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The Power of a Choice

Playing UO has reminded me about the power of having to choose.  Powerful choices aren’t always clear cut, and should weigh you down with thought before you make them. Choices aren’t penalties.  They aren’t obstacles or annoyances, and they aren’t always between a good or bad thing.

Developers these days aren’t presenting players with meaningful choices.  Instead, players are getting everything they want, and with it diminishing what could be a really enriching experience.

What if you only had one character and a limited number of skill points?  You want to craft and hunt monsters, but you can’t do both.  You want to have hide, but if you take hide you can’t take another ability that makes you more offensive.  Do you risk bringing your horse with you if it can die?  You’ll travel faster but risk losing him.   Do you kill a player you see and gain his gear, or do you befriend him and gain a reputation of a friendly and trustworthy player.  You have a choice.

Doors should closed to you when you make a decision, but the reward for making that choice should be enough to entice you to sacrifice what you could have had for going the other way.  That’s the key.  Both choices should bring rewards in their own way, and each should be distinct enough that choosing path means departing from the other entirely.

I want to be challenged with choices.  I want to have to think before I act, and when I make a decision I want it to mean something.  I want to be giving something up knowing that I’m gaining something special because I made that choice.

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Comments

  1. Developers these days aren’t presenting players with meaningful choices. Instead, players are getting everything they want, and with it diminishing what could be a really enriching experience.

    Developers and their rules ruin all the fun. Remember back when we could con and scam people and not get banned for it? That was great.

    Err, not that we every did anything of the sort.

  2. Conning and scamming happen daily, and by the minute in EVE.

    But true. The biggest “choice” modern MMOs present nowadays is which faction to grind rep with. Until you look at the reward tables and realize everything has been so homogenized that there it was just an illusion of choice.

  3. The problem is that players don’t like choices. Players given a choice will ask “which one is optimal”, will post on forums about which way they should choose, and will publicly denigrate anyone who makes the ‘wrong’ choie as a gimp and a noob. The history of WoW’s talent system is one of players having a wide variety of choices,rejecting most of them as ‘sub-optimal’ and the developers going “oh, all right then.”

  4. “Developers these days aren’t presenting players with meaningful choices. Instead, players are getting everything they want, and with it diminishing what could be a really enriching experience.”

    Actually developers are presenting me with a very meaningful choice:

    Do I play:

    1) The game(s) in which a poor decision could permanently negatively impact my future playtime

    2) The game(s) in which this is not the case

  5. @Bernard: Sounds like a problem if a game gives you a choice to permanently and negatively impact your future playtime. I’d hate that.

  6. Choice and permanent consequences are great… in single-player games. Sometimes.

    As Bernard alludes to, I cannot imagine having fun in an MMO where I can permanently screw myself over with “one character and a limited number of skill points” – I have a hard enough time on the character select screen. Assigning talent points in Diablo 2 felt awful, or at least it did once you started to realize that the last five talents points you spent on abilities that sounded fun means that you’ll beat the game before ever getting to the bottom of the tree.

    In any case, I disagree with the notion that designers are forgoing a more “enriching experience” by giving players “everything they want.” At the end of the day, opportunity cost still exists. Indeed, even your “one character” limitation is defeated by a player starting a second account; the only mechanism that prevents it is simply the amount of time it may take for that characters to level up (or whatever), i.e. opportunity cost. At that point, arbitrarily limiting players becomes more awkward game design than anything else.

  7. I’m all for MMOs that make you make choices. Just so long as I get to exercise my choice not to play them.

    I grew up in the 1970s. Choice tends to annoy me. It’s unnatural. Oh, I don’t want the current fad of everything for everyone. Just give me one thing and let me get on with it.

    Using your examples, if I want to hide, make me play a class that can hide. If I want to craft, make me play a crafter. Don’t give me one character that “could” do everything then make me decide between the things he gets to do. That’s no fun. Let me make dozens of characters, each good at just a tight range of things, not one that “could” have been anything but ends up being nothing.

  8. Lethality says:

    I’m with you.

