Sadly, casual customisation is becoming a thing of the past. The following four games prove just how wonderful customisation can be.
The story of the Saints Row series is the perfect metaphor for the death of casual customisation in modern gaming.
Originally beginning life as a simple Grand Theft Auto clone, Saints Row soon evolved to be able to let you customise your experience in a wide variety of ways still unmatched by many other games.
Customisable vehicles of both land and air. Customised radio channels. Clothes in most style and colours. Facial features and body shape.
You could even change your gender on the merest of whims!
Can you name one other game that allows you gender fluidity as a casual gameplay mechanic and not as ‘quirky puzzle solving’? I’m looking directly at you, “the only way to enter Don Corneo’s mansion in Final Fantasy 7“.
Eventually, the Saints Row series devolved into Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell which offered literally no customisation apart from a DLC which included purple wings. Two wing colours. That’s all. That’s the level of customisation available from the final game in the Saints Row series.
Worse, nowadays it seems that most customisation happens in DLC or lootboxes.
Our customised characters are no longer the individualised version of our character that we want to see – it’s the version of your character who got something from a lucky dip.
Let’s examine some older games that got customisation right.
I’ll always remember the Mass Effect series for a completely different reason than anyone else: because it so clearly signified the death of actual roleplaying in AAA games. I could go on about that (I really could) but instead let’s talk about how much fun we all had at the character customisation screen.
That ending of Mass Effect 3, eh?
The Mass Effect series ended with what could reasonably be considered the worst ending to a major game series ever made, but let’s not remember that.
Or Mass Effect: Andromeda, for that matter – forget that game as quickly as we can.
Instead, let’s remember that at least one person has presumably gotten through the entire Mass Effect series with someone who literally looks like a clown and everyone in the entire Mass Effect universe took them seriously the whole time.
What does this teach devs?
The NPCs in games shouldn’t look like a grotesque parody of humanity, because that should be up to the player.
(Because we didn’t forget about Mass Effect: Andromeda after all because we cannot unsee the horrors it foisted upon our now-fractured collective psyche.)
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
Although it hasn’t aged well, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy still deserves a lot more love than it gets.
You can’t change your character at all once you get past the character screen, but there’s a limited variety of adorable 90s-style faces to use, as well a few clothing options which you can mix and match.
And then there’s your lightsaber.
Now, I know that other games let you have lightsabers, but most of the games that let you use it straight off the bat without grinding are games where you play a specific character (the Force Unleashed series springs to mind).
As you progress through Academy you get to make choices about your lightsaber, such as ‘would you like to use two lightsabers?’ and eventually ‘would you like to use a double-ended lightsaber?’ where each choice has their own benefits and drawback.
What does this teach game devs?
Let us customise cool franchise-based stuff as early as possible.
I would be very surprised to find that most Fallout 4 players (regardless of format, PC or console) don’t have at least one saved game where they never progressed the main story, purely so they can avoid being told to go and help out another settlement or whatever.
See, us Fallout 4 players have to do that to get to the good stuff: The customisation.
It’s not so much about what character wears or can look like, but what they can build.
You could build your own house. Like, your actual house in which you actually live in real life.
You could build your school (and then presumably get notified by the NSA that they’re watching you).
You could build a huge set of apartment buildings and set everyone to work for scrap in exchange for rent if that floats your boat.
The point is, what kind of world you want to build is up to you.
I’ve played Fallout 4 for over 1000 hours now, and I’ve built everything I’ve ever wanted to.
I can’t think of any other game where I can do that and experience it in first-person, and then protect it from robots and zombies. Ghouls. Whatever. Because Minecraft doesn’t have robots.
It’s a very good reminder for game devs: The game world is a character too, and gamers appreciate being able customise it as well.
Star Trek Online
I’ve played this for well over five years now and we need to get something out of the way before we talk about how great the customisation in Star Trek Online is.
This game is a free-to-play game that would have felt dated in the 2000s.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is a better Star Trek Online than Star Trek Online could ever be because at least Star Wars: The Old Republic offers story branches (a la Mass Effect).
Further, the space combat is about as well-balanced as a broken pair of scales and the ground combat is generally avoided by the majority of players where possible.
Furthest, the interface is a joke and the game still has glitches from launch. The writing is mostly bland, is generally aimed towards only one of the two playable factions, and the character animations would be right at home in the 1990s.
Wow, you sure are roasting that poor innocent game.
That was necessary because I want you to know that I cannot recommend Star Trek Online as a game to play, in good faith.
BUT: When it comes to customisation Star Trek Online is the ULTIMATE fan service game.
The game contains most canon ships (including the JJverse and Discovery) and the free accounts get a lot of customisations, too.
The game also regularly has giveaways of iconic gear. For instance, they gave away the Discovery uniforms a while back for a Discovery promo.
Only the most iconic stuff is kept behind a paywall, but most paywall items can be earned if the players put enough time into the game. I mean it’s not quite that simple and it’s definitely not quick, but it is that easy.
The players love making established characters.
I’ve seen Kirks. I’ve seen Picards. I’ve even seen Janeways.
I’ve seen Cardassians and Jem’Hadar before they were a playable semi-faction.
And this same level of customisation is available for your ships, too!
That matters because the space graphics for this game are genuinely amazing in terms of both aesthetics and canonicity, which is something I left out of my little rant at the start of this section.
So, maybe you want the Enterprise-D (from Star Trek: The Next Generation) from the first episode, but you want it to have the saucer from Season 5 and the nacelles from one of the movies?
Well, if you own the ships from a particular class (in this case ‘Exploration Cruiser’) then you can mix and match the parts for those ships.
You can also play fast and loose with colours. See the picture from the very top of the article? That’s an undoctored screenshot.
And that’s not all!
If you order in the next 15 minutes (there’s no time restriction, I’m just doing a bit) then you can get a model of your custom ship 3D-printed and sent to you.
That’s right – you can get a real-life model of the ship that you custom built in the game.
Top that for geek cred, ‘any other game ever’.
When I want to play space dress-ups then Star Trek Online is the only place for me – even though I have very conflicted emotions about the game itself.
What does this teach us? Nothing, really.
I just think it’s a really cool note to end on because it’s a handy thing to remember for people like me who like to complain about how things are different now.
YOU CAN DESIGN A STAR TREK SHIP USING OFFICIAL PARTS FROM A GAME YOU PLAY ONLINE AND GET IT SENT TO YOU AS A PHYSICAL 3D-MODEL.
You couldn’t do that in the 90s, could you?
I’ll forgive a lot of flaws in a game if it lets me wear an eyepatch without getting my wallet out. I’ll forgive even more flaws for even more customisation.
Look at the things I said about Star Trek Online up there. A fan shouldn’t talk like that. That’s because I’m not a fan of the game. As I said: I can’t recommend it.
But I forgive it because where else can I fly about in a pimped-out Battlecruiser that has Borg attachments hanging off of it?
The worst kept secret in gaming is that nobody cares if you just load up a game and then don’t even play it.
You can just look at your creative work. That’s fine!
That’s why I think that customisation is clearly way more important than gameplay: Because games allow us to make digital homes for ourselves, even if they’re mostly-crappy games like Star Trek Online.