Just Let Me Wear A T-Shirt

I’ve been playing Sleeping Dogs lately and it’s quite good. It’s an open world sandbox action great time in the vein of Grand Theft Auto or Saint’s Row, and it does its job really well. As undercover police officer Wei Shen, you’re supposed to infiltrate the Chinese triad and stop it’s principal elements from engaging in criminal activity. The driving is arcade like and the combat is fluid and crunchy. Shoving a man’s head through the rear of an apartment window air conditioner never felt so cool.

I’m not going to waste any more time on the things I liked in this game though. Today, I want to complain about something that annoys me across genres: “customizable” clothing systems where the clothes improve the player’s avatar somehow.

In Sleeping Dogs, the player starts out with a default character in default clothing, but you can buy new clothes at stores or earn them as mission rewards and then change them by interacting with the wardrobe at your apartment. You can make the player character Wei Shen wear all kinds of things! There are t-shirts with t-rex skeletons on them and outfits that pay tribute to movies like Ong Bak and Kill Bill. It seems sort of exciting until clothing bonuses rear their heads.

If you have a coordinated set of clothing on, you get a bonus like “5% bonus melee damage” or “10% bonus Triad experience”. There are three tiers of each bonus: 5%, 10%, and 15%. The bonuses motivate the player to be constantly changing clothing depending on what stage of the game they’re in so that they can have the best possible bonuses. I can see two reasons for this system:

  • The developers want you to see all of the neat clothes they made for Wei, so by having different bonuses and different tiers, it motivates the player to buy and use new clothes to make use of the bonuses.
  • The game needs something that seems useful to spend the obscene a mount of money you make from missions on.

The whole things seem silly to me for a few reasons. First, metrics like your melee damage or experience gain are never measured by visible numbers in game, so the player has no point of reference for the bonuses conferred by these items. Is my Triad experience bar 10% longer because I have put Wei in an unseasonable puffy coat? I have to assume it is, but I’ve seen more than a few instances where items don’t do what they say in a game, so I can’t be sure.

The bonuses are small. This is a game where you might have to hit an enemy upwards of 10 times to knock them out, so a 10% increase to your melee damage will only save you 1 strike. That’s not a noticeable difference when you’re fighting 6 enemies at once. Since I can repeat any of the relatively short missions for 100% of the original experience, an item that gives me a 10% increase in experience is redundant.

The entire thing reeks of something that is there just to be there, but it still nibbles at the back of your mind if you’re not using it. That fight was great, but WHAT IF I WAS CAUSING 10% MORE DAMAGE WHEN I HIT PEOPLE??? That mission would have been more fulfilling if I had RECEIVED 15% MORE COP EXPERIENCE AT THE END OF IT. The idea of being able to customize your avatar is completely deflated when the game incentivizes wearing  certain clothes over others this way.

A similar, even more superficial system appeared in Need for Speed Underground 2 for the PS2, a racing game. It was another excellent game in its genre that was made a little worse than it should have been with a “clothes bonus”. In that case, you could customize your car’s insides and outsides, which was great! It makes sense that replacing the engine with a better engine would make your car go faster. However, each part on the exterior of the car came with a “visual rating”. Your visual rating plays a role in deciding if you can get magazine and dvd shoots, which are essentially free money in this context. There is never any reason not to have the parts with the best “visual rating” and you need a decent visual score for that free money, so everyone’s car will look the same by the end of the game rendering the bullet point on the back of the box about all of the ways to customize your car irrelevant.

These are small things that don’t completely ruin a game experience, but if a developer is going to put a customization system into a game, they shouldn’t be implementing barriers that hold the player back from enjoying it.

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