Character Creators Kill Characters

This is an awkward time in game development. It’s a moment where more people than ever before are playing video games. No longer is it realistic to claim that any one group, gender, race, religion, or country makes up the majority of gamers. The gaming community now contains people from all walks of life from just about every country in the world. There are arguments about which markets matter the most based on size, but as far as actual gaming audience is concerned, it’s pretty much everybody.

This diverse array of gamers is a good thing for many reasons. But because of the selfish narcissism of most people, especially gamers, we’re also seeing some terrible repercussions because of this diversity. Today, more than ever before, people (not just gamers) have gotten it into their head that they matter a majority of the time. Things like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have given everyone a voice and for some reason that has led every asshole with a smartphone into believing that their opinions matter and that all works of entertainment should be tailor made for them specifically. And when it’s not made for them they whine, organize, riot, and literally destroy people’s careers and lives.

Your Opinion Big

I’m not talking about any one particular group here. Because so many groups are guilty of this new brand of arrogance. White men, homosexuals, racial minorities, women, and so on. All these groups and many more have on numerous recent occasions complained about a specific game or the industry as a whole simply because it did something they didn’t like or didn’t focus on their identifying group. Even not including a particular group in a game can cause an uproar. The problem with all this is that it has led many developers to try to work around the problem in ways that are easy and shown to be effective for basically all types of gamers. For me one of the worst ways this is being done today is with character creators.

Character creators are an interesting problem because they come from the best intentions. In many ways they’re the perfect form of escapism. When a game has a good character creator, you can literally put yourself in the game or be whoever you want to be. The problem is that this is mostly superficial. Let me clarify that moving forward, all mention of games in this post will refer to plot based campaigns. Multiplayer PVP scenarios are pretty much irrelevant to this particular discussion other than in the fact that they only add to the problem I’ll be addressing in a roundabout way. Multiplayer plot based campaigns are completely relevant though and definitely should be considered when thinking about this topic.

TLoU

Arguably the most important thing about a plot based campaign is the story. I said story there instead of plot because there is a difference. A game can have an amazing plot but if the story isn’t told right then the experience of the campaign will ultimately fail. The way a story is told, the way the characters interact, and the reasons behind why things happen in a story are all important parts of the experience. Think about any game with a good story and imagine if things where presented differently. Let’s use The Last of Us as an example. A game that’s often championed for having such an amazing story. Now imagine for a second if the game had done just a few things differently. All other things being equal, how would people have responded to the story if Joel had lost a son instead of a daughter, it’s revealed that Ellie will have to die to save the world at the beginning of the game, and/or Joel was Asian instead of Caucasian? I think most people would agree that while the gameplay would still be good and the plot would still be interesting, the overall experience of the story would be much less powerful if even just one of those three proposed changes had taken effect. The drama of the story comes from the fact that Joel and Ellie connect on a familial level because she reminds him of his deceased daughter. And the fact that he believes the world can be saved without her having to die from the beginning is what allows that connection to form by the end, literally sacrificing the rest of the world as a consequence of that connection. But in a scenario where you could create your own character, that story would be considerably less powerful.

Joels Daughter Dying

Joel and Ellie aren’t blood relatives. It would have been completely believable and possible for a Black, Asian, Latino or member of any other ethnic group, man or woman, heterosexual or homosexual to be put in the scenario of Joel. The story is that random survivor is tasked with escorting a random girl across the country. Either character could have been any mixture of identifiers and the story would still make perfect sense. But any significant change of profile could drastically reduce the impact of their relationship and by extension story. Therein lays the problem with character creators. They hurt the story in a game. Because no matter much effort a developer tries to make a character neutral story, it will never be as good as a targeted narrative. It’s literally impossible to do.

Modern Tomb Raider games are so powerful because of the vulnerability assumed by a young Lara Croft, a Caucasian female from a wealthy family whose biggest problem was losing her father at a young age. Imagine how much less impressive the character would be if she was a South American boy from Brazil who grew up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Now I’m not saying that a great story couldn’t be told starring a Brazilian male from humble beginnings. I’m just saying that the impact of the story in moments where men trapped on an island capture the character and threaten various physical abuses wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if he was the protagonist. That’s what storytelling is: Putting characters in situations that are impactful for them, not you. You as the audience are supposed to put yourself in the shoes of the character. Not the other way around.

