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Aesthetics vs. Gameplay

Star Wars: The Old Republic Columns - By Michael Bitton on April 04, 2012

Aesthetics vs. Gameplay

In a recent column, we discussed some of the ridiculous appearances commonly found in MMO endgame armor sets and how this trend continues in Star Wars: The Old Republic. As it would turn out, I wasn’t alone in my feelings. In fact, there has been quite an uproar on the official SW:TOR forums regarding the new armor sets coming with update 1.2.

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Thankfully, BioWare’s Daniel Erickson, lead designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic, offered what I feel was a satisfactory and reasonable response to the brouhaha as part of last week’s massive Community Q&A:

“Players have expressed some dissatisfaction with endgame armor sets – can you comment on your plans for future endgame appearances?

Daniel Erickson: We have heard the community loud and clear when it comes to armor sets. What we’ve heard the players say is, “I don’t care how high level I get, I still want my core sets to look and feel like Star Wars and like my class - cooler but not crazy. Keep the crazy to optional gear.” I will warn that creating new armor is a part of our game with long lead times so it will take a set or so before players see a strong shift in direction but we’re already working on some stuff I love and I think players will too.”

Honestly, what more can you ask for? Of course, hindsight is awesome. Wouldn’t it have been great if BioWare figured this out before launch and gave us endgame gear that didn’t look like it came out of the Power Rangers TV series? Sure. But it didn’t play out that way. What’s important is that BioWare didn’t sit up in an ivory tower and simply give us a reason as to why they design endgame armor as they do and leave it at that.

Instead, BioWare has shown not only attentiveness to the feedback, but full commitment to do just what players were asking for. Traditionally, art tends to be the biggest bottleneck of the game development process, so I’m not surprised to find out what we won’t see the results of this change until the next series of armor sets are on the way. I’m still glad the team plans on heading in that direction. I’m sure there are going to be folks who will still be unhappy with whatever new sets BioWare whips up, but art is subjective that way.

Stephen Reid, Old Republic senior community manager, also weighed in on this subject. Reid recently responded to the original thread and further explained BioWare’s thought process behind designing armor sets the way they have and why being a Star Wars game adds an additional layer of challenge:

“We always have to balance two things with armor. On the one hand, there's the gameplay requirement of "Make high level, very exclusive armor look like it's unique and powerful so other players can see that at a glance".

On the other, there's the aesthetics requirement - to make clothing echo the simple, almost plain looking clothing that's seen on some characters in the Star Wars saga. That led, in part, to orange gear in the game, which allows you to have an iconic appearance that doesn't suggest your gear's statistics.

The question is, how do you balance that? Arguably Obi-Wan's robes in Episode IV are very 'low level' in appearance. Would you want to see that as an armor set for a high level character? Would you not be concerned that players would see you as low-level? Or do aesthetics trump gameplay for you?”

I feel Reid brings up a fair point here about how the robes seen in the films generally look pretty basic. I can recall thinking about this subject myself on the run-up to launch. I worried, as I always do, about the ‘endgame fashion shows’ trend showing up in Star Wars: The Old Republic, but it’s even easier to be sensitive to outlandish styles when the norm for Jedi Knights and such is to look fairly basic. On the other hand, it isn’t only the Force-wielding classes that are sporting ridiculous outfits in the game, so there is something to be said about that. I can agree that the issue with Force-wielding classes is a legitimate challenge to consider, but I still feel BioWare may have tried a little too hard to draw a contrast between endgame gear and the regular stuff you find while leveling. I’m sure there is a way to balance the designs so that they sufficiently convey a powerful look without resorting to the sort of extreme examples we’ve seen so far. There are also a wealth of Expanded Universe examples of how to properly spin the simply Jedi robe design to be a bit more unique and exciting. I vaguely recall hearing of this one Revan fellow…

As for answering Reid’s question: aesthetics do trump gameplay for me. I feel the conundrum presented is perfectly applicable to most games, but a Star Wars game is a bit different. BioWare seemed to understand that the biggest draw for their game was being able to live out one’s ‘Star Wars fantasy,’ and part of maintaining that fantasy is being able to achieve an iconic look. So yes, I want my boring brown or black Jedi robes. Spice them up where you can (you’ve done a pretty good job already pre-50), but don’t go too crazy. Until then, I’ll be content upgrading my favorite orange gear sets.

Do aesthetics trump gameplay for you when it comes to MMOs? Does this answer change when applied to a Star Wars MMO?

Share your thoughts (and examples of the style BioWare should draw inspiration from) in the comments below!

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager.