What with my blathering on about the outfit changes in The Lord of the Rings Online, it got me to thinking more about appearances in MMOs. One of the best appearance-related systems is that of City of Heroes. Right from the beginning, you can create a very distinctive appearance for your character. As you level up, you also end up getting the ability to change your appearance and get new outfits. The appearance changes in CoH have no impact on your character’s stats – it’s just what you look like.
In contrast, the World of Warcraft is fairly limited in the appearance modification department. Your character looks like your base model, which does have variations, plus whatever gear you are wearing. Two tauren warriors in full Imperial Plate armor will look practically identical.
A happy medium appears in the Lord of the Rings Online. At level 20, characters get appearance slots in addition to their standard armor slots. People can equip their toon and either show the equipment they have or opt to show whatever equipment their outfit is.
So what’s with all the appearance stuff and why is it important to players?
I think a main reason people like appearance systems is one of distinctness. My character is different from others and you can tell because I look different. My Dark Scrapper (CoH) or Hobbit Burglar (LotRO) doesn’t look like someone else even if they are the same class, race, etc. People like feeling different from the crowd, especially in games where they are supposed to be a hero doing great deeds. Aragorn, the ranger-to-be-king, didn’t look like Barliman Butterbur, the balding, portly bartender of the Prancing Pony. Heroes are distinct from the general population and the most obvious way to be distinct is appearance.
Another reason for liking appearance attributes is status. LotRO or WoW armor gained by raiding looks very different from other armor sets. You can tell from across the street that someone is wearing Rift armor. Rift armor can only be attained by going to the Rift in a raid and killing a boss that drops the barter gem for that particular piece. Right away, you can tell that the person wearing that armor is a raider and has been fighting through some difficult content. It’s the same in WoW. You can’t just purchase Ashkhandi (sp?), Destroyer of Worlds (a giant two-handed sword), you have to kill the boss that drops it. The only thing similar in CoH is the badge album through some badges give you access to neat trinkets like a freeze gun (the name and conditions of getting it escape me).
Role players in particular enjoy the ability to change ones appearance. As a sometime-role player, I like that I can be off fighting orcs while wearing full armor and do my farming crafting wearing something more appropriate (like coveralls). Farming while wearing my whole combat set seems odd. Are the pests after my crops really that tough? Same with hanging out in a tavern. I don’t wear the coveralls or the combat stuff, I tend to have my Hobbit dressed like a Hobbit going to a tavern. If you saw a SWAT operator wearing their full gear in a bar, you’d probably want to leave immediately so as not to get caught in the crossfire. You probably wouldn’t think he was just there for a drink or to chat with friends.
Another benefit of an appearance system is to create an established look – if you get a look you really like, why change it? A friend of mine has a thing where she always wears red armor. Red dye is expensive as is heavy armor (she plays a Champion in LotRO). With appearance being separate from the actual equipment, she can keep the armor look she has no matter what pieces she wins in other instances or quest lines in the future. Just because she gets new items doesn’t mean she has to change if she likes the stuff she has.
While appearances attributes in a game are merely cosmetic, they are all too often overlooked even though they can help create a better sense of attachment to a character and a sense of immersion in the world in which the character resides.