There are many reasons to be deeply cynical about the sterile, lifeless morass that appears to be what people like Mark Zuckerberg see as the future of the metaverse, a concept that is due for some skewering. But one of the many reasons is because every single screenshot of these gormless, dead-eyed digital simulacri is that they have no creativity beyond “the person behind the avatar but in a vaguely non-threatening 3-D model.” You have access to a computer, guy. Why in the heck would you look like Greg from Accounting when you could be a robot angel nurse with a flaming motorcycle?
This is as good a reason as any to segue into talking about what I consider to be basic “acceptable” levels of MMO character cosmetics. Each time you fail at these goals, you lose points. Lose enough points, and you get thrown into the reject bin even before I play the game because why am I playing your video game to look like Greg from Accounting? The answer is that I’m not and I won’t be.
1. No gender-locking
“Wait, that’s not customization!” you claim, wrongly. The answer is that it absolutely is. If you want to play some willowy little spellcaster or some enormous muscled monster wielding an axe, you should not be told “you can totally do that… provided you don’t mind your character being a woman/a man.” If you tell me that my preferred option for play is locked behind a specific gender wall, even if it’s my preferred play option, you have already screwed up because you’re telling people that they don’t get to play what they want outside of a very narrowly defined track.
Being able to be a huge lady wielding an axe is just as much a matter of customization as any attributes you can give that lady. Gender-locking your classes is a weaksauce option and it means you start off failing.
2. A range of hairstyles
You might think that I dislike when character hairstyle options look similar, but that’s not quite accurate. I’m fine when there are a few similar hairstyles with subtle differences… provided there are a lot of significantly different hairstyle options along with it. Look, for better or worse, hair is an important aspect of showing off your character’s unique look, and human beings have come up with a lot of different things to do with the hair on our head, so you should have a lot of choices when I’m making my character. Yes, that includes having a couple of ridiculous styles in there.
3. Sliders where appropriate
If your character creator cannot handle a slider for character height, it is time to take the creator back to the programmers because they aren’t finished with it yet. It seriously bothers me how often this is missing from games. I don’t insist on having sliders for everything in the game, mind you; there are games where I have more slider options for the shape of my character’s nose than some games have in their entire character creator. But there should be some.
Special lifetime underachievement award here for World of Warcraft, which finally included things like tail length options for Draenei… and then made it not a slider.
4. Cosmetic gear options
Let’s face it, your character’s geared-up form is what you’re going to be looking at for most of your gameplay experience. City of Heroes knew this, and it’s why you can spend ages on that game’s character creator despite the fact that every character is a flat-faced mannequin wearing mittens. So let us customize the outfits we’re wearing, darn it!
Another lifetime underachievement award here goes to Star Trek Online here for increasingly having few to no visual customization options for its various ships. The ship gameplay is the good part of the game anyway! Let people make their ships look different!
5. …that actually look different
Some of this ties in with a point further down the list, but having the best customization system in the world doesn’t matter if every cosmetic set you can equip looks nearly identical to every other cosmetic set. One of the things that bothers me about some classes in the original Guild Wars, for example, are how some of them have armor sets that are distinguishable from one another only if you examine the fine details. (Dervishes, looking at you.) Make wildly different cosmetic sets, people! It’s more fun that way.
6. …and aren’t just in the cash shop
None of these points applies if your only option for really changing your look is in the game’s cash shop. Yes, I am aware that your game needs to make money somehow. If all of the ways to look good require me to pay you money, something has gone wrong and I expect an apology. Or I just won’t play your game, which ensures you won’t make money off me at all.
7. A dye system
No, you don’t have an excuse here. If you have seven different pieces of armor that have the same texture and model but differ only in the shades available, you have done something wrong. Allowing you control over the color of your kit should be a fundamental thing, and it shouldn’t be held back to make the reward of one piece of content or another a slightly different color of equipment. That is a bad job and you should feel bad if you did it.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of games out there with a dye system that don’t handle the dye system particularly well; that’s rampant. But there should still be one in place just the same.
8. The ability to change your look
Look, changing your hairstyle is something that human beings figured out at about the same point we figured out how to style our hair in the first place. You shouldn’t need to delete and remake your character if you decide that you’d look better with some bangs, and you definitely shouldn’t need to pay real money just to change an element or two of your character’s look. I don’t mind if some things are locked behind the cash shop to change, but you should be able to fundamentally look different just through the actual game.
Slight side-eye here for how Guild Wars 2 does it, but you can purchase gems by just playing the game, so it manages to just slide past that “outside of the cash shop” option. I am narrowing my eyes, but you still get a passing mark.
9. Some visual escalation
This one might sound a little odd, so let me explain. I am a strong advocate for the idea that you should be able to make your character look cool and awesome from the start of the game. No one should start off in boring rags and eventually work up to basic armor; the game should start you in neat-looking armor and go up from there. But there should still be an up to go to. You should still get the sense that gaining power and experience makes you look different than someone who just started the game yesterday.
I really am pleased with how Final Fantasy XIV generally handles that; cosmetic outfits are available from right away, and even low-level sets look good, but sets look better and give you more options as you continue leveling. City of Heroes also did good work by putting some elements like capes and auras behind level gates for a long while; it gave the impression that these things were prestige rewards.
10. An ongoing commitment
Last but not least, character customization shouldn’t just be something the game launches with and then never improves. Your game shouldn’t toss out a bunch of visual options and then say it’s dumb. Add more hairstyles! Improve your character creator if you can! Add in new cosmetic gear! Keep it all going! Give people a reason to engage in all of these systems purely on the basis of looking good.
Sure, maybe this week you want to be a robot nurse angel, but maybe next week you’ll have the option to be a robot nurse vampire demon, and maybe that’s really what you wanted from the beginning. Keep it up.