Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cosmetic Gear Systems

It seems like cosmetic gear has won the battle. Almost all games include the ability to change a character's appearance without affecting a character's stats. The days where you could look at a character and visually identify what they had achieved or their power level are gone. However, it's interesting that there are at least four separate cosmetic gear systems in use in modern MMOs. Let's compare each one.

1. Transmogrification

Used by Blizzard, TERA.

In this solution, an individual item's appearance is changed to look like something else. The changed appearance is tied to the item. Advantages are that this makes a sort of sense within the fiction of the game world. As well, it is easy to tie different appearances to your different gear sets. You can have one look for dps gear, and one look for healing gear, and when you swap gear, your outfit automatically swaps.

The disadvantage is that because it is tied to your gear, every time you get a new item, you have to transmogrify it to get your look back. You also have to keep the old items around, and the process is a bit complicated compared to some of the other solutions. As well, each work set corresponds to one and only one cosmetic set. You can't switch between two different looks while wearing your healing gear, without re-transmogrifying everything.

2. Mods

Used by The Old Republic.

In this solution, the visual armor is a shell, and the stats come from mods which are inserted into the armor. Again, an advantage is that it make sense within the game world. It can tie into the crafting system, as there are now mods as well as armor to create. As well, it's fairly easy to upgrade pieces. Just rip out the mods from a new item and put them in the old item. A final advantage is that this doubles as a "reforging" system, because you can adjust stats simply by switching up the mods.

For disadvantages, again, it is a little complicated. Like transmog, each work set matches to one and only one cosmetic appearance. It's also pretty hard to compare gear in this system, as you have to compare each individual mod as well as the whole item. A last disadvantage is that set bonuses are a bit weird, because the set bonus is usually tied to the armor shell, and the mods are more generic.

3. Non-Visible Power Items

Used by The Secret World, Champions Online.

In this system, character power usually comes from non-visual items like trinkets or jewelry. The character's clothes are completely cosmetic. Advantage here is that it makes sense in the game world. As well, cosmetic outfits are completely decoupled from power outfits. What you are wearing has nothing to do with your power.

The disadvantage is that trinkets and jewelry are often unexciting. Very visual pieces like weapons and armor are often desired. They pack a 1-2 punch of good visuals combined with good stats. Also, an older piece of armor can carry memories, and reusing those older pieces can be a nod back to a previous time. For example, T2 Judgement is not just a great looking set, it's a reminder of the good times in Blackwing Lair. As well, while in the other systems you can choose to forego the cosmetic gear, and display your true set, in this system you can't. You have to pick a cosmetic outfit to wear.

4. Cosmetic Slots

Used by Rift, TERA, and LotRO.

In this solution, the character sheet simply has a second (or more) set of item slots. Items in the cosmetic slots are displayed, while items in the regular slots contribute stats. The big advantage is that this system is simple, easy to understand, and easy to use. The cosmetic set is decoupled from the work set. You can switch your cosmetic set without affecting your work set, and upgrade your work set without changing your look. Item comparison still functions correctly.

The major disadvantage is that this system makes no sense in the context of the world. Are you wearing two helms or two pants? It's a very gamist solution to the problem, and you just ignore the oddity of wearing multiple helms. The other options at least attempt to nod to the simulation.


Those are the cosmetic gear systems that I know about. In general, if you have to have cosmetic gear, I think straight cosmetic slots is the best solution. It's easy to understand and very simple to use in practice. Cosmetic armor slots parallel the regular armor slots. You can keep your power set while switching between multiple cosmetic sets. You can keep your cosmetic set while switching between multiple power sets.

The wearing of multiple helms is a bit weird, but it can be handwaved, and more or less ignored. Personally, it does not affect my suspension of disbelief. Your mileage may vary, however.


  1. What about Guild Wars 2, where all items on same level have equal stat pool, so you only choose stats you want but all items have same power, and you can freely swap looks of two items. You don't have to keep your old items around, you can choose what looks you want, you just can't swap them on the go (same as transmogrification).

  2. I second your choice.
    LotRO's method is by far the best one: you can set up your look(s) once and for all and then forget at the average uglyness of your character in mid-set gear upgrades.

    I also find that it makes perfect sense: it's the same of an equipment manager (= switch all slots in one go), except that cosmetic-only items don't eat up one of your inventory slots.

  3. A last disadvantage is that set bonuses are a bit weird, because the set bonus is usually tied to the armor shell, and the mods are more generic.

    I guess due to pure relation of those that are to those that aren't, it's accurate to use "usually", but the current end-game set and all future sets tie the set bonus to the armour mod, not the shell.

    The major disadvantage is that this system makes no sense in the context of the world. Are you wearing two helms or two pants?

    How can it make no sense? It's simply a transmog system where you don't actually change the model of the physical item.

    LotRO's system is also really great because they like having so many types of armour and "armour" available. Want to go fighting monsters in a ball gown? Have fun! They even recently sold cosmetic shells of some of the old raid armour sets on the cash store.

  4. The cosmetics sets were one of the things I liked best in Rift, and I am enjoying the trinket system in TSW. The player benefit of controlling your appearance far outweighs the game drawback of having to manage the system.

    Oh, and the suspension of disbelief required by the cosmetic system? I'm in a game where I set someone on fire and they just charge at me to hit me with a melee weapon. Trust me, disbelief was abandoned as soon as I logged-in...

  5. From memory Aion did 1, EQ2 has 4, and City of Heroes is at the extreme end of 3 with the slots for 'gear' tied to the your individual powers/skills.

    3 (non-visible power items) is my preferred system, but requires designing in right from the start. I think it actually works well for achievement style awards, since the game can simply award a cosmetic outfit for the achievement. You unlocked the Roman costume pieces in CoH for doing the Task Force filled with Romans for example. My TSW character gets her faction specific outfits for doing her faction specific missions.

    I think 2 (gear mods) could potentially work well, but SWTOR's implemention of it isn't very good, because their itemisation (both drops and crafting) is all wrong for it. Most drops and recipes give you un-moddable integrated gear, neither mods nor cosmetic shells, leaving it complete junk from the perspective of someone using gear mods, and making actually getting the mods to slot into your gear is a lot more grindy than it should be.

    4 (cosmetic gear slots, that take standard gear) is by the far best choice for retrofitting into an existing game because the devs don't *need* to do anything to the existing design of their crafting or loot itemisation.

    I don't have any experience of 1 (transmog). Sounds really rather annoying.

  6. One thing to point out about Non-Visible Power is that even The Secret Word ends up using Transmog for cosmetic weapons.

    I'm not certain that Non-Visible Power could ever be the sole cosmetic element in a game with weapons. Weapons are just too visible, and the expectation that they add power is just too strong.

  7. @Rohan

    And I'm sure I'm going to find that wrinkle of TSW highly irritating sometime soon :)

    In City of Heroes, a weapon was a costume piece like any other, it's just that if your character didn't have powers that used that type of weapon, then they weren't able to wear it. So, it can be done...

    ...but like I said, CoH is about the most extreme example of invisible power items I can think of.

  8. I've always thought that LotRO's implementation was the best (multiple cosmetic outfits plus a large and cleverly-implemented (searchable!) wardrobe to keep cosmetic gear in).

    But I must admit I'm liking TSW's system too -- by divorcing appearance from gear *entirely*, there seems to be much, much more diversity in character appearance, which suits the "real world" flavour of the game perfectly. Excluding the "reward for completing X skillset" clothing, I very rarely see two characters wearing the same outfit.