Meaningful Choices, Persistent Worlds

Players often ask for the ability to make more meaningful choices in MMOs. People mean different things by ‘meaningful choice’, it could be:

  • Options available to the player in the future depend on choices they made in the past
  • The game world itself changes based on choices the player has made
  • If you make the ‘wrong’ choice, there are bad consequences for the character
  • Having different options available to  solve a problem. How you choose to solve it is as important as whether you succeed.

It boils down to the player being able to feel like a more important part of the game world. The player’s character’s story is unique and based on choices that the player has made. The game world ‘knows’ the character’s history and will respond differently if they made different choices.

These may or may not be reasonable wishes. I know in single player games, I often save before a big decision point because of having been trained in years of adventure games where a single wrong step could result in my character dying and me having to restart the game. So really, no decisions are particularly meaningful. The worst that happens is I go back to a saved game and choose again.

I’m quite intrigued as to how I will cope as a player in a game like SWTOR which is heavily story/choice based but where saving isn’t an option. It will be interesting to find out.

On the other hand, we make a lot of meaningful decisions  in MMOs. They just aren’t all long term decisions (although some, like picking a class, are pretty much permanent in current gen games).

If I’m tanking an instance, I’m making meaningful decisions all the time. I’m deciding which order to kill mobs in, who to put the Vigilance buff on, what gear to wear, which abilities to use. Any of those could affect whether or not we succeed in the next pull or not.

If I’m in a well designed battleground or scenario (i.e. not a total zergfest) then I may be deciding which tactical location to go defend or attack based on what everyone else is doing. Should I attack the enemy or retreat to where there are more allies, or a better defensive position? They’re all meaningful decisions.

But neither instances nor battlegrounds offer the chance for permanent meaningful decision making. The best you can do is complete a quest there to hand in later. And I think the fact that they’re such temporary short-term decisions points is why we have more fun with them.

Does permanence make decision making less fun?

The trouble with permanent decision making is that it can be very high risk. If you make a bad choice, you have to live with it forever. You can certainly make permanent decisions in real life (having a kid, for example), but a lot of our real life choices can be changed later. You can change your career, partner, looks, religion, country where you live, gender, and so on.

Making high risk decisions can be fun. But it’s not fun in a game to be on the wrong side of a decision like that and have to restart when you already sunk several months into a game. This is one of the (many) reasons people hate having their characters nerfed – it may negate the reasons they picked that class, which is a meaningful choice in game. In other words, it’s not fun to make a meaningful decision and find out later that it really hindered your progress in game.

It’s also not fun to find that a decision you made ages ago locked you out of content. I actually think most players would be OK with this as long as it also gave them access to cool content that other people couldn’t have, and sometimes you really can’t (and shouldn’t) have everything. But it’s the permanence of the choice that causes the friction.

You can lower the risk by doing research. Spend time reading bulletin boards, blogs, and whatever other information is available. And that is all time that you don’t spend actually making the decision yourself and possibly learning from it. I’m sure some people think it’s brilliant fun to go spend a few hours reading up on talent specs before deciding how to spend points on their character. I’m not one of them. And most games now offer options to respec, making that less of a permanent choice too.

I enjoy having the game respect decisions I have made in the past as much as anyone. It’s fun when an NPC ‘remembers’ what I said or did for them previously or when the game ‘spots’ that I try to avoid killing unnecessarily and reflects that with how NPCs respond and what kind of quests I am offered. It also CAN be fun to play a game where you are stuck with bad choices that you made in the past (at the start of DaoC, you couldn’t respec, for example) – players have to learn to make the best of what they’ve got. But as soon as some people are willing to reroll to avoid this, there’s presssure on everyone else to do the same thing.

But really this is just trying to make an MMO pretend that it’s a human GM. I’ve played with human GMs, I’ve run games as a human (well, I hope!) GM. I know how I adapt my games to what my players do and say. No offence to game devs but the computer game is really still quite a poor simulation of that. Sure, that means that there is scope for them to get better but my gut feeling is that until these games have more actual human GMing involved, there are limits that we’ll have to accept.

Solid short term tactical games is what computers do very well indeed. Instances, battlegrounds, short term goals rife with short term meaningful decision making for players. These are their strengths.

At the moment, MMOs are still in a funk of identity crisis. They’re virtual worlds, and also games. Often they stick the ‘game’ parts behind instanced portals so that we can enjoy them more as games with all the short term tactical meaningful choices that implies. But it becomes increasingly clear that you can’t have your cake and eat it. The more gameish a MMO becomes, the less of a virtual world feel it will have.

It may be that the price of meaningful choices is one that we’re not willing or able to pay.

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9 thoughts on “Meaningful Choices, Persistent Worlds

  1. We have the trend that nothing bad can happen to players. What can be worse to a player than making a choice he regrets later on – and that he cannot correct anymore at all.

    I still think we need a radical re-invention of the MMO genre. Something that takes a week, a month or even a sabbatical full of beer, friends and fishing. OK, I do not like fishing, but you get the idea.

