Most of the character profiles on writeups.org are from comic books, so showing what the character looks like is trivial. But there are other cases where we need to generate original visuals :
- Profiles for characters from novels, short stories, choose-your-own, books, etc..
- Profiles for original tabletop RPG characters.
- Profiles for characters from older/low-res video games.
The simplest approach would be to commission an artist with a RPG and general gaming background. But writeups.org is a zero-profit project, so that’s not affordable. Therefore, low-cost DIY tools found in Windows video games.
Here are my notes about these tools. Note that I’m more concerned about generating portraits than generating entire bodies (and clothing).
These are ongoing personal notes, not a journalistic review of everything that exists. The goal is to talk about my experience, not be authoritative.
Table of contents
- APB Reloaded — 4/10
- Black Desert Online — x/10
- Champions Online — x/10
- DC Universe Online — x/10
- Dragon Age: Origins — x/10
- Dragon’s Dogma – Dark Arisen — 6.5/10
- Elder Scrolls Online — 7/10
- Elite: Dangerous — x/10
- EVE Online — 8/10
- Fallout 3 — 3/10
- Guild Wars 2 — 6/10
- Mass Effect –x/10
- Saints Row 3 & 4 –7/10
- Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim –5+/10
- Dragon Age: Inquisition –x/10
This failed modern urban MMO has a robustly-featured character creation system, and apparently there’s a lot of clothing you can get in-game. The customisation is fairly wide, so generally it does the work.
But the textures are really low-res. Even on a 64 bits (and thus large address aware) PC. I guess it makes sense – it is presented as a third-person shooter, so I’d imagine you’re unlikely to gaze in detail, up-close at the other Player Character mugs. And well, the game engine isn’t exactly recent. But it’s… 512 bits texts ? Something like that.
So the Saints’ Row tools will likely be better than the APB ones.
Black Desert Online
Cost: Super-low if you wait for a sale.
I have monkeyed with it but haven’t genuinely used it yet. This is because BDO does a specific type of shiny, colourful Korean heroic fantasy aesthetics. Where everybody looks like an expertly Photoshopped, glossy super-model. So it’s clearly not an all-terrain vehicle, but something more specialised.
On the other hand, it seems to be doing that quite well. But I can’t quite test until we write up a character who uses these aesthetics.
This used to be quite handy, if low-fi given its age. Then the character creation was “streamlined”, locking most options out. So we stopped using it, except for Bil who has a lifetime subscription.
DC Universe Online
Used for: Salwa of Bana Mighdall (brown leather outfit).
I have to mention it since we used once, but I’m totally out of date on this one. I grinded a fair bit to unlock costume elements so I could use it as a character generator. Then the game was sold, then re-sold, and my account had vanished so screw it.
Dragon Age: Origins
Cost: Very low if you wait for a sale.
Used for: Alamen Tabris.
As with Mass Effect, I’ve only ever worked on one character design in DA:O. So I don’t have an opinion of it as a general character generation tool. Furthermore, the tools in Dragon Age: Inquisition seem far most robust and modern, and DA:I is quite affordable when on deep discount.
Creating a character for DA:O works fine, but due to the game’s ages there are shortcomings. The main one is the plasticky aspect of the skin textures. Thankfully, mods allow for upgrading the tool with more colours, more hair styles, skin textures, etc.. Check our Dragon Age: Origins settings and modding guide for a primer.
Dragon’s Dogma – Dark Arisen
Cost: About $10 on a 66% sale. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
As with ESO below I’ve only run one quick test (in part due to having to install an ultra-widescreen fan patch, then realising that the game really really wants to be played using a controller, then deciding it blatantly could use an ENB and shaders injection).
I find the textures a bit crude (particularly for the hair), but shaders injection make that better. And the bank of presets is remarkably large. Body types, facial features, tones… It’s all pick-and-choose rather than sliders, which might mean a fair bit of back and forth. Because mouth #34 no longer looks right now that you’ve picked nose #52, y’see ?
I need to experiment more (in good part because this game is firmly rooted in a console gaming culture I don’t quite have) but this seems promising. Not quite for writeups.org since I prefer photorealistic close-up portraits – but for more distant shots it should work.
EDIT – The in-game rendering has nicer lighting than the character creation one, especially with Reshade. So it probably should be a 7/10. But I think there’s this thing where skin and hair tones are suddenly darker “in the world”. Presumably, the stark white lighting in the character creation suite makes hair and skin look paler than they should.
Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited
Cost: About $10 on a 50% sale. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
I’ve only run one test so far, but it’s seems pretty robust. The hair selection is a tad disappointing and the textures are MMORPG-grade (albeit a *modern* MMO), but there are solid possibilities around age, body types, mouth curvature, etc. that aren’t frequent in these suites.
I need to dig more (which means having to create visuals for a suitable character), but roving through the menus left a good first impression.
Cost: Yes. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
There’s good buzz about this creator, but as of this writing you need the base game *and* a season pass to have access to the “Holo-me” character generation functionality. Personally I can’t justify that expense just to look at the character creator.
Maybe later when the season pass is packaged in. If that’s how it works.