    However, the unfortunately reality is that these games that are so time-consuming and not to mention expensive to create and maintain… they need to make money. Part of they way they have to do this is to make sure that player A — who started at launch — can’t really ever be so far ahead of player B who just started today. It’s a turnoff to players if they feel they can’t possibly compete.

    And sadly, the majority of players seem to not value choice and emergent circumstances because of them (see the poster above me.)

    I’m ok with a story for my character as he fits into the world story that the developers are trying to tell. I don’t need to make choices there. But I would like to see more sandbox elements in the surrounding systems (economic, political, military). The proverbial “sand park” if you will.

  9. Interesting comments here today. I parsed most as “give me the choice but remove the need to think”.

    *shrug*

  10. With choices comes the possibility of “bad” game play experiences. Whether it is your choice of playing a type of character, your choice to venture into a dangerous area, or osmeone else’s choice to attack you and rob you blind.

    We all have a theshhold for how much of this potentially bad game play experience we are willing to accept. Some people’s threshhold is super low – others is pretty high. One nice example from the UO Forever discussion about whether or not house looting should be part of UOF. There was one guy vehemently arguing for house looting but a lot of people were just against it – he had a point – the choice and ability to loot osmeone’s house will change the game play experience – it introduces a constant fear into owning a house and coming home. It gives you the ability to set yourself up in a way to minimize the chances. For the house looter – it is a hoot, no doubt. Anyway, it was one example where even for “hardcore” UOers – their treshhold was reached.

    “We” cannot really expect the Devs to implement these types of choices if the majority of MMO players has been continously asking for features that demonstrate, they dont want those choices or more specific – they dont want the possibility of a bad game play experience. A lot of us have been doing this for years – asking for features of convenience. If you are asked to improve a game – that is the first thing we often do – suggest features of convenience…but we forget that we pay a price for these conveniences. For instance, free respecs are super convenient – once I started on DAOC again I wanted to respec and I needed some silly exergum stone or whatever they were called…ugh…I better be careful with my new spec choice. Compare that to AC – where you are stuck with your choice – gimp or no gimp…I better be really careful! UO had probably the nicest set up – skill based – you can spec however you like…if you dont like it – you can just use other skills and improve those – you just need to go through th eprocess of skilling up again (painful but fair…AND very inconvenient…)

  11. I’m not sure why everyone is taking the idea of getting to make choices in games and running it into the gutter. I never said that having a choice meant screwing you over, ruining your experience, or permanently ruining your character. This isn’t a post about negative consequences. That’s another topic. But I will say that with every choice comes a consequence — just make sure they’re good consequences too.

    Choices should present two very different yet rewarding paths. It’s all about getting people to commit to something, and stop playing the middle. Committing to something should be rewarding, not a penalty. Forgoing something else just means there is diversity and everyone isn’t the same.

    It’s like choosing your race in EQ1. Trolls were huge and got stuck places, were hated by everyone, but had awesome strength and regen and made you unique. That’s a meaningful choice right at the beginning.

    @Bhagpuss: I am always fascinated by your viewpoint. You’re an odd fellow, but I respect that.

  12. Gankatron says:

    “Instead, players are getting everything they want, and with it diminishing what could be a really enriching experience.”

    I agree. The problem for people who read and write on gaming blogs is that AAA MMO’s are not designed for them.

    On the surface getting everything you want from a game sounds like a pretty sweet deal and likely sells well. Unfortunately these types of games often substitute gear grinds for enriching experience as what does one get the person who has everything?

    The indie devs are best suited for the old school, hardcore, gaming elite, as they are willing to eschew maximum accessibility for challenging game mechanics.

    Nonetheless it must be difficult to balance between option choices, especially when players will always try to find loopholes.

    You chose to be a miner and now your toon can’t hunt, no problem make a hunter alt for a workaround, or even easier join a guild and have access to everything cheap. “Choices” that preferentially penalize a significant subset of gamers, such as non-guilded, are imbalanced so there might be a drive to allow for individuals to accomplish everything with minimal penalty; of course there might be work-arounds for this also like no direct trading of materials or currency between players, but then someone else would likely complain that social aspects of their game play experience was being compromised.