Lara Captured

The problem with plot based games using character creators is that either the game is written for a specific character/audience, usually a heterosexual Caucasian male, and then blanket applied to all created characters regardless of important details like race, gender, and sexuality, or the game is written in such a way that nothing personal ever happens. Take Far Cry 5, which I can’t wait to play. The story of a deputy going into rural Montana to stop a predominantly, if not exclusively, White cult that is literally kidnapping and sacrificing people to their image of God. The game will have a character creator that will allow for male and female characters of any race. Now I don’t think it’s ridiculous to assume that if I, an African American male, walked into rural Montana today that I would probably be treated differently than either a Caucasian or Latino male and even more differently than a female of any race. And if that part of Montana was being run by a redneck cult, I believe that would be even more noticeable. Unless of course the cult genuinely has no preferences for their victims because their god told them that all people who aren’t in the cult need to be equally discriminated against and they were all pure and true believers/followers. But let’s be honest and admit that all people would not have the exact same experience walking into rural Montana. Having not yet played the game, I cannot say for sure if Ubisoft has done anything to differentiate the experiences of created avatars based on race and gender among other identifiers in this newest Far Cry. But I can say that in general most games don’t. Especially those from Ubisoft. I played The Division as a Black male. I didn’t experience anything that called attention to the race of my character. Sure the game is set in a post-apocalyptic virus state but it’s still New York City. Someone would say something about race at some point. They wrote the story as if all people are exactly the same. For the most part, that’s what happens in games with character creators. And it’s the least effective means of storytelling a majority of the time.

cover

Some companies do put in the time to at least try to differentiate characters you create in their games. BioWare, specifically with Dragon Age, is a good example of this. The ability to choose things like origin, species (which is different from race in reality), and sexual preference all help to differentiate the gameplay experience of each player and try to tailor an experience relevant to their avatar. And they do a decent job. But part of the reason they get away with it is that they create games with scenarios where human differentiation doesn’t really make sense. In both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, you have multiple species of people living among each other. There are prejudices. There are questions about species mixing and sexuality. There are ethical and moral issues that players are forced to make decisions about and then hear the opinions about these choices from various NPCs. But none of these moments take into account current real life human experiences, because they don’t really have to. People today may differentiate based on skin color, but I can guarantee you that if tomorrow five other sentient species of alien races started living on this planet basically all people would stop seeing human race as an issue. You’re not gonna think twice about the Black guy down the block endangering your neighborhood when your next door neighbor is a giant walking lizard that can lift you off the ground and rip you in half. Human racism makes no sense in these scenarios. Hell, it barely makes sense in current real life scenarios. The games still have racism, but it’s never between members of the same species.

DAI Character Creator

That’s how BioWare chose to deal with the problem of balancing out character creators and narrative. It works, but not every game has aliens and sentient non-human races. That trick won’t work in Far Cry 5. That game will most likely just suffer from bland character experiences and rely heavily on the enemies being so interesting that you ignore the fact that your own character is having a pretty much vanilla experience. What’s sad though is that people are happily championing the spread of character creators in games. All these minority groups are happily accepting White male characters with coats of paint rather than demanding games with plots written for their group. For me that’s a problem, not only because I do want to see more actual games starring Black protagonists but also because I play games for the story. And I don’t like bland plots that aren’t personal. In a PVP scenario I love creating my own character. In a game that pretty much has no real story like Dark Souls, character creators are fine because that’s pretty much all gameplay anyway. But when a company is trying to sell me a plot as the main selling point of the game, I expect a well written, personal, and realistic story. That story doesn’t have to be about someone I personally identify with, but it needs to be good. But there’s the rub. Most people today don’t seem to have my open minded tolerance for games that aren’t made for them specifically. They would prefer superficial experiences where they can take screenshots of their avatar looking the way they want so they can post them on Twitter rather than experiencing an Oscar worthy narrative. For me that’s a problem.

Dark Souls Character

The issue of diversity in video games is definitely an important one. But I would never agree that it’s so important that general quality of single player campaigns should go down as a result of trying to fix that issue. Instead I think this should be seen as an opportunity for developers of all sizes to make more games with more variation between them. Rather than try to make a game for everyone that no one will love. Make everyone their own game and everyone should be happy with their one game (a year). Not every game needs to be for everyone and not every group needs to be represented in every game. Instead when groups are represented in games it should be done to the highest possible quality and realism. That’s why for me the modern proliferation of character creators in games isn’t a good thing. I’ll take one well written game starring a Black guy over five empty games where I can pretend the character is a Black guy any day. Thoughts?

