What makes choices fun in games?

I’ve written before that I don’t enjoy complex min/maxing in my RPGs.  They often result in the cookie cutter situation where your character will be horribly gimped if you don’t look up the optimal spec/ gear before deciding how to spec/ gear. We’ve also seen via WoW that if the player base believes this to be the case, then they will socially exclude anyone who doesn’t conform or doesn’t put out equivalent performance to the min/maxer.

So where does this leave players who do want to play socially with others but don’t enjoy minmaxing? It leaves them with a suboptimal gameplay that involves lots of looking stuff up.

I thought instead this morning I’d look at what sort of choices do lead to more fun gameplay, in my opinion. When I talk about choices in this context, I don’t mean the second by second choices a player would make during combat. I am talking about out of combat choice mechanics where there is no time pressure, such as choosing dialogue options, gear options, class/ spec options, and so on.

The main thing is that I’d like to either know in advance what the consequences of a choice are likely to be, or else have utter trust in the game not to stiff me (unless I already knew it was that type of game and restarting is easy.)

  1. Cosmetic choices. The choice you make is purely a preference that won’t affect gameplay. I like choosing what to eat on a menu when I go out to a restaurant and imagining what it will taste like, but the end result is (hopefully) eating a meal, whichever option is picked. I don’t need there to be an obvious bad option – it’s just as much fun to pick between lots of different awesome options.
  2. Choices that give me more control over gameplay, so that I can tailor it to my preferences. Choosing between which of my alts to play is a fun choice. Choosing whether to go a level deeper into Angband (increased risk) vs going back to the town level to sell up is a fun choice. Picking a class or which zone to go to next can be this type of choice, but again it doesn’t require there to be an obvious worse option. Choosing is more fun for me when there isn’t so I can just pick the option that I find more appealing.
  3. Choices that give me more control over narrative/ story. Choosing an origin in DAO is a fun choice. Choosing between renegade/ paragon options in Mass Effect can be fun too.

And here are some examples of choices that are not fun for me.

  1. My choice is irrelevant. It genuinely makes no difference in either short term or long term. (Note: There is a subtle difference between this and a cosmetic choice.)
  2. My choice is uninteresting. It may make a difference but I don’t care (at least not unless it’s a difference that makes an obvious difference in gameplay or looks).
  3. Traps! At least one of the options is going to screw my gameplay over in a major way, and this is particularly bad if I won’t find out until a lot later into the game. This turns the choice away from ‘pick your favourite’ and into ‘avoid picking the bad option’ – a subtle difference but one which adds into the selection process.
So where does this leave SWTOR, which is offering moral choices to characters through the levelling stories, resulting in darkside or lightside points? Rohan wonders what sort of impact these story choices might have on the gameplay. I suspect the answer is that in order to keep players happy, they will have to be partly cosmetic. Or at least, they will influence the character’s personal story/ narrative but mechanically have little to no effect on any group content.
I’d be quite happy with a game which produced an awesome story at the cost of a gimped endgame character. But I wouldn’t bother playing past the end of the storyline, because I’m not a masochist. And that’s why Bioware will offer ways to grind lightside or darkside points in endgame if it’s going to make a mechanical difference. I suggest to prospective players: play the single player storyline purely for fun and make the interesting choices that the character in your imagination would make. Don’t worry about endgame consequences, there will be a way round it.

21 thoughts on “What makes choices fun in games?

  1. Yes yes, a thousand time yes. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about how they will be forced to make a LS/DS choice that will affect what gear they can use. Several posters have said you can grind points out from diplomacy or repeating flashpoints if you need to. So, yeah, play the game they way you want to, worry about end game at end game. At worst, a bit of grinding to switch afflictions doesn’t seem that hard. Save a few people from the dark side/kill some babies and hello new gear.

  2. Good morning Spinks! As always an absolute brill post!

    One thing you didn’t mention specifically, though you hinted at it with #3 above, are “uninformed” choices. I think this is the single biggest problem with decision making of the type you’re talking about.

    Champions Online was a classic example that suffered hugely from this in its original incarnation. They would present you with a supposed “classless” advancement system, with dozens of choices about powers from all different schools, with entire pages of numbers detailing the stat changes, but with no context or enough information about how it would ultimately affect your character. And that leads into the “trap” that you talk about. I can’t tell you how many times in new games that myself and friends become absolutely paralyzed in decision making, because you aren’t presented with enough information to make an informed choice, and you fear the consequences.

