Friday, October 15, 2021

You're Ugly And Your Mother Dresses You Funny: Appearance In New World

I'm enjoying New World quite a bit, as must be apparent by now, but I don't think there's much of a chance it'll become my new mmorpg home. Several reasons but one stands out: identity.

I'm coming to believe identity may be the overriding factor in whether a game works for me long term or not. Gameplay, obviously, is extremely important, along with the mechanics and systems that underpin it and the controls that let me play at all but no matter how slick and satsifying all that might be, bonding with my character trumps all.

That said and perhaps to my own surprise, I'm starting to suspect how a game plays has more impact on whether I stick with it than I like to admit. It's not all about looks.

A lot of it is, though, let's not pretend otherwise. I hope I've never been shallow enough to suggest everything comes down to looks but in the past I have shown a tendency to be uncritically impressed by shiny surfaces. While I'm always more immediately drawn to a beautiful, new world ripe to explore, willing to put up with quite a deal of inconvenience just to get some good screenshots, over time, if I don't feel comfortable with the controls, I'm unlikely to stay, no matter how pretty everything appears.

If it's not all about the look, what about the stories? 

How long I last almost never has much to do with story or narrative, even though I write about those things all the time here. Lore scores highly but that alone won't hold me and no amount of intriguing plots or scintillating dialog will get me to go on playing a game that both feels awkward and looks unpleasant. 

The character I created.
When it comes to storytelling, there are just too many better options in other media to suffer through bad mechanics or boring gameplay for what in an mmorpg will, at best, turn out to be genre staple tales. I have somewhat low expectations of story in the games I play and after decades as a gamer (of sorts) I'm seldom minded to raise them.

If not the stories others tell us, how about the ones we tell ourselves? Naturally, at this point, since we're going down the list of why someone might play an mmorpg, a lot of people will be thinking of playing with other people.That's where the real stories are, isn't it?

It used to be something of a given that playing socially with other people was the fundemental purpose of an mmorpg. Been a while since that was true, if it ever was. For me, mmorpgs have been "alone together" games since... well, I guess since Rift

Rift was the the game that really broke the genre mould. Warhammer Online put some cracks in it with the invention of the Public Quest but Scott Hartsman hit it full in the face with a hammer and shattered it. Rift was an entire mmorpg where you never needed to party up with anyone and could still do everything.

Then, of course, he immediately tried to put the pieces back together with the Greenscale's Blight raid zone and that was the first nail in Rift's coffin. Not that it's quite dead yet but it might as well be.

Guild Wars 2 doubled down on what Rift promised and despite a few wobbles (What is it about raiding that makes every developer feel they have to add it in the end?) ArenaNet have, near as makes no difference, kept to the concept of never needing to talk to anyone to get things done. That's worked very well for me and while I'm happy enough to group up and pass the time of day politely once in a while, the days when I'd come home from work looking forward to three or four hours of lively conversation along with my monster-bashing are long past.

So, if it's not the gameplay, the visuals, the story or the social aspects, what is it that I'm missing in New World badly enough I might cut my time there short? It's just what I said: identity. Specifically, my character's identity and by extension the stories it generates. Those are the real stories for me.

You remember what Gertrude Stein said a propos Oakland, California? "There's no there there". Well, that's not the problem. Far from it. There's plenty of "there" in New World. It's full to bursting with "there". 

No, the problem with New World is there's no "me" there. Or rather, the character that's supposed to be my representative feels like a cypher, a shell, a vessel. Not like a person. Doesn't look right. Doesn't tell me any stories.

There's a reason I take so many of these shots against the sun.


I'm not one to talk about avatars in mmorpgs. I play characters. I don't play myself. I don't role-play, not any more, but I do have to be able to characterize the characters I play or there's no feel-through. My hands on the keyboard may be the hands on the pickaxe (New World is exceptionally good with tactility) but when the mining stops, who's that standing there, looking down at the shards? 

I don't know and that's the problem. 

It's not that I didn't make a character I resonated with when I was in character creation. I did. I was pleased with them. I thought I could get to know them, given enough time.

Okay, I'd very much have liked a choice other than vanilla human. It's true I'd rather play something else. The lack of options there doesn't add to New World's hopes of pushing to the front of games I play for longer than it takes that new game sparkle to wear off.  Then, human is all Funcom gave us in The Secret World and I had absolutely no problem whatsoever bonding with the character I made there. 

Indeed, my TSW character, who I remade as closely as possible in Secret World Legends, remains one of my favorites of all my characters in any game. I also have no trouble relating to my human character in DCUO. It's not about being human.

The character I got.
If it's not the lack of racial choices alienating me from my character, what is it. 

(Hold up a moment, though. For clarity, we should really make it clear that when we say "race" in mmorpgs we probably mean "species", don't we? You certainly can make characters of different human races in New World. There's no question of that. What you can't do is make a non-human character, another species. Not even an elf, which as we all know is just a human with funny ears, anyway.)

