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Modification Madness

By Michael Bitton on October 12, 2011 | Columns | Comments

Modification Madness

One of the remaining sort-of mysterious features of Star Wars: The Old Republic is the game’s heavily touted item modification system. Despite the upwards of 20,000 posts on the game’s official forums clamoring for an ‘Appearance Tab’ a’la most contemporary MMOs, BioWare has often stated that the game’s item modification system made such a tab basically needless, which is why they are not planning on implementing one. Even so, outside of some infrequent but illuminating remarks from the game’s developers, the system remains overall mysterious.

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As early as this summer, BioWare got a bit more specific, using the example of a Tusken Raider outfit to illustrate the versatility of the system. Using the item modification system, players would basically be able to keep their items (such as some random Tusken Raider outfit) up to snuff all the way to level cap, and perhaps beyond. However, in the absence of concrete specifics (such as a detailed write-up/section on the official TOR website), most fans have been divided on how confident they are this system would adequately replace the much desired appearance tab, and this void has obviously left room for a lot of rampant speculation.

This is why the game’s official forums light ablaze when one of Daniel Erickson’s many interviews is auto-translated from French to English and features remarks that fuel those doubts. Recently, when Daniel spoke with the folks over at Jeuxvideo he supposedly made some comments (again, translated) stating that “most items in the game aren’t moddable” and that there are basically a few items without stats that provide players with the ability to achieve an “iconic look” e.g. Obi Wan Kenobi’s outfit. From what it sounds like, the idea was to basically allow players to wear these iconic sets for an extended period of time via use of the modification system. While I’m sure some players might appreciate this sort of thing in addition to the robust individuality offered by a mod system that allows all items to be customized this way, the notion of outright replacing that design with this approach did not go over well with fans of the game.

The reason for the inconsistency in BioWare’s comments on the item modification system has to do with the fact that the system is actually in flux at the moment, which is apparently why we don’t have concrete details on it just yet. In an effort to provide some clarity, BioWare’s Allison Berryman jumped in on the forums to caution users regarding the accuracy of translated comments and noted that BioWare is actually using their Game Testing program to you know, test the game, and this means they will sometimes test radical changes in the program. Allison then went on to explain that it is likely that Daniel Erickson was referring to the item modification as it is currently implemented in Game Testing, not necessarily the final version of the system.

Despite the ensuing firestorm, I feel this is as good an opportunity as any to discuss what I’d personally like to see from this system, especially since I’m one of those vain freaks who feels an appearance tab is absolutely necessary. After all, I want to play a game set in the Knights of the Old Republic era, not Attack of the Clones.

My struggle with MMO individuality began as far back as my first MMO, Star Wars Galaxies, in which the game’s most prevalent armor style was the Composite Armor. Composite Armor was simply the best stuff available outside of super rare armor such as Mandalorian Armor, ensuring that just about everyone wore it. To get around this, I tried playing a Teras Kasi Master without using armor, which was possible, but quite difficult, and I eventually had to don some of that goofy stuff myself. Blech!

Fast forward a bit and City of Heroes offered an awesome change of pace. My look wasn’t tied to my capabilities, which is something I enjoyed greatly, and so I ended up playing that game for almost five years, with a few breaks here and there of course. One such break was The Matrix Online, which seemed to emphasize individual style with its unbelievable breadth of armor and clothing options. However, just like Star Wars Galaxies, in order to be effective, certain items were practically mandatory for certain builds and so the ‘clownsuit’ as I call it was born.

As I played The Matrix Online, I imagined a system in which the visual appearance of the items were separate from the stat bonuses the item provided, and this is essentially what I’d like to see in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’ve long held the belief that items should simply be a vessel for their statistics. This means players should be able to remove the stats from the item itself and place them in another. If I find an item that is way better than what I’ve got but I think it looks like crap? No problem. Extract the stats into an item of some sort (say, a modification!) and place them into an item I like. Voila! If I find something that looks cooler than what I have already I should be able to pull the stats out and move them over once again. Of course, I should also be able to craft and acquire mods outside of just extracting them from existing items. And yes, I realize that there would need to be a number of restrictions on such a system, so you couldn’t say pull the stats out of a heavy piece of armor and stick them on cloth, but this is just a high-level overview of what I’m looking for.

What’s great about this sort of system is that it doesn’t really disrupt the desire to always search out new gear as both the stats and visual appeal are important. Someone who is as vain as I am about their character will still want to chase endgame gear so that they can put the stats on the items they like or even find new visual styles to trick out with awesome stats, and the gamers who don’t care either way simply have a more flexible system if they choose to bother with it.

Some detractors of the concept of appearance tabs use the reasoning that they (as well as similar systems) negatively affect PvP, but in the worst case scenario they can simply be disabled in PvP, which is something some existing MMOs do now. This is something I don’t like, but I might be able to understand in some other games. Fortunately, this really shouldn’t be an issue in Star Wars: The Old Republic. BioWare has often explained that gear will only make up about 10% of your power envelope in PvP, which is enough to give you an edge if you’ve got really good stuff, but not make or break your performance. This means you don’t really need to be looking out for the player decked out in full PvP gear or for the player who is obviously under-geared when participating in PvP, and so I feel the point is essentially moot.

I realize that an out and out appearance tab solves this issue as well, but BioWare is apparently not going to go in that direction. So if we’re going to use some sort of modification system, this is basically what I’d like to see.

What would you like to see in The Old Republic’s item modification system? Share your thoughts 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.
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