    The changes that WoW recently made with their talent trees are, I think, a great study about choices in an MMO, and whether its better to have more or less of them, and what constitutes an “interesting” choice. WoW started off with, as we all know, fairly complex talent trees, And the intention was, ostensibly, to allow for more diversification, and more choices about how you can build your character.

    Over time though, they came to the realization that those choices didn’t ultimately matter. The community so min-maxed the optimal builds, that informed choices meant, ultimately, a single build for each spec. So instead of obfuscating the player’s path, they made it simpler. A lot of people derided this design choice — and you see in Rift they went exactly the opposite direction, exploding the permutations of choices you can make as you level up. But ultimately, you end up with min-maxed optimum builds in Rift as well, and so the question becomes – how meaningful are your choices in leveling up there, and the answer is – not very.

    It might sound as if I’m coming out on the side of allowing players fewer choices than more, especially when it comes to advancing your characters. And to a certain extent I am. Not because I don’t think choices are fun – but I think, under the current context of design mechanics in your typical MMO, it’s incredibly hard to create advancement choices that provide variation – but are still viable. See WoW’s (and now Rift’s long-standing battle to provide different classes with quote-unquote “different but equal” ways to tank.

    • I would say the point about WoW’s talent tree system is Blizzards own fault. If you look back at the way the talent trees were first introduced – along with skills and powers – it was very different.

      Several notable talents that were very powerful were gained with just a ‘splash’ into another tree. This lead to very different builds and ideas from classes – and resulted in many ‘overpowered’ builds whenever a new combination was found that worked *very* well.

      As a result of said talent tree complexity and power – you had viable builds that would do 15/31/5 – or even 21/30 – some builds even worked at a 15/15/21 split.

      That may seem silly now – but several of the ’31 point’ talents at launch were *useless*.

      Blizzard systematically revamped the talent trees moving the more popular or powerful abilities to the 21 point mark and making the 31 point talents ‘must have’ – this was to ensure that someone ‘took’ the 31 point talent and remove the PvP imbalances that typically resulted in having more than one of the more powerful abilities.

      Note that PvP (in BG form) didn’t exist at launch – and it wasn’t until the ranked PvP and whining that came with it about ‘OP builds’ that the talent system started to get the overhaul.

      Follow all of this logic and you find that in the attempt to balance the PvE game around OP PvP talents – the idea that some talent combinations were too powerful and must be stopped came about.

      Consequently when we started to get levels above 60 – talent trees were expanded with new ‘must have’ talents at the end of the block – the new ’41 point’ talent was the must have in each tree – and talents that were not ‘omg’ were tweaked until people felt they *had* to go 41 points deep in a tree.

      Mind you the speculation prior to the talent trees going deeper pre-BC was full of excitement over being able to take another ’21 point’ talent from a separate tree – that was turned around once the talent trees were unveiled.

      Blizzard had painted themselves into a corner with Cataclysm – having bloated the talent system and unwilling to continue the balancing act of ‘Monte Haul’ talents that would entice players to continue the ‘end or nothing’ design – they revamped the talent system completely – what is left – is bland.

      To use the dinner analogy of the article… vanilla talent trees were a top rated menu of choices with a full range of appetizers, entrees, and dessert.

      The new trees are like a choice between meatloaf, Salisbury steak in loaf form, or the special (ground beef in the form of a loaf). And it all tastes like cardboard.

      • “The new trees are like a choice between meatloaf, Salisbury steak in loaf form, or the special (ground beef in the form of a loaf). And it all tastes like cardboard.”

        I’m not really sure that I agree with this. If I look at warriors as an example (since that’s my main), I still see Arms, Prot and Fury trees that play differently from each other and have a similar feel to the way they played in Cataclysm. I remember when it was fairly normal for Prot warriors to only have 15 points in the Protection tree, and although I kind of miss the more hybrid playstyle, the way stats on gear worked never really supported it and I think all the talent trees play more smoothly now. In other words, I think they were right to sit down and decide ‘do we want to support hybrid play or single role play’ and pick one.

        I’m also v curious to see how stats on gear are going to work out for GW2 given that they will let you switch role by swapping weapons in combat.

      • “I still see Arms, Prot and Fury trees that play differently from each other and have a similar feel to the way they played in Cataclysm.”

        I’m assuming you mean pre-Cata. I’d agree with you – my point wasn’t that it was a shocking change from WoTLK – only that the old trees pre-BC even – had alot more variety and flavor – and it was possible for you to talent build yourself into a role that wasn’t ‘intended’.

