Choices Should Matter

“…Choices matter – even bad ones.”  That’s a quote from our interview with Mark Jacobs in response to whether or not players should be allowed to “gimp” themselves at character creation. I’ve thought a lot on the subject over the past week as I once again dabble into older MMOs seeking that feeling brought on by making meaningful choices. I keep going back to what types of choices there are in MMOs and how they should matter.

We make choices every day in MMOs — easily hundreds of them. What class we want to play, where we want to hunt, which items to use, what to vendor or store in our bank, who to group with, what or who to attack, etc. We used to, and sometimes rarely do make choices about which stats to increase or what factions to gain favor and disdain.

Modern MMOs would have players make these decisions in seconds or without cognition. These types of decisions scare developers. Players thinkings about these things start to look at the big picture –they become aware of the experience. A player who has to think is a player who can become unhappy or even unmanageable. But a player who has to make choices that matter can also be one who becomes invested in the experience.  That same player can grow to love the growth and richness of choice. A game capable of providing such an experience is one that keeps people playing for years. Such a game is typically more than a shallow experience but indeed a virtual world.

People need the ability to make mistakes. I do not feel a mistake that renders someone worthless is ever truly an option, but the choices should carry such weight that choosing one path radically alters the experience. Let’s use stats as an example.  If I am a Ranger I should be able to play as a melee character, a bow user, and be able to use nature magic. If I highly favor strength then my bow and magic should be hindered greatly; If I spread evenly across them all then I should be that jack of all trades. No one path should gimp me, but all paths should be unique.

The mistake to make is when other stats are thrown in like stamina or charisma. How much stamina is needed to be “good?” These types of decisions should not gimp a player if the rest of the game is designed with that same level of decision making. Perhaps I can craft gear to offset the stats. Another ranger who went into strength or dex might have to put more stamina on her gear instead. Methods to correct a mistake in stats should be available, but not readily.

I want to start thinking again in MMOs. Great rewards and/or a sense of accomplishment have always followed meaningful choices. Likewise, failure can come too. Without that opposition, no reward will ever seem sweet enough.  It’s the classic argument that you can not know light without darkness. Without failure, success means less.  Without a potential negative or unexpected outcome, a choice is just an option or a preference.

  • the problem is when the player has no idea he is making a bad choice. i’ll never forget my first DAOC character on launch… a Norse Warrior who I thought would be cool tossing duel axes… so guess i’ll put a ton of points in throw axe skill (LOL what a joke of a skill) – points down the drain…

    yea, obvious stuff like “i want to be a melee cloth mage with a 2 hander” might obviously gimp you but most games you have to find out the hard way what skills are gimp and games that don’t allow respect (or charge a $ for it) can suck. Or just force you to roll ‘flavor of the month’ from web research on viable ‘builds’ and avoid all experimentation.

  • I want lots of difficult choices to make, but the freedom to correct my mistakes. I absolutely hate the older MMO approach to respecs in how they severely limited them. There should be a cost, yes, but nothing too outrageous.

  • I agree, choices should matter, but there’s a need to have a contingency plan or some fall back options if the intent is to build a virtual world. In a short lived game, making mistakes at the character creation is balanced with the fact that your character will not live for long and everyone is going to hit the reset button sonner than later. Your play session might not be that fun, but there’s hope. If making the wrong choice sets you back behind everyone else and you’ll have to play catch up constantly, you might not stick to the game. Losing your hardcore Diablo character sucks, but you can get back into the mists of things rather quickly; the same logic do not apply for MMOs. Playing the Polynesians in Civ5 on a landlock map is sub-optimal, but you can work with it and you’re not stuck with this civ beyon your current game.

  • Mark is 100% right players need to be able to fail. Otherwise there is no sense of accomplishment. I think its the main reason I get bored with and get little satisfaction from MMO’s that limit character building options.

  • Choices should matter on the playstyle aspect of the game not for failure or success and most important there shouldn’t be “traps” from the developers so people can caught and fail. brindle mention the axe skill that was a joke and I wonder why a developer create a skill that is a joke in the first place? It was a just a trap for possible “failed” players or the developer lacked the intellectual capacity to understand that said skill was a joke?

