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Where You Can Stick it

Josh Martz

*Thinks furiously*


*Scratches head*

Maybe...there? No, that will just screw me over later.

3 hours later...

Ah ha! Yes! There we go! Whew, now I can play my, I leveled up again! Sigh...

Does this happen to you? You've just leveled in a game, and you are allowed to allocate some points to some statistic. Do you put it in Strength? Intelligence? Or is it skills-based and you put it into Swords? At least when this happens to me, I know that I spend a good deal of time trying to figure out the best way to allot my points. Character customization is either a curse or a blessing to people. Some prefer it simple, others want to micromanage their characters to the point of living vicariously through all of them. There's a broad spectrum of preferences, but are any of them better than any other?

One of the major differences between customization systems is that of irreversiblility. Even though Diablo II took a good 3 years out of my life (and in retrospect, I still don't completely understand WHY), the biggest issue I had was that once you put a point into a skill, you were stuck with it. In a game where there are a limited number of points allocated to each character (102, I think), every point you gained mattered. However, with changing play styles, sometimes you would come across a character that would beat you regardless of what you did, merely because your skill set was vastly inferior to theirs. If you wanted to change anything, you had to create a whole new character and start over. This, in fact, is the biggest problem with customization in a multiplayer RPG. Luckily, there are plenty of examples in other games where you can "unlearn" your attributes and redo your setup - Guild Wars allows you change your attribute points in any town for free, and World of Warcraft allows you to unlearn talents for a nominal fee.

Most console RPGs don't really suffer from this problem, largely due to the fact that many RPGs don't allow for too much customization when leveling up. Stats are assigned to you, and any sort of change you want to make in an area isn't so much irreversible as it is fixable. Take Dragon Quest VIII, for example, every time you level up, your characters gain X points to put in any of their five skill sets. While through leveling, there are only a maximum of 350 points that you can attain, there are also items that will give your character 5 more points to use where you see fit. So, even if you get to a point where you say, "I should have done Boomerangs instead of Swords," you can still fix that problem by progressing in level or gaining items.

Of course, many games also allow for a wide variety of customization. Final Fantasy VIII allowed you to junction any magic you had to any stat you had (provided you had learned the junction ability from a Guardian Force), letting you increase whatever attribute you wanted. While 90% of the time I hit Auto-Junction (I found the game way too easy to even bother with manual), it was comforting to know that the option was there if I was ever so inclined to jump into manual.

This customization isn't limited to just attributes and skills, though. Even in Wild Arms 3 and ACF, there were passive abilities called Personal Skills that you could assign to your characters, giving them protection from status ailments, elements, and the like. While the levels of each PS was set in stone, it was up to you to decide which PS to buy and where to put the points.

And, as a side note, Final Fantasy X was only a little customizable in regards to the sphere grid. Sure, you could essentially choose what path each character went down, but once you were on it, you had to finish it or waste points backing up. And since the nodes were the same every time you played the game, there wasn't much variety. However, once you finished a line of nodes and went from, say, Wakka's grid to Auron's grid, yes, there was a little bit more of a choice in regards as to where you can go. But it was definitely not 'fully customizable.'

So what is better?

Some people prefer simplicity. They go through the game, level up, the game assigns stats, and the only thing the player has to worry about is make sure that the party gets enough money to maintain their equipment. I don't think this is a bad thing, but when you look back at games like Final Fantasy IV, it seemed a little lacking because if you wanted to learn a certain spell, the only option was to sit around and level up. That game also leveled for you, and you merely had to go buy weapons and armor to survive.

On the other hand, there are games such as Morrowind, where practically everything you did determined when and how you advanced in level. Want to raise your strength? Go bash rats for an hour. Want to raise your agility? Go steal things from every house in the village. The possibilities were massive, and you could literally sit for hours planning how you wanted to go about doing it. I never really got too into the game (the open-endedness was a bit extreme, I thought), but my roommate extols its virtues daily, so I know all about how obsessive the game requires you to be to advance.

Personally, I like a little mixture of both. Being able to change skills around it a nice touch, but having to fiddle with everyone's attributes without knowing the mechanics of how they determine other stats (such as Power affecting Attack, Vigor increasing Defense, etc.) is an annoying thing that I'd rather not deal with. If the number of options of things to customize is going to increase, then the complexity of each option should decrease. Don't interrupt my game by causing me to spend hours determining how I want to spend every point, please.

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