Costume customization: 7 stylish games that designers should study

In honor of Halloween, we thought it'd be fun to look at several examples of games that do interesting and instructive things with player-controlled wardrobe customization and costume changes.

In games, clothing is often just window dressing — fixed and unchanging. Yet a sizeable chunk of players for just about any kind of game with human/anthropomorphic characters in it would love the opportunity to have input on wardrobe changes across the experience.

Many games have explored wardrobe changes as power-ups, mood setters, and a chance for each individual to express their own approach and playstyle. Many players approach The Sims franchise as the ultimate digital version of doll dress-up, while others approach its wardrobe options with the gravity of a Civil War recreation. Meanwhile, games like Costume Quest let players swap their characters' Halloween costumes between battles so that they can have different abilities when they temporarily transform into their costume to fight monsters.

In honor of Halloween, a day when millions of people swap out their regular outfit for something weird and different, we thought it'd be fun to look at several examples of games that do interesting things with player-controlled wardrobe customization and costume changes.

1) Changing body and mind in Super Mario Odyssey

Double Fine senior producer and Costume Quest 2 project lead Gabe Cinquepalmi notes that Mario games have long allowed costume changes, going back even to the fire suit palette swap in the first Super Mario Bros. But Super Mario Odyssey takes costume changes to another level.  

Mario's new sidekick Cappy (his hat) can grant him possession of the minds and bodies of 52 creatures in the game that briefly grant the player use of their unique skills and in many cases access otherwise-inaccessible areas of the world. This new spin on costumes--inhabiting the bodies of other characters and objects, maintaining only your hat and telltale mustache--transforms the level design possibilities just as profoundly as Mario Galaxy's astronomical gravity system. 

The game also includes traditional dress-up options for more cosmetic purposes, in the form of a few dozen collectible outfits earned by spending coins. (These costumes may not have powerups, but they can help you gain entree to certain in-game areas.)

TAKEAWAY: Costume changes can be a necessary game mechanic, and when used in this capacity they could allow for more open-ended and experimental level designs.

2) Sunset Overdrive's bright and colorful unisex outfits

The art team behind Insomniac's Sunset Overdrive went out of their way to make sure that players could be male or female, in a variety of skin tones and body types, and the same colorful clothing options would be available to everyone. To do this, they created the art for each piece of clothing once and wrote scripts that morph them to fit every possible avatar physique. 

The costumes themselves can be selected in preset combinations or as separate individual items that differ in style, and many can be bought in shops scattered around the in-game world but some have to be unlocked by finding/doing things. 

TAKEAWAY: Embracing diversity in character wardrobe options need not be a lot of extra work — by planning ahead and making good use of scripts or procedural generation, you can make every character costume item scale and morph to fit any player's character design.

3) Overwatch - Costumes as collectables

Much as the long-term success (particularly in financial terms) of multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2 is down to its remarkably deep and diverse hat economy, Overwatch is quickly earning a reputation as a game as much about collecting the hundreds of purely cosmetic character skins — some themed after occasions such as Christmas and Halloween and others more esoteric in origin — as it is shooting it out with other players online.  

Cinquepalmi calls it a case of "Costumes as crack" and says it's this that's catalyzed his addiction. "Every month or so, just as my OW jones is waning, a new skin smorgasbord drops, and I'm drawn back in," he explains. "I'm reticent to say that I've even dropped real money on lootboxes to get particular ones. I am not proud." 

TAKEAWAY: For some players, getting new costumes and changing how their character looks is the primary motivator for continuing to play a game, especially after other core mechanics begin to feel stale.

4) Champions Online - Costumes as identity

In free-to-play MMORPG Champions Online, a hero's costume defines his or her identity and abilities. And these are neither set in advance or fixed for all time. A player is encouraged to create a unique hero by adjusting body size, posture, and proportions as well as choosing from a variety of colors and animations and building an outfit from a pool of thousands of different costume pieces (broken into a whopping 28 categories, so rather than just "head" you have head type, head wear, eyes, eyebrow, eye accessory, top accessory, side accessory, and mouth accessory).  

Rather than character classes, the costume pieces themselves each have a class — and mixing and matching pieces from different classes affects whether a hero has a broader or a deeper range of powers (but these pieces don't explicitly define what all those powers will be). All that's before you even get to weapons, which are similarly customizable in appearance.  

