system like Kinect scans us and assigns physical traits to our characters based on how we look (you’d better start working out now if you want that strength bonus, kids) then asks a few questions to fill in the rest of the details. Of course that system itself has drawbacks, and the amount of sites that give details on how to create versions of movie stars that just never look quite right would dwindle away to nothing, but you can’t please everyone, eh? At least then it may be possible to actually create someone who really looks like me.

Now, if they could just do something about the constant running against a wall…

Last five articles by GL Guest Writer



  1. Richie rich says:

    Great article.

    I’m not a fan of character creation though. I never dabbled with Shephard’s looks in Mass Effect 2 as I wanted him to look like the guy on the box art and ever since System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, I’ve disliked the idea of leveling up attributes without knowing what build is best.

    When it comes to characters, levels and everything else, I’d rather some overpaid game designer did it for me.

  2. Ste says:

    Nice read. I normally just accept the default character at the select screen. I’d rather the game be good than my character to look like me or whatever. The only exception to this rule is when I used to play City of Heroes. I’d spend a lot of time making sure the look of my character was just right compared to the powersets that I had chosen. It would be abit daft to have a character who looked like he had flames coming off his head when his powerset was ice!

  3. Furie says:

    I’ll be honest with you guys, I only ever create a character when I’m playing a “proper” playthrough, trying to get everything I can and making decisions as if it were me in that situation. If I’m just playing I usually just accept the default character as it’s so much easier and I can get my teeth into the game more immediately. I can see character creation systems in the future evolving to become much more user friendly though, almost automating the process in the background so that the player has a character more like themselves without having to mess around with a load of options. And I can see people complaining about that too. ;)

  4. Adam Adam says:

    I enjoy character creation but more so the aesthetic than the statistic these days. I like picking my class, I like deciding my gender, race (when required) but I’m tired of points and attributes. If I’ve picked to be a particular type of warrior, why should I then be asked to place my HP in STR and CON yet still given the choice to throw in WIS and INT. I know that for DnD, that sort of thing changes everything but to take a Computer Game and give you that choice suggests that it would actually alter anything when it won’t. In order to progress, the Warrior has to have STR and CON in order to survive 90% of the game and the 10% they can avoid through selected other means by deviating from that is outweighed.

    I like how MMO’s (take WoW) still provide attributes that increase level to level but don’t give you any direct control over that. When I level my Mage up, the game provides what I need and in order to distinguish myself from other Mages, I need to make different choices in Talents, equipment, glyphs, enchantments….etc. I still get to choose how my character forms and evolves, without the detail of character creation set forth in games like Baldurs Gate and NeverWinter Nights that I got started out on.

    I love Bioware for following that approach. Once you have picked your class, it lets you specialise in certain skills but consistently improves the basic functions needed for your class to continue in the game. It’s what’s right for Video Games and to the haters who prefer the old ways and the ‘control’ it provides, Humbug I say :p

    Would enjoy hearing more from you Mik :)

  5. Tania Tania says:

    Good article. I love character creation and the more customization the better! I love having full control over every tiny detail of the character I’m creating, it makes me so much more attached to it than I otherwise would be. Assigning my own stats at level up is crucial for me too, I want exact control over how they develop, not just how they start out. Maybe I’m just a bit of a control freak that way, but for me, that’s the best kind of RPG. I want to build a better person than me, exactly how I want, and then become them in the game. Great escapism. :)

  6. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I’m with Adam on this one. I prefer to go with a random stat setup and spend all my time on the aesthetics of the character, because I want them to look a particular way when I create them. Their stats mean nothing to me because I’ll still force the character into whichever role I choose to make it more realistic. The way I see it, we’re not born with the genes perfectly in place so that we can take on our particular role in life… we take what we have, make the most of it, and soldier on until we achieve our goals regardless of what genetics threw at us in terms of physical and mental agility.

    That way, my character may look the way I want, but I still have that very realistic uphill struggle of perhaps building up the attributes of a physically weak character over time if I want them to be a heavy armour user, or taking a hulking brute with less mental agility and turning them into a mage. For me, the realism from character creation comes in having to fight against what is naturally there, unless it has been fortuitous enough to provide exactly the right stats set, and having the character evolve over time rather than slot in immediately.

    I agree on the Mass Effect approach though, and whenever I found a note in Fallout 3 that had my character’s name, Ragmardogan, it was certainly more immersive than being called “Wanderer” or “Idiot who does too much for too little, for people he doesn’t know and will likely still get a sarcastic response on turning in the quest anyway”.

  7. SimonJK says:

    I’m definately with Mik on this one, but I actually think I’d out geek Mik! Yes I also come from the childhood of D&D, AD&D, AD&D 2nd edition and later on Shadowrun was my Cracksauce and if there is an aspect of a game weither it be RPG or action adventure that i can tailor make I will take painstaking lengths to furfill perfection and not just as far as character creation visuals and inital stats go even names! I spent over an hour finding the perfect names in Sacred 2 ( half cyborg dog? Easy). Yes I also do 2 runthoughs of any Fallout game to make the (OM)God character on the 2nd play. Not only that, but if any game gives me the chance to create and tailor make weapons and armor then I’m in Geek’eaven and not just adding a Soul gem. I’ve been addicted to doing it Vagrant Story and Parasite Eve and with over 700 hours on Two Worlds 1 and a few months on Two Worlds 2 I just prey that Bethesda bring something to the table with Skyrim or I may just give the tedium a miss that accompanied Oblivion, (there I said it! I don’t want another friggin Daedric Sword!)

  8. Edward Edward says:

    I’m actually legendarily terrible at creating and customising characters, and I was planning on at some point talking about it. You’ve given me a great stepping stone to do so, but I fear it’s not going to be as good as this article by a long shot.
    Stellar job, often hilarious and a lot of food for thought, so I enjoyed it a lot :D

  9. Lorna Lorna says:

    I love the character creation aspect of RPGs and can fully appreciate the evolution that it has gone through from the early days of tabletop gaming. I rarely go with the pre-defined characters and stats in games such as Oblivion for the sake of a quick start. My take is that if you’re going to be spending upwards of a hundred hours with that character, they’d better be fucking perfect. I usualy go into a game with an idea of the type of character that I will be playing: good/bad, chaotic/sane, melee/ranged etc and then work to ensure that everything I pick suits my planned character exactly.

    I can see the problem of finding the balance between the devs letting people be whoever they want to be and having to rein in the freedom of choice a little in favour of creating a more believeable game world. It is a tough call and whatever way it is handled, there will always be some outraged or put off gamers, but that is true of everything I suppose. As long as we have the luxury of defining our characters a little, I am happy to respect the conventions of the characters and game worlds that the developers have created… as long as I can be the usual chaotic ranged thief that I adore ;)

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