A character’s appearance in a MMO usually dictates two things: what they are and how powerful they are.
Originally, older MMOs didn’t really have a lot of variety in clothing and, if you look at Everquest, it only served to define what type of character you were. Obviously armour and clothing could grant a vast array of stats, bonuses and abilities but there wasn’t much of a way to tell a level 50 character apart from a level 40 one. EQ eventually started to buck that trend though by introducing more and more elaborate looking weapons, visually rewarding the player as well as statistically.
Now, flash forward to today, and MMOs use appearance for more than defining what class you are, they use it as a milestone for character development and achievement. Compare a level 1 Priest in World of Warcraft to a level 80 one and you’ll see a huge difference. The low level character will be wearing bland, uninteresting clothing whilst the level 80 will have far more interesting garb. And of course raiding and PvP plays a part… the more you play your character and the more you take part in activities, the more you are rewarded with an aesthetically pleasing appearance. A player who raids in WoW will likely be wearing huge, glittering and glowing shoulder pads the size of small cars whilst a non-raider will look decidedly more bland. Appearance is more than just a collection of items with useful stats, it’s a status symbol.
No doubt MMORPG developers are keen to show off new graphic engines with complex and attractive visuals but they’ve also discovered that appearance is another carrot they can dangle in front of players. It’s become a tool to reward people and indulge their egos – “the more you play, the cooler you’ll look!”. I don’t have a problem with the principle of that but sometimes it gets frustrating.
Age of Conan is a perfect example of badly done appearance scaling (note: I haven’t played in 6 months so it have changed). I remember wearing the same tunic from level 14 until 50 just because it looked so much cooler. Also, trying to get a full set of decent looking gear was a grind at best – I must have done the Sanctum of the Burning Souls several dozen times with my Assassin just to get some decent looking, matching gear. It wasn’t fun and, upon reflection, not remotely worth it because I out-leveled the armour soon after.
I guess my feelings towards appearance is that I don’t mind the raiders and the PvPers having the best looking gear and I quite like the idea of appearance actually ’scaling’ as I level but ultimately I still want to look half decent and reasonably cool without having to sell my virtual soul to the Gods of Hardcore. Plus, not only do I want to look good when I hit the max level, I also want to look good as I level. Call me vain but appearance matters. It’s how you get with the ladies.