Are we too obsessed with choices in games?

Suzina writes at Kill Ten Rats about her disappointment with the crafting system in Star Wars Galaxies. There were lots and lots of different professions to choose from … but many turned out to be mostly disregarded by the rest of the player base.

if you chose to be an crafter, a doctor, or an entertainer, you were completely worthless most of the time. Most of the time, nobody had to interact with you and nobody wanted to. Eventually, someone might want a guild-hall, or a face-lift, or some death-penalty removed and they would be forced to interact with you until they could get back to doing fun stuff.

She goes on to wonder what a game would be like that only had one class. Imagine that everyone could easily switch between every role in game.

The trouble with choices is that on the one side, you get to pick what is more fun for you to play. On the other, there’s a good chance that some choices will be mechanically superior to others. Others might be inconvenient, or so time-consuming to level that they don’t fit with less hardcore playing styles. Eventually, the playerbase drifts towards cookie cutter specs because they actually are better. So the choice is either an illusion, a trap made to catch newbies and anyone else who doesn’t know what the current best specs are — or else it’s not a very meaningful choice because anything you pick will be fine. I don’t believe that the second option really is meaningless though. Choosing how you prefer to play is always meaningful, and if no class is better or worse at anything than any other, they might still play very differently.

We see it with crafting skills also. Some end up being more desirable than others, some are easier for building cash, some may have added bonuses. (We joked in the beginning of Wrath that WoW had turned into World of Jewelcrafting because jewelcrafters got daily quests, lots of extra drops, vast money making potential and bonuses that scaled well — it’s still true.) Yet somehow, they all involve the same ‘click on recipe to craft item’ mechanic. So from the player’s point of view, all that ever can really matter is the profits and any side bonuses. They all play the same.

For many people, choosing what class, spec, or crafting skill to play is heavily dependent on what other people are doing. If you pick a rare (but needed) class/spec combination, you will have an easier time getting into groups. If you pick a rare (but needed) crafting skill, you will be able to fill a niche in the market and may be more sought after. Being rare feels more individual and unique, and being unique is very highly  prized among players.

It can also lead to the situation Oriniwen finds herself in, where she’s just happily levelled a new alt to find … that her co-GM picked exactly the same class and spec for a new alt, and they both hit max level at the same time. Does it matter? Well, yes if they both share a role for which there is limited demand. With the best will in the world, it’s hard not to be gutted when you realise that you have to compete with a friend for groups.

I’d welcome a game where anyone could switch to anything, although I am curious as to how it would affect how we identify with our characters. I also wonder whether facing the very real choice of ‘What would I prefer to do?’ rather than the illusory choice of ‘What do other people on the forums say I should do?’ might be too much for some to bear.

How do you feel about choices in MMOs?

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17 thoughts on “Are we too obsessed with choices in games?

  1. Champions Online moves somewhat towards the “everyone is the same class” model, with a wide range of powers that anyone can pick (though you still have to level up to select them) and the ability to switch between four stance-like “builds” that broadly correspond to giving buffs to DPS, tanking and support (plus a balanced version).

    It’s certainly got the inevitable problem of some choices being mechanically superior (choose a passive defensive or self-healing power and you’re vastly more effective than a character with attacks alone), but I’m hoping there’ll at least be a slightly happy compromise of a variety of viable builds rather than a single Everyone Must Be This Flavour Of The Period Of Time Until It Gets Nerfed. Guess we’ll find out once the min-maxers have had enough time to plug everything into their spreadsheets…

    • I think it’s a really tricky balance with a game like this, because people will come up with strong concepts before they’ve even had a chance to play and find out what works.

      So finding in practice that one power combo is really weak might just kill the whole concept for someone.

  2. I don’t know what SWG she was playing, but that certainly was not the case when I played. At least not for my guild. We had some entertainers and crafters who were *extremely* in demand. The best part? They were played by people who were possibly the target audience: complete non-gamers who played those professions *because* they were non-combat, not because the guild felt it “needed” one and someone drew the short straw.