Without a doubt, a wider choice of species would make me more inclined to experiment, which in turn would make me likely to stick around longer but it wouldn't address the basic issue of identity here, which is that I don't feel I have much, if any, control over what the character I'm playing looks like. 

Yes, we're circling round to looks again. I knew they were important. Although in a way it's the absence of looks we're talking about because for most of the two weeks I've been playing I haven't even been able to see what my character looks like.

I know what they looked like when I created them. I chose to make a non-binary character with an appearance that was broadly female. It was an option Amazon offered and since I hadn't done it before I thought I'd give it a go. 

The character I got has the right pronoun but, perhaps ironically or maybe not, for most of the time I've been playing I would not have been able to tell by looking at them which of the body types I'd chosen. They've either looked like a walking pile of tin cans or a bundle of old washing tied up in rope. 

It very much hasn't helped that until tonight I believed there was no way to hide your characters helmet. By bad luck just about every head item that's dropped in thirty levels has covered my character's whole head. I've barely seen their face since the day I chose the color of their eyes.

I detest full-face helmets in games. It's hard to relate to someone you can't even see. Characters I play never wear them for looks, only for stats and in almost every modern game that's no problem because, should I need to stick someone's head in a bucket to make the right numbers go up, all I have to do is toggle "Display Helm" off.

My character's enforced anonymity is not Amazon's fault, apparently, although I'm blaming them anyway for making the solution so hard to find. I only found it while fact-checking for this post. In case you didn't realize - I didn't and believe me I looked - you can hide your character's helmet in New World. It's fairly simple although clearly not simple enough for me. I mean, I've only played nearly two hundred mmorpgs over two decades.

All you have to do is click on the helmet slot to get the context menu, then click on "Change Skin" and then click on "Hide Headgear". I googled it and found a clear explanation here but I missed it in game even though I did look at the "Skin" thing.

The only "Skin" I own.
I call it "The Fop".

I'm fairly sure the reason I didn't spot it was disdain. Disdain for the choice Amazon made over what, for lack of a more dismissive description, I'm going to have to call New World's appearance system.

Most games have some form of Appearance system, whereby characters can wear one thing but display something entirely different. The mechanics of these systems varies wildly and everyone has their preferences but even the clunkiest and most annoying of them allows you to get your character somewhere close to what you want them to look like, eventually.

New World doesn't have any of that. It has "Skins" and a tab to swap them onto slots but those skins are, as far as I can tell, exclusively extrinsic to the game. You can buy them in the cash shop (of course), you can get them by watching designated streamers on Amazon-owned Twitch and you can be given them in various Amazon-authored promotional events. 

That is not an Appearance system. An Appearance system allows you to swap the look of one item your character owns with another item your character is wearing. Your character. In the game.

I have absolutely no objection to Amazon monetizing New World by selling Skins. Lots of game companies do that. Guild Wars 2 does that. The thing is, GW2 also lets you save the look of every single displayable item that drops into a matrix, from which you can select the look you want and overlay it on the item with the stats you need.

And what's more, ANet also sell you the tokens in the Gem Store that fund those changes. They give you plenty for free but for obsessive fashionistas there are never enough so it becomes another income stream for the game. 

EverQuest II does something very similar. FFXIV, WoW, they all do. Wherever I play I use these systems. I even pay for them if I need to. It's nice to get them gratis but it's a reasonable, acceptable way for games to pay the bills.

My problem with identity in New World isn't about monetization. It's not even about aesthetics, although some of the choices there are certainly questionable. It isn't even about the best looks always going to the cash shop, which certainly happens in GW2 and always has.

It's about my character not being allowed to dress themselves. It's about identity.

I've received plenty of good-looking pieces as drops, pieces I'd love to see my character wearing. I'd be willing to stump up for a few tokens to swap the looks around, if the price was fair. What's driving me crazy is having to destroy clothes that look so much better than what my character has on because the stats aren't right and there's no way to swap them over.

I already dislike the salvage system. I dislike all salvage systems which smack of disposability and waste and run counter to any sense of internal logic let alone realism but that's another bridge to burn on another day. 

My real outfit. As good as it's got so far.
It won't last.

I could put up with salvaging the endless torrent of tat if I could just keep the stuff I actually like. To begin to forge an identity. To give my character some agency over how they present. 

For the first week or so I was carefully storing anything I thought I might want to use but it finally dawned on me my character would never be able to wear any of it. It was just going to sit there, taking up space. So I salvaged it all.

That was miserable. It was even worse when I looked at my character and saw them looking like they'd been dressed by their near-blind grandmother in the dark. If I don't like what I see when I look at my character and I don't see any prospect of that changing, why would I stay?

I guess in the hope things change, for one. It is very early days. None of the games I've mentioned had extensive, flexible appearance systems at launch (although I'm pretty sure some of them had better ones than New World). It's the kind of quality of life change that gets added later so we can look forward to that, maybe.

There's also the chance that by the time my character gets to the cap they'll have found some things they can bear to be seen wearing in public. High end gear is supposed to look better, isn't it? And I do tend to wait until levelling's done before settling on a signature look for my characters, which they then keep pretty much indefinitely.

