Image by Dekuwa via Flickr
This Monday, Xbox LIVE’s Major Nelson announced that everyone who had signed up for the New Xbox Experience preview program would be receiving early invites. After being snubbed in the first two rounds of official selection, this was clearly the answer to my fervent prayers to the Geek Gods. (Of course, given that this "preview" came a scant two days before the official launch, I am reminded that it always pays to be especially specific when beseeching supernatural forces.)
While this highly-touted interface upgrade has been a topic of much discussion amongst gamers for some time, I, as a late adopter who’s still trying to find his way around the classic blades system, am interested for a totally different reason. Don’t get me wrong, the new layout is a joy to behold, with its fluid animation and intuitive navigation, but for me it’s all about the new Xbox 360 Avatars.
Yes, I am well aware that this firmware upgrade affords us features like the ability to stream Netflix to our consoles and the option to install games to our hard drives to decrease load times, but I am, for whatever reason, much more interested in virtual paper dolls.
I will admit it; few things bring me greater joy than customizing an on-screen avatar. I am what you could mockingly term a "dress-up gamer." My first 45 minutes of playtime in Oblivion, for example, were spent tweaking the appearance of my Dark Elf, even though it had no impact on his actual stats. Likewise, my house in Animal Crossing: Wild World is positively stuffed with dressers and wardrobes that are themselves filled with hats, masks, shirts, and umbrellas. When you find yourself asking what kind of fool such purely superficial fare was included for, know that I am the fool in question.
So how does the Avatar system rank against my current console doppelganger of choice, Nintendo’s Mii? Let me break it down.
Ease of creation:
Both systems give users roughly the same levels of overall body height and girth from which to choose, an easy task on either system, so it comes down to the all-important face construction. Despite their simple appearance, Miis can be deceptively hard to create, even for gamers like me who look like animated characters to begin with. Facial features must be expanded, compacted, raised, and lowered. Xbox 360 Avatars, on the other hand, take a strictly Mr. Potato Head approach. Simply choose your hair, eyes, nose, etc., and they are applied to your virtual model in preset locations. There is, however, a dizzying array of features available, so it’s pretty easy to get lost in the creation process on your 360 as well. Still, though longtime Mii artisans may lament the loss of some creative control, cranking out an Xbox 360 Avatar is fairly effortless.
Whether it’s due to technical limitations or simply that unique brand of complacency that sets in when you’re at the top of the financial heap, Nintendo has done nothing to supplement the meager clothing customizations for their Miis since the Wii’s initial release. This means that even now, some two years after launch, your little guy is still stomping around the Mii Plaza in single-color shirt and pants. On the other hand, the Avatar system has come out of the gate with a solid selection of fashionable accoutrements from which to choose. Shoes, shirts, watches, rings, and silly hats abound. This one is really no contest.
Despite the massive amount of individual elements available for Avatar creation, the final product suffers from one major drawback: it doesn’t exactly look like anyone. Miis, on the other hand, employ a minimalist, less-is-more aesthetic that can lead to some eerily accurate representations. Avatars are often more vibrant, lifelike, and well-rendered, but Miis somehow manage to distill a subject’s essence into its simplest digital analogue.
Due to a 24-month head start, Miis have been integrated into a fairly impressive number of retail and Wiiware releases. Admittedly, some of these use Miis as mere window dressings – save icons and the like – but one must give credit where it’s due. By contrast, Avatar support on the 360 is a little lacking at the moment, but I have no doubt that it will catch up to (and quite possibly surpass) Mii integration in no time.
The hose factor:
Perhaps the most important factor in the Mii vs. Avatar debate relates directly to which company will abuse you, the gamer, worse with regard to your new on-screen facsimile. Of course, in this case it’s more a question of in what manner you’ll be hosed by your console’s manufacturer. Miis, as I’ve previously mentioned, have yet to see even an incremental upgrade with regard to creation features, and, given Nintendo’s questionable online strategy, it’s doubtful that we’ll see anything new on the Mii Channel in the foreseeable future. Conversely, plans have already been revealed for an Xbox LIVE Avatar Store whereby new clothing and accessories will be made available via the dreaded microtransaction. This essentially gives you the choice of A) no new stuff or B) being nickel-and-dimed for an overabundance of new stuff. Not exactly a clear winner there, eh?
Picasso is widely credited with the quote "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." But whether Microsoft has cribbed the concept of the unified in-game avatar from Nintendo (as is widely believed) or Microsoft-owned Rare had the idea in the works for ages (as has been recently reported) is of little consequence. The real question is which is the superior widget.
All things considered, it’s a close race. Avatars, like their home console, offer a bit more tangible substance, while Miis rely on an understated charm. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately it comes down to a simple matter of taste. I give the nod to the Miis with the hope that Nintendo will see fit to offer future expansions to their simple system for making these uncanny digital equivalents. But given the 360′s amazing holiday lineup I can’t help but think I’ll be seeing a lot more of my Microsoft Avatar over the coming months.