    We had players coming from all over the place to our little guild city on Lok, to visit our entertainers. Lok was one of the more expensive planets to travel to at the time, and our city was a ways off from the spaceport as well. But our entertainers not only spent their time working up their mechanical skills to give the best buffs they could, but they also entertained via chat. There was a lot of direct and indirect role-playing as well as plenty of general conversation, and everyone enjoyed it because it wasn’t just gamer dudes having the same gamer dude conversations.

    Crafting was similar, we had some crafters who were very busy, since at the time SWG was one of the few MMOs that (ever had meaningful crafting, something even newer MMOs are avoiding. The co-worker who got me to play SWG got so much crafting business from other players that he never had time to just login and play (travel, combat, instances, etc.) anymore, he’d end up spending hours every day working on crafting orders. He was one rich sonofabitch, but it was a shame that crafting caused us to not be able to play the game together anymore.

    • Seconded. SWG was a game that celebrated diversity. Also it’s trivial to switch if you perceive yourself as doing the boring stuff while another class has fun. It’s literally a couple of clicks to become that class instead.

  3. My two copper (fwiw) is that Blizz has the right idea with “bring the player, not the class.” This gives the choices they present some meaning, but not too much meaning. Which is good.

    In theory.

    I don’t know if Blizz has entirely succeeded at that goal, though. I still think that there are some situations where (say) a well-played ret pally will still come lower on the dps charts (for all the import the dps charts have) than a mediocre mage. (Picked two classes at random! Out of mah butt! Please don’t flame!)

    As for my situation, we did a Naxx10 last night and there was room – and loots! – for two tankadins. So maybe there’s more resources to go around than my pessimistic mind initially saw.

    • Glad to hear it’s working out better than you feared. I think you’re right and that usually it’s the worrying that is the worst part.

      But for all that, I really did empathise with your post. I think we’ve all been there, whether it’s both rolling a tank or healer, or both levelling the same tradeskill, and only finding out after it’s way too late to change.

      I think they’re really getting somewhere with ‘bring the player not the class’, it isn’t perfect but it feels more flexible these days. Still doesn’t help when you only need 2-3 tanks for raids though. I felt rubbish this week when a really nice player applied for our raid group and was told ‘sorry, we already have enough tanks’ I feel as though I’m part of the problem.

  4. While not in the same league as WoW, EQ2, and the rest, Free Realms allows you to change jobs any time you are idle. It’s a refreshing change from the artificial limitations of the other games.

    • Thanks for posting. You’re right, and I do remember that I found that a very fun part of the game. You really could log on and think ‘hm, what sort of mood am I in today?’

  5. Choices are the key to game design in my mind. If you’re not allowing players to make choices and experiment (what I’d call “play”), you’re not doing your job as a designer. You’re probably just making a movie or trying to make players jump through hoops. Gaming is all about letting players interact with something, and if the only “choices” they have are superficial or fraudulent, to my mind, it’s abusing the medium.

    Consequently, I’m against harsh penalties for experimentation, including strong death penalties, DIAS design (“Do It Again, Stupid”; see Shamus’s article over at Twenty Sided), class-based design (at least in long-play games, since it locks players into decisions they make without enough information), limited or missing “respec” options, and grindy mechanics that force players through long swaths of doing the same thing over and over, with no real choices to make or new things to learn.

    It is definitely possible to swamp players with too much information and too many choices at the beginning of a game, but that’s why respeccing is so hugely important. It allows players to get their “game legs” under them and then make the changes they need to for the game to be fun for them. (At least in RPG terms; Super Mario Brothers doesn’t have the same problems.)

    Looking at DDO as an example, in finest D&D tradition, you can gimp your character by making the wrong choices during creation or during development. With limited respec ability, that’s highly annoying, especially if it takes several levels to find out that you’re gimped. Players either have to do a lot of forum and wiki research before they ever start and plan the whole development path from the outset, or play through several iterations of failed characters trying the “trial and error” approach. Neither is much fun (at least, for several personality types), and both take an inordinate amount of time. A much better game design would be to let players get in and start *playing* within minutes, and let them make choices (and *change* them any time if they so choose) as they go.

