One of my first posts on Gamasutra was on the subject of replay-ability and the factors that affect it. Recently, I started thinking about the concept of personalization and how it is different from customization.
One of my first popular entries I posted was on the Tenets of Replay-ability. In that post I outlined five key points that effect how replay-able a game can be. One of the points that some people commented on was customization and how they also felt that being able to personalize would be another tenet. As I've been playing games like Din's Curse, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Space Pirates and Zombies, the concept of personalization has been brought back to the front of my mind. This is why I wanted to write this addendum to that post and talk more about the differences between personalization and customization.
Personalization, in a way, is the next step after customization and further increases the replay-ability factor. Before I talk about examples of both, let's define these two terms for this entry:
Customization: Giving players gameplay choices and allowing them control over what to use.
Simply put, every action RPG ever released has this degree of replay-ability. In Diablo 2, players can choose from a number of unique classes. The important point to understand is that the player is selecting from choices by the designers. In Diablo 2, I can't be a pirate-ninja-witch doctor because that doesn't exist in the game. This leads to defining personalization:
Personalization: Allowing players to modify choices by the designer to suit their preferences and stand out from other players.
While Diablo 2 doesn't allow players to create unique classes, it does let players personalize them. There may be thousands of Necromancers running around in the game, but each one is different based on what skills they took, along with their equipment.
There are different degrees of personalization and customization in games, which in turn affects the replay-ability. In the game, Demon's Souls, there is a set limit of what equipment is in the world, allowing players to customize their characters. Personalization comes into play with how the player can choose what attributes to upgrade.
Personalization does not only mean gameplay choices, many MMOs allow players to customize their gear, either with different styles or color patterns. These serve no gameplay purposes, but they allow players to be different from other players, which is the ultimate goal of personalization.
As I look back at games that I enjoyed, they each had a degree of personalization to them. Din's Curse has been one of my favorite games in some time and one part of that is how much I can personalize my character. Not only can I decide what equipment to wear, but I can also create my own class out of any two skill trees in the game.
The important part to understand is that personalization is different from customization. Just having upgrades and choices are not enough, the player must have a way to alter those choices to their own preference. In Space Pirates And Zombies for example, there is a lot of customization in terms of equipment, hulls and specialists, but very little personalization. I know that when I use a level 3 beam weapon that it will handle the exact same way no matter what ship uses it. Upgrading different technologies has some personalization, but is largely about customizing. When I'm level five in armor, there is no difference in ability between other players who have the same level.
Another example is with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there is a lot of customization thanks to the augmentations, but very little personalization. If I equip the increase jumping augmentation, I will jump the same exact way as every other player who takes it every-time. Same goes for stealth, there are dedicated paths through the level for playing stealth and there is no difference between how one player uses the mechanics and how someone else uses them.
Games that feature Collectible Card Game (or CCG) mechanics are made for high degrees of personalization. The customization comes into play with the amount of cards available and the player can personalize their deck based on the cards they want to use. Age of Empires 3's home city system, allowing players to customize their nation with unique shipments, was the first time I've seen CCG mechanics in a RTS.
Previous examples have been related to game-play; however there is one example of this in storytelling. Alpha Protocol's biggest success in my opinion is how far the designers went to allowing players to personalize the story. Not only do the player's choices affect how the story plays out, but also how the player acts in missions. Avoiding detection, or killing everyone will not go unnoticed by the other characters and it's surprising how many different story variations were set up in the game. The degree of personalization in Alpha Protocol led to me replaying the game three times and the lack of personalization is why I'm debating on if I should even replay Deus Ex a 2nd time.
There are a few pitfalls to watch out for when creating personalize content that affects gameplay. First, is like with customization, you want to avoid setting up choices that are just better then everything else. One of my less than ideal memories of World of Warcraft was how people devised the most optimal talent selections for each class talent tree. If you didn't pick the right talents, you would be worse off than someone who read a guide for it. I also saw this in League of Legends as well, the further you move up into competitive play, and the more important it is to follow optimal builds for masteries and rune selections.
Second, one of the challenges with personalization is that in order for a player to feel unique, there needs to be a lot of options available. The more equipment, abilities and clothing options available equal more development time to create and fine tune.
Lastly, as a designer, you want to avoid linear character progression as much as possible when developing personalized content. It's hard to feel like you're creating a personalized character, when you have to get the same exact abilities, in the same exact way, every time you play. Diablo 2 both has this issue and gets around it with their talent trees. Advancing up the trees is linear, but the player is free to mix and match talent trees whenever they can.
One way you can balance content, while still giving player's freedom is using a point based progression system. In Din's Curse, every skill in your skill trees is available from the start. The only things stopping the player are the number of skill points and money that each skill cost. The better the skill, the more of these are needed and it allows players to choose between getting lower skills quicker, or saving up for the more powerful skills at the cost of being weaker now.
Now that I've thought about it, I would amend my list of the tenets or replay-ability to include personalization. Even though it is similar enough to customization, the differences between games that just offer customization and those that offer personalization are huge and are a strong motivator to keep players coming back for more.