The Character Dilemna: Retaining Uniqueness

in Tips and Tricks

One thing I’ve noticed a lot of RPG fans enjoy (and I myself enjoy a lot) is character customization. Allowing players to grow their characters in the way they choose allows them to make their own path and strategies, rather than feeling as though its dictated by the game. But with this customization lies a potential problem. If you let each character learn almost anything, they all start to behave the same mechanically!

Even with customization, your characters should probably feel different. So today, I’m going to explore 2 games that use customization, while retaining strong character uniqueness, to give you some inspiration on how to approach doing the same.

Game 1: Final Fantasy VI
Method: Powerful Unique Skillsets

Edgar shows off one of his tools, while Locke prepares to steal something.

Edgar shows off one of his tools, while Locke prepares to steal something.

Final Fantasy VI had a pretty strong customization system with Espers. Each Esper allowed you to master different spells and also affected your stat growth. This let you change your characters enough that they could all do a bit of everything, though strong stat bases could kept certain things more viable than others.

What Final Fantasy VI did right which kept the characters really unique was supply each character with a unique skillset that differentiates them from everyone else. There are several keys to why this worked:

  • Each Skillset played differently. Sabin’s Blitz worked differently than Cyan’s Sword Tech worked differently than Gau’s Rages.
  • Skillsets that didn’t have a unique gameplay mechanic did something that couldn’t be repliicated, such as Locke’s Steal skill.
  • The Skillsets are powerful enough to be regularly used, making sure that they don’t become a cosmetic, but ultimately useless difference between characters.

Because of the Unique skillsets, I would never feel like the party was the same with Locke, Celeste, and Terra as it was with Sabin, Edgar, and Cyan, no matter how I used Espers to level them up.

Game 2: Dragon Quest VIII
Method: Each Character Gets Different Customization Options

Jessica uses one of her Whip skills.

Jessica uses one of her Whip skills.

Dragon Quest VIII introduced a skill system to the Dragon Quest series. Each character gets skill points as they level, and you can allocate them however you want to give them more special abilities.

This seems pretty par for the course for basic customization, but what makes the characters unique is that the set of skills they can put points into is different for each character. Now there is some overlap, for instance each character has the Fisticuffs skill, Angelo shares swords with the Hero and staffs with Jessica, but each character has a unique nonweapon skill, and each of them have at least 1 unique weapon skill.

On top of this, Dragon Quest VIII retains fixed stat growth and spells based on levels, keeping the same type of uniqueness of character that older games in the series had. The skill points really allow characters to SPECIALIZE rather than being their entire character. While a sword Angelo and a bow Angelo might play differently, they still have more in common than sword Hero has with sword Angelo due to their stats and spells derived from their base class.

Conclusion

To keep classes unique, customization either has to add on to what they have by default, such as in Dragon Quest VIII, or you have to add on something that adds on top of customization such as in Final Fantasy VI. The customization section should almost never be where the majority of a character comes from, unless that customization system is segregated with each character to keep the characters from feeling samey.

Do you have any other methods of keeping characters from becoming bland mechanically? Any other games that you think handle customization in a good way that retains character uniqueness? Join us in the comments section below!

 

1 comment… add one

  • Azazelicko January 5, 2014, 6:14 am

    I enjoy the possibility of customizable characters, but I agree with you on the need for uniqueness of characters in story driven RPGs (yes, all RPGs should be story driven, but I am taking into account such games as dungeon crawlers like Etrian Oddysey).
    I am working on a customization system for a future game of mine. The primary customization options are Paradigm followed by class. At the begining of the game the player would choose the Paradigm of each character. Each Paradigm gives access to different set of classes, with some classes falling into multiple Paradigms.
    Characters after having their Paradigm chosen can afterwards change classes inside their Paradigm.
    So say character A chooses the Warrior Paradigm which gives him access to Knight, Warrior and Mage knight classes. He shares the Mage knight class with character B who posseses the Magician Paradigm thus character B has access to Mage, Warlock, Mage knight and Priest classes.

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