With its roots in tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, the process of building an avatar for a game is either a major undertaking or an annoying barrier between player and action.
Role-playing games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Dragon’s Dogma have turned character creation into an art form but the more action-orientated affairs tend to take the decision away from the player, favoring pre-designed protagonists like Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard or Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher series of games.
The option of using the player themselves as the main character has always been an awkward possibility as well. For example, you could spend an inordinate amount of time sculpting your own face in Fallout 4’s character creator or use the Xbox One Kinect to scan a picture of yourself into NBA 2K15; in either case, the results are usually mixed.
The emergence of virtual reality (VR) headsets like the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear has opened up a whole new front in avatar creation. VR, for all its benefits in immersion, still fails to provide the player with a true ‘presence’ in a game. A good example is Crytek’s The Climb, which gives the protagonist a pair of hands but no arms to attach them to.
In single-player titles, it’s not really a problem – nobody is going to see your disembodied hands scaling a mountain – but a full avatar is a prerequisite for multiplayer titles so that players can see and interact with other people in the game. The same applies for any non-VR game with a first-person viewpoint.
This opinion piece on bgo.com, anticipates an increase in VR games that use custom characters as an enhancement to social interaction. It’s perhaps no surprise then that Oculus is hoping to change the way people interact with each other in VR experiences by introducing Avatars, a character creation system akin to Nintendo’s Mii Maker, in a few weeks’ time.
It’s still an embryonic piece of software as of mid-November 2016 and it wouldn’t be unfair to call it more of a proof of concept rather than a finished product.
At present, the avatars are texture-less and completely monochrome; you can choose facial features but with only a fraction of the complexity of (e.g.) Fallout 4, and the character is only a representation of a bust, not a full figure. There’s also the fact that the avatars have no gender or eyes so they have to wear sunglasses.
The simplicity of the project belies its future potential though, with players of competitive games like poker standing to benefit from the more immersive experience offered by Oculus Avatars, as well as the brands behind them, such as Sky Casino.
VR poker is already on the market – Oculus’ own Casino VR Poker is a free title that includes the basics of an avatar system – and there isn’t much to say about the game that hasn’t been said many times before. It’s an effort to combine the best bits of offline poker, such as socializing, with the convenience and immediacy of online play.
Oculus Avatars is way more impressive than I expected it to be, digging the combinations.
What I’m rolling with: pic.twitter.com/qKIiZaQQp6
— Sanborn (@BSanbizzle) 14 November 2016
One of the most exciting avenues for avatars and VR technology stands almost outside gaming, however, in the realm of spectating. To borrow from the above poker article by bgo, the Oculus Rift has the potential to create an immersive ‘stadium’ of VR spectators and then place a real-life tournament like the World Series of Poker right in the middle.
The addition of Oculus Avatars into the mix could potentially create scenarios in which competitors and spectators can interact with each other in more meaningful ways, such as clapping or dancing with each other. A more ‘physical’ presence could also make players feel a greater sense of culpability for their actions, combatting griefers and similar ne’er-do-wells.
So, to quickly answer the question in the title: are VR avatars the future of character creation? Not yet – but the potential of VR for helping people overcome the most hackneyed of traditions – leaving the house – is difficult to ignore.