This week I've stolen my editorial title from Albion Online's new promo trailer, “You Are What You Wear.” Though in real life, that expression might be only superficially true, in an MMO it's quite literally the case. Wearable items define not only what your digital alter-egos look like, they determine what those characters can do and where they stand in the MMO genre's level-dependent pecking order. Currently in development by Sandbox Interactive, free-to-play fantasy MMO Albion Online hopes to spin that idea in a new direction making it possible for players to wear anything they want. Considering this could result in a game full of players dressed like thrift store refugees, is that such a good idea?
Without question, wearables are important for MMOs. They're essential for many reasons: as player rewards, as the basis of crafting/economic systems, and as a means of differentiating character classes. Wearables are even more important to players—in fact for some, collecting them is the main reason they play. Even if you're not an obsessive item collector, wearables have probably, at one time or another, served as a the carrot that convinced you to push through an infuriating raid or return to a game long-abandoned. I myself came back to World of Warcraft during The Mists of Pandaria expansion, mainly because I coveted the new Warlock armor.
Though I really liked the look of that particular set, oftentimes I wasn't so keen on the appearance of WoW's more effective items. Far too frequently, wearing the best combination of armor made my gnome warlock look like she'd gotten dressed in the dark, and it bothered me that WoW's armor and weapon system didn't give me more stylistic freedom. No one was more thrilled than I when Blizzard finally added transmogrification (applying the stats of one item to another) to the game. Still, there were limitations to that system, and I was still unable to kick ass while wearing my Lunar Festival finery or my Brewfest hat.
Then again, maybe players like me should be reined in since on occasion I've been known to take the wearables thing to a ridiculous extreme. I used to bug the hell out of other Star Wars: Galaxies players by making a fat, over-tan male character shake his moneymaker in the cantina wearing nothing but sunglasses, boots, and hot-pants. The outrage that character engendered was loads of fun for me, but I suspect was less than immersive for the more serious Star Wars fans. Was I having a negative effect on their experience? Perhaps. Should I have had the right to dress inappropriately and make a complete fool of myself? In my view, absolutely.
This is why Albion Online's claims interest me. The Sandbox team says we'll have an unprecedented amount of freedom in terms of customizing our own look and abilities, and they say this will be done by allowing us to craft our abilities onto our wearable items. Clearly, they're hoping we'll create all kinds of unforeseen hybrid classes, and that linear item growth will prevent some players from becoming exponentially more powerful than others. They're also hoping our experimentation will create such a wide variety of wearable item combinations, the notion of pre-determined “sets” will be eliminated. (Considering how quickly players figure out, adopt, and copy the most effective item combos though, the possibility of this really happening is questionable.)
Historically, I'll play either a magic-user or a meat-head tank, and so I enjoy the idea that Albion Online might let me play as some kind of hulking (but intellectual) warrior/mage hybrid. You know, the kind of guy who could bash your head in, then write a poem about it? Yup, I'm totally into the idea of having the freedom to create that kind of unexpected character type, but I'm not sure how I feel about everyone around me doing it too.
Aside from the possibility of group roles being fuzzy as players suffer from “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” syndrome, I'm picturing towns full of goofy-looking Gandalf/Conan hybrids. Of course, it's impossible to say how this all might really play out since Sandbox has thus far released precious little concrete information regarding its items or its classless class system. What we do know is that though the word “freedom” is being tossed around a lot, the company has stated that only certain abilities may be crafted onto certain items. That sounds to me as if the thousands of possible item/ability combinations they claim are possible will still be limited in predictable ways, and so we'll be as unable to create truly new character combos as we ever were. Ah well. On the bright side, towns won't be overrun by mobs of super-powerful idiots running around with underwear on their heads.
For the majority of MMO players, the definition of the phrase “you are what you wear” is simple. Even though most of the time high-level players look much the same, their items symbolize the entirety of their characters' experience, longevity and knowledge. They also define players' roles within the game community, and facilitate group mechanics. This is a great argument for restricting the ways in which wearables are used. (As is the fact that some of us use our in-game appearance just to annoy people.) On the other hand, limitations stifle creativity and create a distinct visual sameness among many MMOs. With pros and cons in mind, Albion Online's take on wearables is either admirable or unrealistic; we won't know which until we play the game later this year.