There is time, then. This might fix itself. If I get to the end of the leveling ladder (A big "if" in itself, given the old-school levelling speed.) and I still don't have a clear idea who my character is, that'll most likely signal not the end of New World forever but the end of my first run with the game.

The clock is ticking. 

Although, not to be melodramatic about it, I'd probably take a break at that point anyway. I'm being a bit of a drama queen, I know. Still, it is annoying and they could do better and they should. 

I hope they change it.


  1. One of the frustrating things about an MMO like New World is that the creators inevitably take a really conservative approach to game design. This approach makes sense because of the amount of money involved in standing up a modern MMO: following the best-trodden path whenever feasible is just sound risk management.

    That said, there are so many well-known cliches that get perpetuated in the process of copy-pasting MMO mechanics. One of my least favorite is the weird idea of "clothing-specific attribute buffs". I mean, maybe I get it for armor value? Although in a modern MMO the armor value of clothing seems to have little do with its function. And why strength buffs, or endurance buffs, or for pity's sake IQ buffs? Does this hat make me smarter?

    The generic answer is magic, because of course magic explains anything. But it seems an odd fact of magic that most clothing that you find outside of tailor shops has some kind of random enchantment, and even more odd that as you increase in experience your clothing seems to always land with more powerful enchantments. And what's with level requirements for clothing anyhow? "You don't have enough experience to wear those pants." Seriously?

    In my fantasy MMO (Heaven help us all), clothing and other equipment, both random-dropped and purchased, would be just clothing and equipment. No magic. The only minimums for use would be the obvious ones: no using that bow until your character knows how to string it without hurting themselves. Clothing and equipment buffs would be through a whole 'nother magic system, and you could apply them to anything within reasonable limits. Most games already have some variant of this anyhow: making it the only choice would be more immersive while also allowing players to easily adapt clothing to their playstyle. Sure, maybe there could be the very occasional enchanted clothing or gear drop in a situation that was thematically appropriate, but with the caveat that it would be very very rare for that drop to be something the character couldn't easily make for themselves by the time it happened.

    Now if we could only get the forest creatures to stop dropping armor and weapons…

    1. Don't get me started on the wolves dropping armor and weapons. It's a genre trope that has no merit or purpose that I can fathom, unless somehow the overhead for searching separate drop tables would be prohibitive, which might have been true twenty years ago but surely can't be now.

      On the stats being separated from the gear, I agree... provided it's done the right way. The mmorpgs I can think of that do it have all gone for systems where all the stats go onto accessories that don't display (amulets etc)or inserts that slot into gear (gems etc). In all cases I've seen it then becomes a horrible mess of upgrading those items, usually through some form of grindy, attritional process that you can buy your way past in the cash shop. I think that's considerably worse.

      I also can't see it makes any more "logical" sense or is any more "realistic" to have you get stronger because you put on a piece of a jewellery than if you put on a pair of pants. The idea of "Rings of Ogre Strength" is just another genre convention hand waved away by "It's magic". I agree it sounds cooler to have a ring that makes you more intelligent or even a gem you could add to a ring but it doesn't make any more sense than a shirt that does it.

      There's also the problem of making drops genuinely exciting. If the item you get isn't an immediate upgrade, just something that can be turned into one through a secondary process, it's never as enjoyable in the moment. There's no perfect way of handling it, I guess, but I'm pretty sure we can all think of plenty of better ways than the one New World chose.

  2. I've been playing new world for a bit now. And the appearance system is awful at best. My character always looks ridiculous and horrible. GW2 by contrast is a delight.

    I do find myself liking an piece here or there and being sad when it turns into nothing more than repair tokens.

    Honestly with this much RNG on the item stats and everyone looking Like a clown anyway I don't see why they don't just issue everyone a single look. It's such a throwback to early wow days. But a 15 year step back seems like a HUGE miss to me.

    But as you say, maybe it shows up some day. I just hope everyone hasn't run off by then.

    Though I think the 3 faction thing is likely to end the game sooner. Without a reset I don't see how that has any longevity. At least on my server we are essentially down to two viable factions and one is way ahead.

    1. I really can't remember the last mmorpg I played where my character looked like such a ragbag for the first thirty levels. It's not just the randomness of it, although that's infuriating enough, it's the genuinely terrible design of some of the items. That bizarre, pink camisole thing with a brass breastplate moulded to the shape of a woman's breasts is almost surreally awful. It looks like that on everyone, no matter the body type selected at character creation, too. And as for that bizarre helmet that completely covers the eyes and nose...what the hell is that supposed to be? I guess it has to be magic because otherwise how could my character see where they're going?

      On the three-faction territorial PvP, the point, surely, is for two teams to gang up on the third, eliminate it, then fight each other until only one survives. After that the server is a PvE server. If that's not the plan then they need to have seasons with resets. I'm not sure most people will care, to be honest. I'd bet on New World being efectively a PvE game across the board in fairly short order.


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