Alliteration points for the title?
First, let me address the fact that there are definitely some scenarios in which a custom character doesn’t matter much. Any game played only in the first person leaves little room for you to enjoy your custom character’s looks. This includes everything from simple changes like the heads and skins in Borderlands to full on slider bar character creation like Skyrim has. You create a character and then almost never look at them again (to be fair, you can play Skyrim in third person but I don’t think most people do). Also, any game that is primarily played in single player makes custom characters much less interesting. After all, there’s really no one to show them to, so what’s the difference really? This, I believe, is Chris’s main point, and in this, we’re definitely in agreement. But there are many contexts that fall outside of the single-player first-person experience.
There are some very specific circumstances where custom characters make a game much more special. First off, there is the Sims franchise, where character creation and interaction is a huge part of the game. Without the ability to create a sim to look the way you want (in your image, your friend’s, the president’s) the game would feel incredibly flat. Part of what made the series so popular to begin with was the ability to create your very own people, who look and act the way you want them to. To be fair, that’s one game; a very specific scenario. How about a couple of scenarios that hit a wider base?
There’s nothing quite like remaking yourself in a sports game. Now, I haven’t played a sports game in some time, but the last time I seriously played one, I made myself the quarterback of the Chicago Bears. Sure, some people prefer to only play with the actual players in the league, but I think a lot of can agree that even if it’s only a novelty, it’s a lot of fun to create ourselves in a sports game so that we can live some of those athletic dreams.
Finally, there is the all-important MMO character. MMO’s tend to be played in the third person (so you can see your character) and online (so that everyone else can see your character). MMO’s require huge time commitments which means spending hours upon hours staring at the character you created. In that context, everything about your character seems to matter. Does your face look cool? Did you select a decent hair style? How does your gear look? Is it dyed so that it all matches in color scheme? Many MMOs have features that allow you to wear two sets of gear at once; one that is only used for stats, and one that is only used for show. That’s right, a character’s appearance is so important that you can wear special outfits that offer no benefit other than making you look FABULOUS! I’m not sure about other games, but for WoW at least there are entire websites dedicated to helping you put together the most epic costume you can. They show you where the gear is from, what gear matches with it, how rare the gear is, etc… People take their online avatars very seriously in MMOs because they spend hundreds or thousands of hours inhabiting their skin online. Sure, some people tend to take things a little bit far, but there is no denying that pimping out your online avatar is a huge part of what makes MMO games fun.
The bottom line is that there are some contexts in which it’s hard to deny that your custom character is a big part of what makes the game interesting. To be fair, there aren’t a ton of these contexts, and there plenty of situations where custom characters really are superfluous, but I certainly don’t believe that to be the case across the board. There are plenty of games out there where your custom character absolutely is an important piece of the experience.