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E3 Not For Me

If you’ve been reading my blog for a long time then you know that I am no fan of E3. But really that’s a half truth. I’m actually a huge fan of E3 as an idea. I just genuinely hate the modern E3 model. I grew up in the 90s. The first E3 was in 1995. America Online, which I would consider the start of the commonly used internet we have today, started in 1991. I remember a time before the internet. I remember a life before we had it and then after. I remember the shitty dial up connection and the scratchy noises. This is important to this discussion because there was a time when E3 existed, but it wasn’t the over hyped, social media/YouTube driven fanboy party it is today. For me E3 is outdated, but sadly it’s only outdated because of the way E3 is now handled. It’s much different from the way it was in what I consider the golden age of E3.

When I was a kid there were no gamers like me today who genuinely don’t care for E3. That was unheard of. The reason was because it truly was a necessary thing. It was a time when all gaming news was distributed to normal gamers who didn’t work in the industry, via either print media or word of mouth. There were no Reddit leaks. There were no YouTube trailers. Twitch streamers weren’t getting their asses kissed by publishers for a mention. There were no developers tweeting out tidbits about their games. IGN wasn’t a big thing yet that you just automatically went to. I don’t even know what actually happened at E3 back in those days. All I ever knew about E3 was what I read about in the magazines like Nintendo Power and Electronic Gaming Monthly. And I wasn’t a special case. That was everybody.

EGM

E3 was a moment during the year where you literally got gaming news for the year. And when I say news I mean “new”. You didn’t know about it before E3 unless you had some unheard of connections or worked in the industry. There was never a time where someone would say “I knew about that way before E3”. Because you couldn’t. It wasn’t really possible for normal people. Especially for minors. That’s the E3 I grew up with and that’s why I don’t like E3 today.

My three biggest issues with modern E3 are it’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of money, and the bulk of the content shown is no longer news. If anything it should be called “olds”.

Shredded_solid_waste
Waste!

E3 is a waste of time in a world where the internet is as big, powerful, and widely used as it is today. In a time where people couldn’t quickly pull up live streams, videos, and articles on their phones while riding the bus to work/school, it made perfect sense to put on a huge event once a year to distribute a year’s worth of gaming news. That was the most affordable and efficient way to get the word out to the largest number of people. But today that’s not at all the case. EA can tweet out a video of a trailer with gameplay footage, a release date, and the name of the development studio and there’s a good chance more people will see it or a reference to it than actually watched the EA presentation live. That’s just the nature of social media. And if they had that tweet sent out by the right account the reach could be way more effective than any official E3 account.

The official E3 Twitter account has 1.87M followers. The official EA Twitter account has 4.91M followers. The official Justin Bieber Twitter account has 96.4M followers. He has publicly stated that he’s a Call of Duty: Black Ops fan among other games. If the name of the game is hype, reach, and ultimately sales, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense just to get someone like Justin Bieber to help promote or even just tweet about a game than take the time to set up a huge, inefficient press conference that most people won’t even get to see live because of time zone differences and region locked content? I’m not personally saying I’ll be following Justin Bieber anytime soon, but clearly E3 isn’t the sensible way to try to promote games in 2017. There’s just no need for it when you have the internets.

bieber cod
I did not create this image but I wish I had of.

E3 is a huge waste of money. Most trade shows not open to the public are. I may not have been to E3 but I have been to and worked at a number of trade shows such as just recently Computex 2017 in Taipei. These events are sinks for companies. They waste time, money, labor, energy, and basically every other resource a company has for a very limited number of overall sales because of it. Really the same amount of attention for any company could be obtained by sending out some PR samples to the right members of the press and/or fake press like YouTubers for a fraction of the cost. These shows really only benefit the press because they get extra traffic and excuses to travel and party while other people are doing actual work hosting those tradeshows. The consumers and the companies get very little out of it in the grand scheme of things. They’re done more for tradition than anything else. They’re also admittedly fun at certain times. But that’s not enough of a reason to spend millions of dollars collectively to have them.

One of the biggest problems right now in game development is inflated budgets. The cost to actually make a game is often a drop in the bucket compared to what publishers are now spending to promote them. E3 is a part of that. Extravagant stage shows with paid influencers and preposterous props all cost lots of money. Don’t think for a second that those costs don’t ultimately come out of your wallet as a consumer. The increasing use of and increased pricing of paid DLC and season passes is all done as a way to pay for this useless marketing that isn’t even necessary most of the time. Especially when we’re talking about games that don’t even really need any serious marketing.

