Revolutionary: It Ain't Mii

Mike sylvester
M. sylvester|12.31.08

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Revolutionary: It Ain't Mii
As the New Year approaches and some of you are making your resolutions, it's a natural time to reflect on who you are and who you would like to be. Two years ago when I brought home my Wii and was sculpting a likeness of myself in Mii form, I was doing just that sort of reflecting.

Recently, Sony opened up their new Playstation Home service to public beta and Microsoft unrolled the New Xbox Experience. With these additions, it has become possible to create an effigy of ourselves across each platform, so I'd like to give you my impressions of my own three representations. I can tell you right now, a couple of these ain't pretty.

On the first day, I created my Mii, and it was good. Nintendo keeps the customization interface for its avatars simple and just lets you detail your head with only rough settings for height and body shape. Beyond that, the only clothes options come in the choice of what color shirt you'll be wearing in every game. It may seem extremely limited by description, but in my opinion, my cartoony Mii does a terrific job at representing me.

The customization here is deceptively robust. Think of playing Mr. Potato Head with a 20-gallon bucket of parts that can be stuck just about anywhere. Then imagine being able to pick up a controller, move it around and have your Mr. Potato Head do what you're doing. The artist in me was truly awakened after creating my own Mii, because I went on to create my family members, friends, and celebrities, then filled the empty spaces in my Mii Plaza with parading Miis from friends. The greatest achievement of the Wii is that they are distinctly recognizable, and as caricatures, they practically explode with personality.

Xbox 360 Avatar
The team responsible for coming up with a catchy and highly-marketable name for the Xbox 360's avatars must have gotten huge bonus checks for all their hard work. Not only do they have a cartoon and all its associated merchandise to help promote the name, but a big budget movie from the maker of Titanic is in the works with a corresponding video game being developed in parallel. Avatars will be on the minds and lips of everyone soon, and that's naturally going to draw in legions of new Xbox patrons! Riiiight.

If the Avatar name does nothing else, it hints at a plan to put you inside a virtual world experiencing things that perhaps wouldn't be possible (or morally acceptable?) in the real world. As there's not yet any content to judge their functionality, we can only discuss the appearance of Avatars and how well it complements our true selves. If your experience with Avatars has been anything like mine or that of my friends, it does a terrible job.

For starters, the parts for sculpting your face aren't distinct enough to show noteworthy differences when changed. Apart from clothing and hairstyles, most Avatars have a homogenous appearance, and I thought that kind of dull sameness was what we were trying to get away from. The most noticeable difference between my Avatar's appearance and my real visage is the hair. I tried to select a dark brown color, but the rim lighting effect of the NXE's rendering engine goes haywire on dark hair. If I choose one of the shorter coifs, my Avatar looks as if it's been given a swirly in a toilet bowl full of peroxide.

Foregoing an accurate depiction of my current self, I selected the Whoopie Goldberg dreadlocks. People that know me won't think this too strange because I actually used to have dreadlocks ... three years ago. And that's how I've come to think of Microsoft's implementation of gamer avatars. It's so three years ago. It seems like something conceived in the pre-Wii era when the stereotypical gamer would be described as a sort of sunlight-fearing miserly morlock, secretly coveting the looks and lifestyle of the beautiful and super-social surface dwellers. The newly-expanded gaming market is more cosmopolitan, and I believe they'd be proud to have avatars that really look like themselves. It makes no sense to allow so little variance in features, even if these indistinguishable representations have trendy threads and big smiles to cover up their lack of true and singular identity.

Home Boys/Girls
After spending several years crafting the Home engine, interface, and world there was no money to pay a team to come up with a clever name. I'll refer to my creation here as a Home Boy, and the ladies may call theirs' "Home Girls." Go ahead, royalty free, that's my gift to you.

Home has the most best tools for sculpting a photorealistic likeness of yourself, but even so, I can't make my Home Boy look anything like me. The result of an hour's worth of tinkering was a creation that looks more like my uncle than me or even anyone more closely related to me. I'd write it off as my own ineptitude, but a similar amount of time spent in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion's character creator gave me an avatar that was convincing enough to fool friends and family into thinking it was made from photos or scans of my real face.

Ready for the battlefield / Ready for bowling alley

I suppose for being built into a Second Life clone, it doesn't look too shabby. But the chilling stare of this soulless stranger is a bit off-putting, even when setting him loose to wander amongst crowds of other undead Home-dwellers. The clothing options are purposely limited, because Home has a mall where I'm expected to spend real money to clothe my Home Boy. Beyond that, there are a few mini-games that you have to stand waiting in virtual lines to play, a movie theater that only shows ads and trailers, and your own personal condo to furnish with Ikea-crafted adornments (again, paid for with real money). As if your first life didn't have enough of this.

A mall full of zombies and me without a weapon

To be fair, it is just a beta release. The final product may bound over the hurdles of meh-ness and achieve unforeseen heights of glorious innovation. Being that the Home service is already free, content producers may follow in the spirit of charity building Home into something of value before starting to charge. We have seen freebies and discounted items appearing in Sony's Playstation Store from time to time, and it doesn't take a marketing expert to know that that's good business.

Am I over-analyzing these gaming avatars? Consider for a moment that Miis, Avatars, and Home boys/girls are representative of not only you as an integrated and immersed being in a game environment, but they also represent their respective platform proprietors' ambitions for designing and building new content and worlds in which to immerse yourself. If the avatar creation tools are any indication, taking attention away from facial characteristics and focusing on wardrobe, Sony and Microsoft intend to get you hooked on outfitting your digital incarnation, in turn building a market for virtual haberdashers. Like they say in the drug biz, "Only the first hit is free."

Currently, outside of tacked-on Scene It? integration, Xbox 360 Avatars aren't good for much more than playing dolly dress-up (apparently, a long overlooked pot o' gold for the 17-35-year old male demographic primarily targeted). There are games on the horizon that will feature Avatars in a similar fashion to what we're accustomed with our Miis.

The Playstation Home Boys and Girls are restricted to the Home world, so unless more sports and games are built into the Home service, we won't be seeing them swinging bats and rounding bases, punching each other senseless, or karting around tracks.

It's a bit early to give a ruling on usage of Sony and Microsoft's avatars, but on the matter of aesthetics, Nintendo stands unrivaled. As I stated in the beginning, these are my personal impressions of the my consoles' clones. If you have a different take, please tell us about it in the comments.

Every other week, Mike Sylvester brings you REVOLUTIONARY, a look at the wide world of Wii possibilities. Why, it was the topic of Miis that introduced Mike as a new member of the Wii Fanboy staff, and if you'd like to see some more of us in Mii form, have a gander at Mii Spotlight: Take a look inside.

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