Back when I started this rodeo back in February of 2009, I talked about the keys to immersion. How to create MMOs that help roleplayers enjoy the illusion that this world, and their characters, are more real than not.
SWTOR appears to get as almost much right as wrong but that's a column for another day. What I'd like to focus on now is the importance of customization and cosmetic elements. In the terms of my "On Immersion" entry we're looking at an important subset of Control (being able to do things you should be able to do).
Bioware hasn't quite caught on to the idea that player characters belong to players. Some of this, I'm sure, is part of their fairly aggressive "fourth pillar" approach to MMO design. They want everything to be perfect so nothing disrupts the stories they want to tell about their, not your, characters. One gets the sense that SWTOR might well be MMOdom's answer to Auntie Lydia's living room where nothing is ever to be touched or played with. Only to be gazed upon and admired.
For roleplayers this can present a bit of a problem. We're fairly aggressive ourselves about wanting our characters to be our own creations, to have their own unique stories play out dynamically, and we tend to be very proud of our own creativity when it comes to achieving those goals.
Among us are those who want to be able to creatively express themselves in music or dance (SWG and LoTRO), to decorate sets/locations to suit our characters or some other personal story related end (SWG), to design adventures using the game mechanics to create story arcs for friends (SWG, CoH, STO and Ryzom). Roleplayers, at least once they've got a little experience under their belts, are first and foremost creative talents. We've been spoiled just enough to believe some developers care about our needs and aren't quite as appeased, anymore, by merely sitting around and making with the text chat.
While there are many issues here the basic one, the bellweather, is the need for cosmetic clothing or an Appearance Tab. This is fundamental. Roleplayers need to be able to design a unique look for their characters and it can't be dependant on statted items. It doesn't matter that we can swap out some mechanically good items for some substandard but aesthetically pleasing ones by hand. We need to be able to establish and define a consistant look. It needs to be available 24/7. Ideally we'd have even more than one cosmetic look available as in LoTRO and STO.
Right up there with being able to define the features of a character is being able to describe how he looks on your own terms. If we're running around in crap we have to wear because it's effective, even part of the time, that's part of the time we're seriously not happy with our characters. Making us love our characters seems to be Bioware's goal but their error is thinking that only they know best. That they should define our character's, and companion's, looks and stories from top to bottom.
Actually, my friends, the customer is always right. We're not all drooling idiots and most of us have been around long enough to know how to ignore the drooling idiots without the oversight of an authoritarian storyteller. Just don't let people run around in underwear. Don't make chef's hats. We'll take it from there.