Anthem
Anthem

When it comes to marketing there are only four types of games: new IPs, long standing guaranteed successful IPs, indies, and bad games. New IPs require a lot of marketing because there are so many games coming out all the time now that the only way for a new IP to make a profit is to stand out from the rest of the crowd. In that situation, ballooned marketing budgets may ultimately suck for everyone but they’re necessary.

Long standing guaranteed successful IPs don’t need any serious marketing. There are very few new customers when it comes to old IPs. 10+ year old franchises do not rely on new markets to turn a profit. They rely on repeat business and everyone knows that. The people who bought Madden, COD, and FIFA last year will buy Madden, COD, and FIFA this year. The people who bought God of War I, II, III, Ascension, Ghost of Sparta, and Chains of Olympus will buy Dad of War IV. That’s just the way things work. I am not at all excited about this new GOW and I was genuinely unhappy about the announcement when they made it last year. But you can be damn sure that I’ll end up buying it because I’ve been playing them since 2005. No one just tosses away a plot they’ve been actively following for 12 years. People just aren’t like that. I’d be willing to bet a larger percentage of married couples will get divorced this year than people who bought COD last year won’t buy it this year. That may be dark, but tell me it’s not true. These sorts of franchises have guaranteed profits. That’s why Ubisoft keeps making Assassin’s Creed games. Because we’re stupid and keep buying them. Because we’ve been buying them since 2007. We can’t help ourselves. And we always say we’re gonna quit every year. Yet when the next title roles around we’ll ultimately end up buying it. Maybe not on release day, but come Black Friday we all end up running back to bad habits. Thus is the nature of gamers. So there’s no reason for Sony Santa Monica Studios to pay to put up a giant God of War IV sign in the middle of LA. That’s a waste of money.

gow4 billboard

Indies need marketing. I’ve reviewed tons of indie games and I’ve spoken to countless indie developers. The number one problem most of them face is attention. Getting people to learn about their game is the hardest part of the process for most of them. It’s the reason they’re much more willing to give out review copies. It’s the reason they sell their games for cents on the dollar compared to AAA titles. They would charge $60 if they could. Just look at No Man’s Sky. They had that Sony marketing so they charged full price. And people paid it. Marketing is everything when nobody’s heard of you. That’s why it makes perfect sense for XBOX to get behind titles like Cuphead and push them heavily. Otherwise even if people would probably want to try it, they most likely wouldn’t ever hear about to make the decision to try it. Indies and new IPs are the only games that genuinely should be shown at E3 for sensible business reasons.

Finally we have bad games. The funny thing about bad games is that they can still make tons of money. I won’t cite any specific ones so as not to offend, but I’m sure we can all think of at least one game in the last five years that we’ve purchased that was objectively bad and a complete waste of our hard earned money. Some of them have already been mentioned in this post. These are an example of why companies throw so much into marketing. With the right packaging and hype, even a pile of crap can look like gold. But that’s the worst way to make and sell games. Publishers and developers should just work on making high quality games with less releases than throwing away millions into selling turds. The reality is that if marketing was done more realistically, the cost of releasing games overall would shrink considerably without profits, of deserving games, dipping by a noticeable amount.

The Witcher 3
Proof that quality trumps marketing.

My biggest peeve about E3 is rightfully the lack of actual news. As I said before, when I was a kid everything shown at E3 was news to me. There were no moments where they were talking about stuff I’d already known about. There weren’t lists of remakes, DLC, and games that had already been shown multiple years past. Everything at E3 really was gaming news. Today many people joke about the fact that E3 is mostly not news. And that’s sad. Only further proving that E3 has become a redundant and obsolete tradition.