    Fallen Earth was a game that allowed one to research skills without limitation, and while that sounded cool at first, after a while I lost any feeling of unique identity and immersion.

    My problem is not that there are games that allow one to do everything, but that there aren’t more new releases that also cater to the old school “choices have consequences” mindset.

    In any case I don’t like games with fully irreversible decisions as the ramifications of such decisions may not be known until after they are chosen. I did like the Tabula Rosa cloning system, but then again I liked a lot about that game other than they didn’t seem to have adequate resources to finish it…

  13. I loved having meaningful choices in games (its not even just MMOs these days that have gotten rid of them).

    Homogenization, standardization, and “balance” have gotten in the way of characters in RPGs having any real link with me as the player.

    I’ve always been drawn to support and utility as a character path. It really doesn’t exist these days. Previously, you could choose to do great damage, or heal, or have utility with crowd control/debuffs/whatnot. Soloing in an MMO as a healer? Yea, it was a pain in the everlasting ass. But that is what made it great. I was 10x happier/better when grouped with even one person. The more we added to the party, the better it was.

    Now every whiny little brat needs to be able to solo everything, or it’s “broken”.

    The reason parties existed in RPGs was so that the myriad of characters could complement each others strengths, and overcome their weaknesses.

    I’m not holding my breath for meaningful choices to ever come back into online gaming. Call me a pessimist, but the people making games honestly do not give a flipping flappy about fun, and the gaming generation that has been in the driver’s seat since WoW doesn’t even realize that meaningful choices make RPGs great. Ah well. At least I still have books. Authors haven’t started tanking on that yet in order to appeal to the broadest spectrum of people. Fingers crossed they never will.

  14. Recent skill based games make it possible to learn all if not many of the skills available. I agree with Keen. Without choice its like your grabbed by the nose and lead through an obstacle course.
    Not to mention you do not feel unique and can not specialize either.

    The mass effect series proves gamers love choice.
    The thing is I think it is also a matter of efficient game designing to not include choice. More choice is more work to develop the outcome of said choice.

    Off topic: Are Keen&Graev joining the bandwagon when pathofexile heads into open beta this Jan 23? I remember you did a topic about the closed beta once.

  15. Yeah, PoE is a lot of fun.

  16. POE: I think I’m gonna run with a summoner build. Reason i loved the necro in D2. Add some curses and auras and I’m good to go. (not very gear dependent either.) I do like how there is a skill in the talent system that makes it so you can no longer get stats from a shield. But your minions do… interesting.

  17. @Keen “I’m not sure why everyone is taking the idea of getting to make choices in games and running it into the gutter. I never said that having a choice meant screwing you over, ruining your experience, or permanently ruining your character. This isn’t a post about negative consequences. That’s another topic. But I will say that with every choice comes a consequence — just make sure they’re good consequences too.”

    I think what Keen is trying to say is for instance how choice works in the strategy game xcom enemy unknown.
    Every time a soldier levels up you get to pick from 2 choices for a new skill. they are all useful skills, it just depends on how you want to play the game.

    Or how about this. Lets say the well known world of warcraft skilltree. What if there where no synergies, no skill is better then the other just different and thus no cookiecutter builds.

    See examples of picking a thing and no turning back afterwards. It is one of the reasons people played Diablo 2 that much. The moment you get bored of one character you build a completely new character. (different stats thus different gear and different skills in the skilltree)

    Making a choice and sticking with it, without feeling you just screwed yourself is a good mechanic. It beats everyone playing 1 build only because some min maxer said this is the optimum configuration.

  18. @Zyler

    WoW’s talent tree is a PERFECT example of how choice has absolutely gone down the crapper.

    When WoW launched there were lots of trees, lots of paths to take, lots of skills to choose from.

    Aren’t they down to like 5 talents in 3 trees now? (Yes, Exaggeration.) I haven’t played Panda Online, so I don’t actually know how bad it is currently. I can’t imagine that they added more choice between WotLK and Panda though.

