What gender locking means for the player
Lost Ark just came out, and just like Black Desert Online there are classes that lock genders for different classes. A lot of people hate gender locking. Gamers nowadays think it’s very archaic. But what does it really mean for us from a design standpoint?
I think gender locking classes can be good in the same way normal characters are presented in any normal game. Path of Exile has gender locked classes, but I think it’s entirely acceptable. The characters in Path of Exile are specific people. They have backgrounds and personalities. They have some different values and reactions to enemies and bosses. In Path of Exile, the classes are represented by individuals.
There are very few games where classes are individuals, and they can be changed in gender. Diablo III is always the first one that pops in my head, but I see that as more of a greater detail by the developers. It is really a cherry on top of what is really needed. The characters in Diablo III are individual as well, and while there seems to be a canon gender, female and male genders are represented. It is a lot of work, especially because there is voice acting. But again, almost unnecessary because we’re playing individual people. It is also possible to lose some sort of intended feeling of the character by providing multiple genders.
Once you allow characters to actually make their own characters through customization and classes, I feel it very difficult to justify gender locking. I suppose you can work around that if there is a race that is only one gender. But that further expresses the main thing we sacrifice as we move towards customization: story-telling.
Every time we take something out of customization, it is more an opportunity for us to tell the story of the character, or in the case I mentioned above, a species. How much of that and how you use it can make or break the characters of your game. Go extreme with characters like in the Borderlands series, where most of the games (in anticipation of Wonderlands) you choose specific characters and their lines really bring out personalities and backstory. Or go the complete opposite like in Skyrim where, while the arc is fairly similar to everyone else, the way you look, what your character is good at, and where they hail from is all about what you want it to be.
Going in the middle either requires a lot of extra work, Diablo III, or a lot of sacrifice, Mass Effect. Although there is a lot you can do with Commander Shepard, there is only so far you can pull their personality and choices apart before the game stops you. So I say that gender locking is okay, because the middle ground is very difficult to get right, and if you don’t fill in those holes with either backstory or customization, you are missing out on giving the player great opportunities and experiences in their gameplay. It’s going to feel empty.
The biggest sacrifice the writer makes in adding customization is backstory. That’s okay, because if you’re making your own character you are likely also making your own backstory. But if they’re going to lock story-telling elements like that up, they are kind of expected to present something good. Just a thought.