One of the first major problems I got to tackle working in the industry was the Hero Customization of Fable II. Pretty much every game nowadays has some degree of character customization present, and  we’ve grown accustomed to varying degrees of modifying the stock character given to us.

Fable II’s Customization offered what I think many have come to accept as the standard, almost required set of features for a RPG:

  • Morphable characters (Fable’s character morphs were linked to your skills and alignment)
  • Hats / Gloves / Tops / Bottoms / Boots / Accessories
    • In addition, Coats (which fitted over Tops)
    • To complicate things slightly, some Coats could be switched into a secondary state (either opened / closed, hood up / hood down etc.)
  • A massive variety of clothing, wearable by either sex:
    • Metal armor
    • Billowing skirts
    • Hoods and robes / long coats
    • Hats that could be anything from metal skullcaps to top hats
    • Full body suits
    • Knee high boots, laced shoes, armored greaves
    • Wrist gloves, long sleeved gloves, gauntlets
  • The icing on the cake – the player should expect to be able to mix and match all these items

Here’s a video of the available outfits:

Now, as a gamer I’ve come to expect RPGs to offer me extremely granular, widely scoped customization systems. I want to make my character look as badass or ridiculous as I choose, and I don’t want to have to sacrifice this just because I’ve found a new piece of gear. It’s an expected feature, and quite often unless you’ve worked setting up customization for a game or you’ve sat down and really analysed what’s required to create one then it can be difficult to understand why they’re so incredibly difficult to pull off.

Fable II’s system was far from the best of its time (Saints Row II had a very wide selection of options to use, and then there was the phenomenal work put in for APB – still one of the best systems I’ve ever seen in a game) – but it did attempt to cover a very wide array of styles (scope), offer lots of elements to mix and match (granularity) and still allow the vast majority of elements to be combined together with each other without introducing too many ad-hoc rules (simplicity). We gave players the ability to wear whatever they liked: a chicken helmet, plate armor, a billowy shirt, a ballroom gown skirt and armored greaves – and by golly did they run with it. The fact it shipped and worked as it did was proof that, whilst complex and involving lots of work, setting up such a system was trivial – a known quantity. Behind the scenes though, we made a lot of concessions and had to restrict the boundaries of what the character artists could produce in order to get everything to work nicely. And by working nicely, I mean barely holding together within the constraints of a handful of complex ad-hoc rules that made adding new clothing a nightmare but did allow us to keep some more varied silhouettes.

OK, so what’s the problem then? What makes it so hard to pull off? Everyone’s doing it – why can’t we just produce a bigger, better clothing system than last time – with more scope, more granularity and with all the freedom of expression players want? I spent a long time trying to find a way to explain the issue in such a way that someone without prior knowledge of the work involved, who was not a Character Artist or Animator or Rigger could understand. I also needed to not just convey what the problems were, but also what possible solutions could be explored.

In the end I arrived at this – The Character Customization Triangle:



You can only fully satisfy 2 of the above features whilst maintaining
Art Quality and System Rule Integrity