  19. Picking talents is a simple but good example.

  20. Actually, WoW’s current talent system is a great example of what Keen is talking about in his post, with the caveat that the talents might be too easily switchable or not as defining as some of you would like.

    Basically, as a class, you have six tiers of three talents each, and you can have pick only one of the three. The advantage of picking a talent is that you get whatever cool thing it offers, the disadvantage is that you don’t get the other two talents. Isn’t this what Keen was talking about?

    Here’s a blog post I read recently about talents for a Holy Pally. It might not necessarily be the best discussion (or all that recent), but I think it’s a nice illustration: http://bossypally.wordpress.com/2012/12/09/how-im-healing-in-mop-holy-pally-4eva-talents/

  21. “Choices aren’t penalties”

    vs

    “Doors should closed to you when you make a decision”

    For better or for worse, a closed door can often feel like a penalty.

    People often cite Diablo 2 as an example of talent tree and build choices extended gameplay. What they forget is that after much petitioning, talent tree resets were implemented so that you could change once per difficulty level and the end game featured essences that dropped from certain bosses enabling additional resets.

    I am not against permanent choices in all instances – impactful decisions with regards to the STORY is something that I can get 100% behind.

  22. You can have chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert tonight. You choose vanilla because you love vanilla. That means you can’t have chocolate tonight. Both are awesome. People love both. Both were good choices.

    Not getting chocolate isn’t a penalty for choosing vanilla, it’s a forgone option.

  23. I’m not sure why everyone is taking the idea of getting to make choices in games and running it into the gutter. I never said that having a choice meant screwing you over, ruining your experience, or permanently ruining your character.

    You did not say it, but it is the logical result of what you are asking for. Choices have to have negative consequences or they are trivial choices. If both are equally good, who cares? Pick whatever. And even if I grant a scenario in which two meaningful, mutually exclusive choices in which I would be happy either way exists… who is to say that I remain happy with the choice 5, 6, 7+ months later? What if Hiding turns out to be less fun than I assumed? Or what if Hiding is nerfed down the road?

    Like I said earlier, these sort of choices work well in single-player games because of their accepted, finite length – I will have stopped playing Mass Effect 3 long before I have time to regret not choosing the Renegade option to shoot that guy.

    I also reject the premise that the existence of generalists means no one is unique. Is your personality not already unique? The people who you befriend? Your interactions with other people? I’m not opposed to putting Trolls in EQ1 or whatever, but this notion that being able to craft AND hunt monsters diminishes something is just silly. We make decisions with consequences every day that we talk to other people (it’s an MMO, right?), including the days when we don’t talk to anyone.

    You can have chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert tonight. [etc]

    You can also have both. Or chocolate today and vanilla tomorrow. You aren’t advocating a choice between ice cream tonight, you are advocating vanilla ice cream forever.

  24. I’m not sure the ice cream analogy holds.

    Just recently I was made aware that one of the choices in UO happens to be “get magery or get left behind”. Good thing it was passive learning via listening to what people were discussing in vent.

    Another choice that I was not aware I was even making was that, sticking to my lumberjacking at the start rather than macroing 15 characters across 15 accounts (ok, that was an exaggeration) meant that when I was invited for a dungeon run, I was in for an extremely unpleasant experience.

    Point of this ramble is thus:

    There are choices and there are informed choices — and the gap between the two is about the size of your average galactic cluster. An un-informed choice *will* penalize you. Making such a choice irreversible is probably not good game design.

  25. @Blargh: Not at all. Mages can teleport other people. It’s like tping in EQ — you have them and it’s convenient, or you get a port from someone else. Also, I took a 100% brand new character into a dungeon last night and now he’s like 50-60% done with his skills. Had a great experience.

  26. “You can also have both. Or chocolate today and vanilla tomorrow. You aren’t advocating a choice between ice cream tonight, you are advocating vanilla ice cream forever.”

    I couldn’t have said it better.

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