Cost: Free as in “free space beer”.
Used for: A bunch. Sylphid Erymos, Ksenia Venom, Vault Dweller, Chosen One (Fallout 2), sample Avernum party, Rowan Guerrin…
Note: Be sure to explore the graphic options for high-res character textures and green screen.
Very good tool for photorealistic portraits, and you can’t beat the price. Highly recommended. The shortcomings are :
- Eye colour can be off as compared to the sampler.
- The selection of clothes and accessories is limited. It’s just not the point of the tool.
- Very narrow range of body types.
- Limited control over the cranial structure, so the characters from a given bloodline are going to look a bit samey.
- No afro-textured hair :-((( (though there are some dreadlocks styles). Or even curly hair. The hair textures are quite simple, in general.
Cost: Super-low if you wait for a sale. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
Used for: Dr. Athena Griffin (Fallout 3 Lone Wanderer).
Note: Using a heavily-modded version, as discussed in the profile above.
The character creation *sequence* with the fast-forward biography thing is fantastic. Unfortunately, the visual character creation is crippled by only viewing the face through a minuscule aperture. Which makes it much harder to see what the frak you’re doing, and will likely lead to surprises once the character is rendered normally and in in-game lighting.
So ruled out as a stand-alone creator. Cooking up a proper FO3 character to play FO3, OTOH, works okay (especially with mods to add hair styles and the like).
Guild Wars 2
Cost: I think that the base game is free now.
Used for: Elegant Fox Spirit.
Note: I always run Sweet FX or Reshade with GW2.
I haven’t used the GW2 character creator in far too long. Really I should have started taking these notes years ago. And the problem here is that I’m maxed out on character slots (6 in my case) so I can’t fire up the ol’ character generator to refresh my memory unless I buy a seventh slot.
But I remember the generator being robust, though it has a set aesthetic range. Frex women tend to look like airbrushed, pouty young goddesses with eerily perfect skin and hair. The aforelinked Elegant Fox Spirit is a good example of the character generator’s usual aesthetics.
Starting clothing is so-so (or firmly in the “are you shitting me ?” zone for women magicians – or at least it was back in my days), but acquiring a more varied wardrobe, dyes, etc. can be done throughout the (pretty good) game.
I’ve worked on too few characters in the Mass Effect trilogy to have a genuinely informed opinion of it as a character generator. But those I worked on, I worked on *a lot*. So if you set out to create your own dream Shepard, I suggest :
- Checking our advice about hi-res textures, lighting, etc. for Mass Effect (the first one).
- Googling up advice about two tools – the Gibbed editor and the Coalesced editor.
If you’re willing to do somewhat arcane stuff such as mixing colours, altering vectors, importing prepared hair meshes, etc. you can significantly expand the tool.
Saints Row 3 and 4
Cost: Free for the “Saints Row the Third – Initiation Station” and “Saints Row IV Inauguration Station”. Very cheap if you get SR3 on sale. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
Used for: Gitane (with Photoshopping), Vic the trader, Fallout companions, Shivangi (with Photoshopping), Salwa of Bana-Mighdall, Gom Jabbar, Slamdance.
This was my fav before EVE Online enabled free access accounts. Powerful tools that give you fine control over most everything (including body type) and good flexibility.
The downsides :
- Everything looks exaggerated and cartoony. You can go for something more subtle, but often you have to fight the tool to achieve that.
- Clothes limited to modern urban things, but with a few exceptions that might be what you need.
- No green or white screen, no meaningful capacity to save if using the free software (so take a lot of shots of your finished model).
A lot of Skyrim’s usefulness will be down to modding, so you’re going to spend a long while poring over the Nexus (or in some cases the NSFW Lovers’ Lab ) for resources. Which in turns means a lot of toys to play with. For instance I tend to prefer photorealistic skin, eyes, hair, beard, etc. textures. But if what you need is glamour cover aesthetics and fabulous makeup styles, just pick different mods.
Skyrim can probably do the job for heroic-fantasy characters, including some non-humans one. How useful exactly it’s going to be depend on :
- How willing you are to learn the basics of Skyrim mod selection, installation and management.
- How well you know the game. Particularly to locate the clothing and armour you want for the character, and to select photography spots.
- How you’ll react to the odd character creation menus. I suspect it’s down to how used you are to console UIs. I haven’t had a console since the 1980s, so I kinda struggle with it.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
I’ve only used that one once so far, so I don’t have an educated opinion. First impressions include :
- You do have to have a sense of design and proportions. It’s trivial to end up with a face that’s off compared to what you wanted and you can’t quite tell why.
- As a corollary, this means you have to spend lots of time sculpting. Mind, “I’ve spent hours in a Bioware character creator !” isn’t an uncommon experience.
- The dark green background in the character creator throws off the sense of colour and lighting. As often, the tones are gonna look different once in the world, particularly the greens and blues.
EDIT – Second portrait done. The HQ hair and eyes textures mods from the Nexus are a must, but it does seem like a nice tool. The lighting in the generator gives a greenish tinge to everything though, and apparently you *can’t* save until you’ve done the entire prologue.