Appearance: Achievement or Individualism?

Can you identify the hardest-to-get weapons in your game? How about the tiers of armor for your class? Can you tell how far someone is into the endgame based on what s/he is wearing? This is the standard item-based model of character (appearance) customization. There may be options to make your orc 5% bulkier or give your elf fourteen shades of blue or green eyes, but it will be covered by equipment anyway. Making yourself look interesting is almost always a result of making yourself powerful, and your appearance suggests your capabilities. The guys in those robes heal, and the guys in those robes blow things up, and the guy in that hat is obviously very experienced. Looking good is a reward worth working for, and it immediately commands the appropriate respect from the knowledgeable (and often wonder from the ignorant).

Or is form radically separate from function? City of Heroes gives you almost all the costume items up front. Norrath and Middle Earth have cosmetic tabs for equipment to cover your mismatched raid gear (a half-measure to let you lock in your favorite achievement-based appearance). In a world where the same gesture might be a sword-slash or a fireball-toss, there is no need to connect how something looks to what it does. This allows the maximum of customization and individualization, and it can come as early as you like. I have seen swordfights somewhere between a feline hominid and a lightsaber-wielding lesbian mermaid slave; spectators included several librarians, someone in an oversized cowboy hat, and a robot-thing with a cow levitating over it. None of these had special abilities.

You can cross the two a bit. Item-based systems have dyes for customization, although the colors can still signify wealth levels. Function-free systems can have unlockable pieces or categories, like City of Heroes auras that are available after level 30, costume sets reserved for long-time subscribers, or weapons that require certain badges (and you can bet I show off my Rikti Axe).

Is one better, or is it a matter of taste? I often enjoy a connection between form and function, such as making the meaner monsters bigger. You can even reverse the two standards: have item-based play that does not affect appearance (like Diablo II sockets or City of Heroes enhancements) or non-item play that ties appearance options to accomplishments.

: Zubon

Yeah, I keep citing City of Heroes here. I have played a few years of it, and its costume designer is still the industry benchmark.

6 thoughts on “Appearance: Achievement or Individualism?”

  1. Nice article. Like in the real world, you can learn a lot from someone’s appearance ;)

    Combat in Guild Wars is non-item based, but people still go to great lengths to get the rarest weapons and most expensive armor and dye them black (the most expensive dye). I think it’s worth the effort, because these awesome looking character command the most respect.

  2. I <3 CoH costume creator. Going through an entire Lv1-Max arc without being forced to sacrifice your distinctive look is invaluable. I look forward to hitting 20, 30, and 40 to get new slots so I can have additional costumes.

    As for the achievement aspect, it’s nice to have a few pieces to show off, but it’s unfortunate when it’s required. I’d rather be known for my capabilities because I’ve demonstrated them rather than because I look like the Pink Ranger.

  3. I personally like the style of GW, and the upcoming WAR, where the “battlefield silhouette” of a player is telling of what the character’s class is. GW right now probably has roughly 20 armor sets per profession (maybe a little less), and WAR has said they will have like 24 max armor sets per profession…. added with GW’s dyes and armor additions (glowing hands or sunglasses) or WAR’s supposed trophy system you get a large degree of customization without wondering what that character is supposed to be.

    I think it really helps with communication… even when the players aren’t communicating.

  4. I wish that there were an option like the EQ one in WoW. My guild is just hitting T5 content now (I got the first T5 piece, a set of shoulders, last night), and I honestly don’t want to break up the nice, matching look I’ve had for the past few weeks, at least until I get more pieces of T5 gear. On top of that, even though I know we’ll never get to the Sunwell before Wrath drops, the T6 set from before the Sunwell looks fantastic, and the stuff that comes out of Sunwell is hideous.

    I can understand wanting to turn off the “fake armor” in PvP, but I don’t see the point in forcing players to look a specific way in PvE.

  5. …takes me back to the _real_ black armor in Ultima Online – that was like 22″ wheel-type bling

  6. I think there are some good compromises available. This is one of those situations where you can have the cake and eat it too.

    City of Heroes, actually, expresses both form and function. You can pick any character appearance and size for any archetype and build, but it’s pretty obvious what the guy with a boatload of arrows or a glowing squid or a gal wreathed in flame is planning to do.

    Armor, clothing, hair, number of digits, existence and color and length of fur, all are something your character is, not what your character does. Stance, animation, props like swords or bows or glowing bolts or arcane words trailing under your feet, those are what your character does.

    But while I’d like to see more games make compromises between the two, few games even consider dividing form from function in the first place. Many games could not. I would not consider a CoH-style ship designer in EVE Online; it’s too important to know how dangerous your foe is ASAP, so you can’t wait til after the first shot, or assume a certain recognition ability. I’d think long and hard about putting even Everquest II’s fusion in WoW; WoW’s PVP servers and elsewhere would go insane if you couldn’t tell how dangerous something was from the amount of stuff on his or her shoulders.

    City of Heroes does fine separating form and ability because guessing function wrong seldom matters, and form isn’t the primary method of identification. People make teams through /search without seeing each other’s costumes, or through global channels. Picking up someone a couple levels low doesn’t cripple the team in the slightest, and if you can pick a fight with someone, in most cases you can win (a level 25 can beat a level 50 in Bloody Bay, for example).

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