Sunday, September 13, 2009

Champions Online - The Woes of Open Ended Customization

Character customization is the cornerstone of the western RPG, exemplified by Champion Online's open-ended creation system. Players can determine every aspect of their hero's looks and abilities. But it turns out Spidey's uncle was right; with great power comes great responsibility.

I found the flexibility of Champion Online's character customization fun and refreshing, but posts of players struggling with some of the system's side-effects have sprung up all over the forums. They are the sort of problems that one might expect when giving players so much control with such little guidance.

The most significant woes of open-ended customization can be divided into three categories.

A Roleplayer's Expectations

One of the primary benefits of open-ended design is that players are invited to create whatever hero they can imagine, despite how fanciful it may be. If they want to make a ninja that dabbles in black magic, they can. If they want to create a gun-slinging cowboy that was gifted a super-technological bow by a Futuristic Indian from Outer Space, they can.

The issue here is that there will inevitably be a disjoint between how players imagined their characters and what sort of builds will actually be viable. In other words, players will have to adopt certain abilities that were perhaps not a part of their initial concept.

If your goal was to make a pure ninja, whose powers come exclusively through rigorous training, you will find the game very difficult. Characters that possess skills from various archetypes will fair best in combat. Luckily, the game allows you to customize the look of the power, changing its color and sometimes animation. If you didn't want your character to use fire, but still want a fire ability, no problem. Color it blue, and voila, now it's magic.

The only way for the game to make every conceivable build valid would be to standardize the potency of every ability, which would defeat the gameplay-related reason behind customization.

The Training Wheels are Off

Class structure in RPGs does more than define what sort of role a character will play. It is a framework that is designed to guide the player in the right direction. Players can choose from a variety of abilities, but many of them will come prepackaged into the class. These basic skills insure that a character has at least some basic functionality.

Champions Online provides very little in the way of guidance as players continue to develop their characters. There are not really any classes, so there are not really any skills intrinsic to them. The designers leave it up the player to choose the abilities that will help him defeat his enemies and those that will keep him alive. As a result, some players are finding the game much more difficult than others.

Most players can't be bothered to read through every single skill in the game before making their decision. They are likely to browse through the powers and simply choose one that fits their superhero's concept. Selecting skills in this way is rather hit or miss.


Customization without limitation leads to normalization rather than variation.

Mathematically speaking, a completely open-ended system of customization allows for the most potential combinations, yet many of the possible products will be absolutely daft. There will inevitably be abilities that are more powerful than others and ways of combining them to increase their effectiveness. If this were not true, then there would scarcely be a reason for customization to begin with.

Just as specs in WoW tend to trend towards a couple of templates -- often referred to as "cookie-cutter" specs -- character builds in Champions Online will also trend towards that which has been discovered to be most effective. The problem is that there are no classes here. So while members of most classes in WoW tend to spec a certain way, every player in Champions Online could feasibly trend towards a single ideal build or handful of builds.

This is particularly poignant for PVP, where competition is most fierce. If your character is not optimized, you won't stand a chance. After a month or so, the most effective builds will become evident, and you can bet that players who want to remain competitive will trend towards them.

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