I did not watch the conferences this year, nor did I last year. But I always check the highlights later. Just looking at the Kotaku round-up is pretty depressing for me. Without taking the time to do any research about what has already been shown before this E3, let me just list off the games I didn’t already know about or absolutely expect that were shown during this year’s farce of an expo. I’ll only do home consoles and PC because I don’t really track handhelds so it’s mostly news to me at any time. I’ll only be considering titles shown during the presentations that actually got more than just sizzle reel time because there are lots of indies that most of us won’t remember or know about even after they finally get released that will be on the floor at E3. No, I won’t be including remasters or rereleases because why would I? I will not even dignify DLC announcements by as being a legitimate part of E3 reveals.

nintendo news fixed
The sad part being that the only thing in this image we didn’t already know about was BotW Amiibo. Great job GameSpot.
  1. Sony
    1. Monster Hunter World (Actually surprised, impressed, and excited about this one)
    2. Shadows of the Colossus Remake (Great game that I already own 2 copies of and have beaten countless times. Remakes rarely impress me and they rarely count as news)
    3. Bravo Team (Put that in the VR bin where it belongs)
    4. Star Child (Put that in the VR bin where it belongs)
    5. The Inpatient (Put that in the VR bin where it belongs)
    6. Moss (Put that in the VR bin where it belongs)
  2. Microsoft
    1. Metro Exodus (Didn’t expect it but wasn’t surprised)
    2. Deep Rock Galactic
    3. Dragon Ball FighterZ (Didn’t expect it but wasn’t surprised)
    4. The Darwin Project
    5. The Last Night
    6. The Artful Escape
    7. Code Vein
    8. Tacoma
    9. Ori and the Will Of The Wisps (Actually surprised and interested in this one)
  3. Ubisoft
    1. The Crew 2 (Didn’t expect it but wasn’t surprised)
    2. Transference (Put that in the VR bin where it belongs)
    3. Skull & Bones
    4. Starlink: Battle of Atlus
  4. EA
    1. Anthem
    2. A Way Out
    3. Need For Speed Payback (Wasn’t thinking about it but also wasn’t surprised)
  5. Bethesda
    1. The Evil Within 2 (Didn’t expect it but wasn’t surprised)
    2. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (Wasn’t thinking about it but also wasn’t surprised)
  6. Nintendo
    1. Kirby Switch (Yay!)
    2. Another Pokemon Game but for Switch (You can’t truly be surprised when you’ve been demanding something for literally a decade)
    3. Metroid Prime 4
    4. Yoshi Switch (Yay!)

Sorry I didn’t include Devolver Digital’s list, but I can’t seem to find a single semi-reputable source that actually lists off what they showed this year. Instead every gaming journalism firm is just talking about how crazy their presentation was. The honest truth is that I’m still personally trying to find out exactly what they showed without having to actually sit through their presentation or read through a dramatic piece about the art of making E3 presentations. I just want to know about the games, because that’s what E3 is actually supposed to be about.

who won e3
Going by the numbers it was Microsoft. For actual purchases I’ll make before E3 2018 it was probably Nintendo.

Of the about 60 notable titles that were shown at E3, give or take what does and doesn’t technically count (Didn’t count Horizon this year as an example), I was only unaware of or not fully expecting announcements for 28 of them. That’s less than 50% of the total games presented. Of those 28, only 15 are new IPs and could actually justify the marketing need for being presented during E3 stage shows. Of those 15 new IPs only 10 aren’t VR trash and should actually be taken seriously. That literally means that this entire farce of an event was done to show me, and I am not nearly as up on my gaming news as many other people, a measly 10 games. That’s not news and it’s certainly not worth throwing an entire trade show over. That could have easily been announced at many of the various other events throughout the year that Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft already host on their own. This entire expo is laughable when you look at the numbers realistically. The gamers don’t win. This is all just a pointless hype train which isn’t even that effective by Twitter standards.

nintendo spotlight b
The only presentation I took the time to go back and watch in full.

 

I commend Nintendo for doing Nintendo Directs for E3 now. It’s smart, more cost effective, and is another example of Nintendo actively choosing not to play by the status quo of the gaming industry. And I think it’s hilarious that E3 doesn’t even complain about it. They very well could have told Nintendo to screw off when they said they weren’t doing a real stage show the first time a few years back. They could have stood their ground and held another presentation during the same time frame. Instead they play the video on the big screen for Nintendo and probably don’t even charge them to do it.

I like the idea of E3. I believe that it’s important for there to be a special time of year where gamers can come together and celebrate gaming by looking forward to the next year of great adventures to be had. But modern E3 is not that. This tradeshow is a big waste of time and money. It gives very little actual news and has gotten bogged down with titles that were announced years prior, DLC announcements, and remakes. Or games that won’t even be out before the next E3. As long as this trend continues, I will continue to not waste my time watching E3.

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As always, thanks for reading. Please take the time to follow my blog, leave a comment, and check out some of my other channels and Patreon if you enjoyed what you read.