    Choices should matter for playstyle..if I chose to play a tank I will be a tank for the rest of my game and if I chose to tank with self heals or with extra armor/mitigation thats also a choice that should matter and not change. But creating useless spells/things in game in case someone chose them and “fail” is not good gameplay nor fun.

  • In real life people need the ability to make mistakes.

    In entertainment, perhaps not as much. If I could control the main character of a movie with absolute freedom, then I could make them jump off a cliff even if doing so resulted in a terrible/stupid story. Recently, games seem to be proclaiming themselves champions of player freedom… freedom to abuse other players, freedom to have a bad time, freedom to choose a terrible skill combo.

    I’d rather be presented with 10 really solid options than 1000 (when only 10 of them are viable anyways). Having those extra 900 options does not mean freedom– it just means that you’ll be forced to pick the 10 best options anyways, or else no one will group with you.

  • I think the chance to fail has to be there. That chance to fail can include making a huge mistake with your character, or learning the hard way not to do something a certain way. Granted, if there’s a way to absolutely ruin your character… that’s where it gets tough. I think it’s important to include a way to rectify errors and encourage newer players to learn without penalizing them greatly. Let those decisions be forgiven early, and not as easily later.

    I think the best example is what Brindle said in the first comment here. He put all his points into throwing axes thinking he would be this awesome throwing axe character. What if throwing axes actually were viable? That’s the key. If someone can spend points in throwing axes then that better be a good path.

    There may still be room for error, but proper documentation can guide people away from those mistakes. Staying with our same example, if Brindle put into throwing axes he should be able to do well with those as a weapon. But if he put his stats into Charisma then that’s a mistake he made. If the game clearly states that Charisma is for certain trade skills or improving your controlling spell duration or how effective your songs are as a bard then Brindle would know not to put into Charisma — he still could though!

  • It seems most people have not played games where they made mistakes with their character and either had to suck it up or start over. There is a lot of satisfaction when the improved version works out. A lot more than simply respeccing.

  • @solarbear
    Actually, I think most if us HAVE played games with permanent development traps, and understand that those games were really, really dumb. Not only are the traps usually hidden towards the end, but you are stuck either playing a character you no longer enjoy playing OR you are forced to replay the beginning of the game all over again. In the context of an MMO with potentially thousands of hours of investment – especially when an errant nerf could render your entire build moot – it’s simply insane to have permanent failure states.

  • As I’ve grown older, I’ve lost patience for game systems that disrespect my time.

    A game should be providing clear information to the player up front about the rules of the game and the world they find themselves in.

    I’ve played a number of games where the mistakes made in the first few hours didn’t become apparent until the mid game, only after I’d struggled and failed to progress.

    That is poor game design.

    I’ve played my share of games where you suffer set backs. Old school games had this in spades. Trying to get through levels in the original Ghosts’n’Goblins over and over again, was just par for the course.

    But these were rapid setbacks. Sure, you were rebuffed, but you could take what you learnt and reapply it.

    If you’ve designed your game well, it shouldn’t be possible to build a ‘broken character’. If you’ve allowed that to occur, you’ve asked the player to make decisions head of time, without all the information, then decided that there’s only a hand full of “right” answers.

    This is very different to giving a player the set of tools to “play around” the challenge in front of them. I’m facing a boss that’s immune to fire and I’ve completely spec’d into fire damage. Maybe there’s a mechanic to remove the immunity? Maybe there’s a way to lower his resistance? Or change his immunity to another element?

    Forcing a player to re-roll because they failed to anticipate the challenges laid out in advance only serves as a frustration.

  • Pre-Directors cut Deus Ex: Human Revolution reminds me of this situation.

    People were pissed that they’d gone through the trouble of building their uber stealth characters, only to find combat heavy boss encounters, with zero options to get around them.

    That wasted a hell of a lot of time for people. Thankfully, the dev’s later went back and added options for non-combat / stealth characters to take down these bosses or avoid them all together.