One of my favorite things in games, especially RPGs, is the ability to customize your character to your playstyle. Some games do this by offering various classes to play, sometimes with subclasses, awakenings, job advancements, or similar. However, outside of some limited skill point allocation, these systems tend to be somewhat limited in their customization, as each class is typically carefully designed by the developers to follow certain playstyles. Some games give the player multiple customizable systems that interact with each other and leave the player to design their own playstyle. Some of the most well-known examples of these kind of games include The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Path of Exile. While highly customizable characters certainly have their benefits, they also have a lot of downsides, both in their fundamental design and in their development cost.
Can There Be Too Much Customization?
Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. The thing is, adding more customization to a game gives decreasing returns and increasing costs on the part of the developer and after a certain point, starts harming the game instead of helping. Games like Path of Exile risk confusing or overwhelming the player with its immense amount of customization available. Just look at the size of its passive tree:
In addition to the massive amount of choices presented every level up, skills in Path of Exile are tied to skill gems, which are slotted into the gear players wear, allowing any character to use any skill. On top of that, slots in equipment can be linked to each other, allowing support gems, which modify linked skills, to change the properties of skills. A new player would definitely be overwhelmed by the amount of choices available. Fortunately, problems like these can be solved by adding systems to automatically allocate skill or passive points or by following another player’s build.
The other problem with lots of customization is that it is hard to design, requiring a lot of development work dedicated to balancing. With a lot of highly customizable systems working with each other, sometimes unintended interactions occur, which can sometimes create cool playstyles that the developers did not anticipate. On the other hand, it can also create overpowered builds which players are very good at finding. The problem with having an overpowered or best build is that it dominates, causing most players to use that build, leaving most of the customization untouched. This type of playstyle of choosing the strongest build is more prevalent in multiplayer games but still exists to some extent in singleplayer games as well. This is the case in Skyrim, where the best build is a stealth archer, which allows the player to one shot most mobs and clear content with ease. Of course, a big portion of Skyrim players do not build a stealth archer because they want to roleplay or are more willing to choose their own playstyle in a singleplayer game. In contrast, in a multiplayer game like Hearthstone, a card game, the strongest decks run rampant. In the past, there existed a deck called “Pirate Warrior” that, thanks to newly released cards, did extremely well against most other decks and was swiftly found to be the single strongest deck at the time when there are usually multiple “strongest” decks. As a result, for the following months until some cards played in the deck were nerfed, the overwhelming majority of players played that deck.
The best solution to this problem is to have multiple builds that have similar power levels. This requires a lot of balancing work on the part of the developer to achieve this goal. In addition, the more customization the developer adds, the more they have to balance. This is why most games stick with a class system or limit the amount of customization to the amount the developers are willing to balance.
Creating Impactful Passives
A common customization method used in games that is often done wrong is the passive tree or even passives in general. A lot of the time, passives are simple stat increases. The problem with passives being stat increases is that stat increases don’t feel very impactful. In fact, typically the player does not notice stat increases. This leads to a feel-bad moment when the player allocates points to or chooses a passive and feels like their character plays no different. Passives instead should have unique effects that boost the character in some way or even potentially changes the playstyle of the character. This way, when the player gains the passive, they can notice a tangible difference. This is the reason why League of Legends changed their rune system, which was previously a bunch of small stat increases, to passives with unique playstyle changing effects. For instance, one rune causes the player to do burst damage after hitting three abilities, encouraging the player to hit three abilities before backing off and waiting for the cooldown of the rune to finish, while another rune allows the player to activate a temporary out of combat movement speed buff, encouraging the player to move around the map and ambush the enemy.
In the case of Path of Exile, due to the sheer size of the passive tree as well as the amount of passive points a player receives, most of the passive tree is stat increases. Only the large important nodes have game-changing effects. Because of this, leveling up in Path of Exile feels more like incrementally progressing through your build with the occasional playstyle change rather than getting a new effect to test out every level like in Skyrim. As a result, leveling up in Path of Exile feels lackluster, but this is partially counteracted by how noticeably customizable the skills are. However, while Path of Exile’s system leads to less impactful leveling, it allows for a much more flexible result.
While Skyrim’s system of having no set classes and being able to learn any passive allows for unique builds, it is limited by its unchangeable set of skills. Every sword swung, arrow shot, and spell cast remain the same between every build. Each build only changes how these skills are used. In addition, the passives are in individual trees, with more powerful passives at the top, incentivizing specialization but limiting options for customization. While that is enough to build your own playstyle, some people want more customization so they can get more creative with characters. This is where Path of Exile’s massive customization system comes in.
Thanks to its passive tree and extensive skill modification system, builds in Path of Exile can range from a standard tanky face-smashing warrior to setting yourself on fire and doing ludicrous amounts of damage to everyone around you including yourself while surviving through life leech. Essentially, it allows players to get really creative with how they want to build a character and playstyle, which is one of its biggest selling points. However, like previously mentioned, it does have its problems with lackluster leveling and overwhelming complexity to new players.
In conclusion, adding the ability to customize characters to your playstyle allows for a lot of creative freedom for the players, but requires a lot of balancing on the developers end. In addition, the various systems of customization has to be designed well to give players a proper feeling of progression. If you don’t have the ability or time, then a normal class system allows players to partially pick their playstyle while avoiding most of the work associated with creating customizable playstyles. However, another thing to note is that customizable playstyles are mostly appreciated in RPGs and may not fit as well in other genres.