    Tabletop D&D can get away with the core character progression gimpability because of the marvelous variability of playing with real people who can guide you, tailor the game to your choices, or let you “respec”. Not so online; when you have to go through the starting area of DDO several times before you nail down your optimal character, it gets onerous, and only the truly obsessed or addicted will even bother.

    The classless design of CO looks very good, but without cheap or free full respecs, it’s just another time sink. To my mind, that’s bad design because it forces a false choice on players. They can customize their characters, but must do so without understanding what the long-term consequences are for their choices. Some will get lucky and nail it on the first shot, but many will have to grind through alts, trying to figure out the system. (Zoso over at Killed in a Smiling Accident writes about that here. Players shouldn’t have to go through that sort of mindless repetition just to find the fun in a title.

    • I agree with pretty much everything you have said here.
      But it is with the knowledge that my learning style is what they call dynamic (ie. I learn best by actually jumping in and doing things, making mistakes, then doing them better). I know other people who do learn faster by reading lots of text or having someone tell them instructions.

      I personally am not inclined towards games that will say ‘gotcha’ after X amount of time, because I wanted to just jump in and play it, try stuff out, see what was fun, instead of spending hours reading forums and minmaxing first. But there probably is a solid niche for a minmaxing game that isn’t afraid to show its true colours.

      The key is probably setting player expectations. If it’s a minmaxing game, then let people know that they need to go do that at the beginning.

  6. I think its mostly players. Players need to be less serious about the game mechanics so that people can play more to choice.

    Not counting choices where the developer screwed up and they are truly worthless, most are just less efficient for a specific task. You can have the cookie cutter recommended setup, and get the best exp, but other ones are still pretty good, and you can get decent exp per hour, and have fun. It’s just players don’t want to make that sacrifice-they don’t want to get 10k exp per hour when they can 20.

    Plus the devs too are to blame. They make a lot of content too tuned to an advanced level of difficulty, which leads into cookie cutter setups. When its easy to fail, its harder to experiment: Tesh is dead on with his comment about that.

  7. this is one thing and some would say only thing that FFXI does right. The Job System where every character is unique but they can play any of the multiple classes whenever they want and choosing a subjob makes for some interesting (and sometimes bland /NIN seriously?) choices.

    It also becomes one hell of a timesink as you can level 20 times on the same character.

    • I’m a FFXI vet here and its more complex than that.

      Its hard to explain without getting technical. In FFXI your sub is half of your level. If I am a level 18 warrior my sub will be a level 9 monk.

      Lets say I wanted to sub red mage instead. I do it, and while I have all the abilities a level 9 red mage has, I have not much of the stats a level 18 red mage would have, and no gear to boost it. That means I cannot land spells on any tough mob, and I have a tiny MP pool, because warrior adds no MP.

      Its a good example of the illusion of choice, because in practice a lot of the subs don’t work, or are one trick ponies. For most jobs really you can make do with 1-3 of them, and only a few use more. Those jobs tend to be ones that complement the main job, not open up really radical playstyle choices. You sub sam or nin for damage reduction, or sub scholar as a mage.

      If you don’t believe me try seeking in it sometime as a war/whm or even as a drg/thif for experience.

    • That’s actually got me thinking.

      For me, a choice only counts if it affects how I play. I personally don’t care how many other people make the same choice. Doesn’t bother me how many other people picked undead warriors, this one is MINE.

      Now you say that choice counts for you if it lets you distinguish yourself from other people.

      So I guess people have different ways of measuring the importance of a choice.

  8. I’m something of a spreadsheet nerd and I love complexity and subtlety of choices. As Tesh says though it isn’t fun to realise you put a talent point in the wrong place and might need to re-roll.

    For me the classless system tends to mean everyone plays a twohanded sword mage in plate with self-heals. I believe this is how Darkfall works, it’s also what I played in Daggerfall and Morrowwind. I don’t honestly think it’s a better system.

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