    Maybe some people then get some enlightened ideas. But they won’t have the money to realize them.

    Sorry, this is so sad… I am such a pessimist and dreamer at the same time… sigh!

  2. Modern MMOs are not built to sustain meaningful decisions. Trying to shoehorn them in will lead to frustration and poor design. You need to cut the moorings that keep the ship tied to the theme-park dock and move on to a different port.

    I laid the groundwork for how to do this in a post on That’s a Terrible Idea: http://thatsaterribleidea.blogspot.com/2009/07/mmorpg-revolution-10-points.html

    It seems like your post is a direct riff on a lot of stuff we discuss and analyze at TATI.

    • Will definitely add you to my newsreader :) It doesn’t really surprise me that people who like to talk about game design end up covering the same sort of ground, I’m sure I’ve seen a lot of people touch on this sort of thing recently. But I do think it’s cool that we’re all pondering it.

      I think I’m still feeling a bit torn because I can see that it makes sense to let games be games and virtual worlds be virtual worlds, but I do love virtual worlds and wouldn’t really be happy with an ultra-instanced set of minigames pretending to be a world.

      • Good to have another reader. :) I recently added you to my RSS reader as well.

        I find that people who talk about MMOs end up reaching conclusions that near what we try to express on TATI. I wanted a place to discuss what to do next in MMOs instead of focusing on what is happening now (aside from how the current can inform us towards the future).

        I don’t think that virtual worlds and games need to be separate. The goals of the game can tie together the people in the virtual world better than just a desire to chat. The game, if designed well, motivates players to meet and talk with people who they otherwise might ignore or miss completely. I find games are a great way to bring people together, and a good virtual world keeps people together.

  3. I think the major problem you really run into is that fun is by definition a temporary feeling. There are no “fun” permanent choices, because fun is never permanent. So as long as we intend to deliver a purely fun experience, that kind of permanence is a no go.

    This compounds with a hero driven storyline, because heroes exist because everything is gone to hell. So in order to continue a permanent storyline in a meaningful way for heroes, things have to keep getting worse, or the heroes become obsolete.

    But if you change your goal from being fun to being engaging, you begin to have options. The point then isn’t to shelter the player from all the bad things, but rather to balance the good and bad. It also requires a certain amount of… sagely patience, I guess you could say, on the part of developers. You have to be able to ignore sudden dips in player numbers, because for a certain number of people the automatic answer to any problem is to run away. That sounds bad, but if you really have balanced it, chances are, they’ll be back later because they’ll be after the good times they once had.

    • I don’t think that is possible, because what is good and bad along a spectrum varies so much by person that you can’t balance it.

      Also, never take how engaging your MMO is for granted. Players can and will leave you if the bad outweighs the good, even short term, if they feel shortchanged. Even people who stay won’t like you that much.

    • “It also requires a certain amount of… sagely patience, I guess you could say, on the part of developers. You have to be able to ignore sudden dips in player numbers, because for a certain number of people the automatic answer to any problem is to run away.”

      I think you’re bang on the money here. Part of the learning experience is coming up against a sense of frustration (in my experience, at least). Overcoming that is a different and more engaging sense of achievement than a lot of short term ‘fun’. I also think that in my experience, when a player leaves, it probably isn’t down to one single issue but a raft of other things that add up to ‘getting bored’ or ‘this game no longer fits my play style’ or ‘don’t have time for this any more’ or ‘emotionally traumatised by guild drama, I want some time out’.

      So a good game can’t be fun all the time, and I’m feeling now as though I’m using the word ‘fun’ in a very undisciplined way :)

      But I do think some permanent choices are more fun than others. Picking a class is fun because not only does it affect your whole game but it’s a choice that gets reinforced a lot later. Maybe there are class specific quests, class specific gear, class specific lore. There’s a whole identity you tap into when you pick a class, for example.

  4. I’m quite intrigued as to how I will cope as a player in a game like SWTOR which is heavily story/choice based but where saving isn’t an option. It will be interesting to find out.

    The “correct” answer is to sit back and have fun with the choices. The problem is that it’s easier for me to say that than for people to actually do it. Especially with achiever-focused gameplay, people want to squeeze every possible advantage out of the system. If people find out they could have gotten +1 more from choice A instead of choice B way back when, they’ll be unhappy. Without any consequences, there really aren’t any meaningful choices, however.

    I suspect that people who can’t just let go and have fun will fall into two main categories. The first will just look up the FAQ, as you hint at. The second will emotionally detach themselves from the character to find out optimal choices; this option will severely work against any “immersive” stories the game might try to provide.

    My thoughts.

    • I think you’re right, and this describes how a lot of people do play. I know with SWTOR I’m planning to try to play as intended and just go with the flow and see what happens.

      The dynamic in MMOs is interesting though, there’s certainly more pressure to conform. And like you say, in an achiever-oriented game that means pressure to minmax a bit, even if you aren’t an achiever yourself but may want to play with people who are.

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