Form versus Function

One thing that has always bugged me about MMORPGs is that in order to play the game, mechanically, to its peak, I must relinquish control of certain aspects of my character.

As far as spells, skills, talents, etc are concerned, that I don’t mind because those are the mechanics of the game. If getting skill X makes me better at dealing damage than skill Y and I have chosen my role to be damage dealer, there is no choice. I pick X. Picking Y would be self defeating. Sure, the idea of Y might be cooler than X, but mechanically, to maximize the efficiency of the game, I have to pick X.

To a degree, the same goes for items… except often times the best items don’t look the best. Ask any WoW player if he enjoys the water cooler shoulder pads of some of the highest level loot and you’ll get a mixed response… on the look. When it comes to the math, you can’t argue, much like skills, item X is better than item Y for reason Z. Period. The math doesn’t lie. The problem comes in that the axe you got a couple of weeks ago has the really cool look, and it is dripping fire, and the new one that just dropped, which is mathematically better than the axe that drips fire, just looks like a typical hand axe, one that doesn’t drip fire. Or perhaps you have this wicked cloak with a pattern of a bat on it, and you like bats, but now you are presented with a cloak that is much better statistically but is has a pink butterfly on it… ick.

For that reason, I fully support any design that allows for the separation of form and function. Recently I’ve been fooling around with EverQuest II and I just hit level 20 which opened up a second “paper doll” (i.e. – slots for items) that was just for the visible look. That way, the robe I had that I really liked the look of for my monk I can keep wearing for the appearance, but I can slip on the chest straps in my normal equipment spot for the stats. This is a concept that should be implemented into every single game that uses gear as progression… stat!

Thinking on this concept though, and knowing that I love it, I wanted to be sure I had considered all the possible “down sides” to it, and my thoughts on how to deal with them. So, let’s go…

1. PvP.

Problem: In Player versus Player combat, the fact that certain gear has a specific visual look can be an asset to sizing up your opponents. If he’s got on the water cooler shoulder pads and the unique dark blue chest plate from that super elite raid dungeon, chances are the guy is going to be decked out in awesome raid gear, so you’ll need to approach him differently, more carefully, than you would some poor schmoe in head to toe rags from random outdoor adventuring.

Solution: Gear from raid zones (or as PvP rewards) generally has designated “tiers”. In fact, World of Warcraft openly supports this idea of tiered suits, especially in rewarding players with bonus stats and effects for wearing pieces from the same tier. I’d suggest supporting this idea from day one, even at the lowest level. Design all gear to be handled in tiers, and then provide next to a character’s name (both floating and on player listing pages) they tier average of all their gear. If a player has 14 slots for gear and currently the game has 200 tiers of gear, a player with a tier average of 200 would be fully decked in the best gear possible. Of course, players could try to “cheat” by equipping lower tier gear, for example dropping a tier 1 piece of just in, say, the ring slot would drop a 200 tier player down to 186 (200 * 13 + 1 = 2601 / 14 = 185.78…, round up), but in doing so, he’d be robbing himself of an entire slot worth of stats. While this might be an odd concept at first, I think it would fairly rapidly become second nature to players. Games could even help out by providing the number for the current max tier rank, so you’d see a player as 191/200 or 185/200 as a quick judge of their gear.

2. Nudity.

Problem: Sometimes the problem isn’t just the look of a piece of equipment, but that you don’t want to see anything in a particular slot at all, and if you allow people to turn off the visible graphic for slots, you are going to end up with “naked” characters running around.

Solution: While I would support some form of “disabling” visibility on slots for most locations (gloves, boots, helmet, etc), I cannot think of any reason I would support disabling the visibility of the chest and pants slots on a character, and I would be perfectly happy leaving those two slots as forcing a graphic, either from the equipped stat item or from the visibility override item. If a player really wants to be “naked” back to the fully unequipped graphics of a new character, they’ll have to have nothing equipped, at least in those two slots. Besides, as far as I am aware, Age of Conan is the only game I’ve heard of that is going to have any real nudity anyway, most games already don’t allow true nudity.

And that’s it… I tried really hard to think of a 3rd problem with separating the form and the function of items, and I even feel number 2 there is a stretch. If anyone else thinks of a reason not to divide form from function, or any other problems, please, let me know. I’d love to discuss it.

To me though, it seems almost like a no brainer, especially to extend the accessibility of any game to role players and women. And I’m not being sexist there… its from experience, almost every woman I know who has played an MMO, one of the first things they want to know is how to turn the camera and see how they look. Women, in general, care more about how they look than men do, even in a game.


  1. You only need new visual cues for problem number 2.

    In Dofus (another MMO), when you hoover your mouse over another player you can see his/her alignment wings, the awesomeness of them depends only on their ability on PVP. (or their lack of them, indicates that they don’t participate in pvp, that they suck at it, or they are hidding their abilities*)

    You could create a lot of different cool looking visual cues based on PVP ability; Average win ratio, Number of kills, etc..

    Check out the Level 10 Bontarian Wings over dofus wikipedia:

    Someday, someday i’ll have em!!

    *hiding your abilities makes you win no points when you win a pvp battle, and hidding them makes you lose points.

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