Then as they play the game, players can tweak this costume as well as create a handful of entirely different alternative costumes (for a hero's alter egos) with corresponding alternative abilities that can be swapped in and out at the press of a button. One forum-goer on Giant Bomb had "retro astronaut hero that could transform into a monkey," for instance. 

TAKEAWAY: Making your own superhero is fun; making your own superhero with a few radical alter egos is better.

5) The flexibility of Saints Row 2's character customization

Saints Row 2 has a similar "anything goes" heart to its customization systems. Besides an impressive array of sliders for tuning every aspect of the main character's physical appearance (including gender, which is here rendered a non-binary choice) and their voice (not linked to chosen gender), it has an extensive wardrobe of clothes and accessories that can be acquired during the game and also an option to customize the overall appearance of the main character's gang. 

The game was widely lauded on release for these features, which empower players to take complete control over how they and their crew look, sound, and behave. Players can be an androgynous businessperson who openly carries a dildo and speaks in a thick Cockney accent or a transgender man in a checked shirt and booty shorts with a deep voice or perhaps a burly white man in a dress with a stereotypical black woman voice. Or whatever other blend of physical characteristics and fashion styles they can imagine. That's a powerful thing, even if it is primarily cosmetic. (I say primarily because buying clothes in the game can increase a player's style rank, which in turn boosts the Respect earned per mission and that then helps unlock more missions.) 

TAKEAWAY: Players appreciate the opportunity to get silly or idiosyncratic with their character customization, and extending that to an in-game posse is even better.

6) Stylish, thematically relevant wardrobe options in Brink 

Insomniac Games lead character artist Gavin Goulden points to Splash Damage's first-person shooter Brink as a particularly strong example of character customization that reinforces the game's thematics and preserves its artistic style without compromising on quality. "This is often a roadbock creation systems face," he says, as quality often suffers in the interests of providing a greater variety of costumes. And it can easily result in the art direction feeling "safe" — because that's the only way to get these starkly different clothing pieces to work together. 

But Goulden says Brink's developers found a way to balance its distinct art style against the "more chaotic assets" that the character customization system introduced, and in that capacity it "served as a great inspiration" when he was working on Sunset Overdrive. "Oftentimes, with so many options, it's easy to have 'clown colors' in a game, where wacky combinations are pretty common," says Goulden. "Brink seemed to avoid that by having solid art direction in each item, and a controlled palette that kept everything unified. Like it belonged together, even though the style was generally piecemeal." 

TAKEAWAY: Allowing a player to dress-up their character and change costume need not compromise a game's art style; customization options and a strong, distinct art direction can happily co-exist.

7) Clothing as social currency in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood 

It's easy to look at the enormously-popular mobile title Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and see only another vapid and vacuous celebrity licensing cash-in, but there's value in considering why so many people spend weeks or months (and possibly also significant amounts of money) playing the game. Its connection to Kim Kardashian may work for some, but for most the long-term appeal lies in its light-hearted riffs on the hollowness of life in Hollywood coupled with its tight feedback loops. And true to Hollywood vapidness, one of the loops involves spending energy and in-game currency on expanding your wardrobe and parading yourself around in a variety of outfits. 

What's interesting here is not the outfits themselves but rather a) that this customization element is largely optional but has tangible benefits to those who choose to opt-in and b) that they fit into a curious social commentary. When a player's character has low celebrity status, nothing, however attractive or expensive, is good enough for the higher-status socialites they are trying to impress and/or date, while any old rags may get praised on an A-lister, yet pricey clothing and accessory choices invariably earn more "professional" and "romantic" bonus points (the number of bonus points is hidden until an item is purchased) that elevate them beyond mere aesthetics. 

TAKEAWAY: In games, as in real life, clothing can have social as well as cosmetic and practical value — and often it could have a little or a lot of each all at the same time.

CONCLUSION — Empowerment, fun, motivation, and uniqueness

Whether cosmetic, social, practical, or all three, in-game wardrobe choices empower players to put a bit of themselves into their experience. To make choices that matter, even if — as in the case of purely cosmetic outfit options — it's only to themselves. And that will only serve to strengthen their bond with a game. It'll color their stories of play and reinforce the uniqueness of their time with the game, and maybe — if there are more costumes or costume pieces to unlock — it'll motivate them to keep coming back to see what more a game has to offer. 

Thanks to Gavin Goulden and Gabe Cinquepalmi for their help putting this article together.

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