        I never had as much fun as I did *tanking* on my shaman. I had threat spells… a threat weapon enhancement (rockbiter gave threat in those days) and even in chain I could rival plate AC.

        These days you pick a pre-determined role and you are stuck with it. I personally think the choice to do ‘off the beaten path’ types of things are what made the game fun.

        “the way stats on gear worked never really supported it ” – This I disagree with. Stats on gear was all over the place and many set pieces were horrible for the stat you actually wanted. Back when the stats were not loaded for your class/role you could pick up gear for a rogue/hunter and change how your class played.

        In BC for instance an enhancement shaman would go for leather raid drops all the way into BT. Chain options would actually *lower* dps in most cases.

        Yes gear is now tailored to your role – but I thought the point of this article was the fact that less options reduce the fun 🙂 That’s my point – sure the game is hyper tailored now – sure the talent trees are synergistic. Sure the gear supports your role and stats. But all that hyper adjusting and focus took something away from the game (IMO).

      • In this example, I did mean Cataclysm because tanking was improved a lot in that expansion (IMO). Also with the gear thing, in TBC you generally needed critproof gear for tanking (or to have a bombproof healer and be lucky, or to be a druid because they had a talent for it.)

        But I hear what you’re saying that you found your hybrid class more fun (and more hybrid, even) before the trees were streamlined.

    • I agree with you, and I do think that the current WoW talent tree layout was a good design choice by the Blizzard team. It preserves the basic ‘what playstyle do I want’ choice without loading people down too much in complex and obscure talent choices. I feel this paralysation in making choices in every new game I try — you only have to get burned ONCE when your class/ spec turns out to be weaker the whole way through the game to get a lot more cautious when it comes to irrevocable choices. Sure, this simplification comes at a cost, and other games like Rift have a lot to offer players who like tinkering with interesting combinations (although there are still some choices that are flat out better in that game too).

      I think there’s more to be said about uninformed choices too, because I’m with you on that. Because there are different ways to give out that information. You can foreshadow (ie. if you line the route to the monster’s cave with the corpses of dead adventurers, hopefully they’ll twig that it’s dangerous), you can use some labels (eg. “class x is the primary healer class in this game”), or you can let players explore and find out for themselves (eg. allow easy class/ talent changes so that people can easily experiment.) But if you go with the last option, then people need a way to get some feedback from the choices they make — talent A gives me an extra ability B, for example. Or this change gives better damage. Or this one gives interesting AE options.

      And the other information needed is about the game itself. There’s no point offering a really good AE dps spec if none of the game’s monsters ever come in groups, but players aren’t going to know that.

      Truth is, though, that complex systems to work through really do appeal to theorycrafter type of players. And they’re only really compatible with players like me when I can either figure out how to play well enough via play (frex, I had no major issues speccing my warrior competently with the old style trees, I knew the class very well even if I might not have been minmaxed out) or when some theorycrafter presents me with a build and says ‘use this.’

      • I disagree about the current approach to talent trees – but that’s because I’ve always been a fan of hybrids and generalists, whilst WoW has steadily moved towards greater specialisation in character roles. To start with, “I’m pretty good at A and can do quite a bit of B as well” was a valid choice in WoW… then it became possible but pretty clearly signposted as a bad idea (what you refer to as a trap)… and then they took the freedom to make that mistake away from players.

        For me, a choice is only a choice if both answers are valid – otherwise it’s a trap or a waste of time. I’m happy with a choice that might not seem optimal for some players, as long as it’s optimal for others, such as a class that doesn’t perform so well in raids but is a strong solo player (as long as the game offers a robust solo experience).

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  4. Well first let me say different people find different aspects fun. I rather like numbercrunching theorycraft myself. Raph Koster defined fun as challenge in his book while I think WoW and Farmville have shown that he was not speaking for the majority.

    At the heart of your post is the question of how should one play SWTOR? I’m not now planning to get it but while I was I looked on SWTOR precisely as you suggest as an interesting story to be played through in the style of previous Bioware games. I’d even go further than you and say there’s not much point to SWTOR past the voice-acted storylines. Lightsabre Warsong Gulch? I’ll pass.

    But the large development budget has gone into the storylines and the voice-acting, the past brilliance of the studio has been in storyline, why play this game for anything but storyline? Are people genuinely expecting end-game to be good, let alone worth skipping past the undeniably good leveling game?

    • That’s why I said “where does this leave players who want to play socially but don’t enjoy minmaxing?” — if you do enjoy minmaxing then you can keep doing what you were doing anyway, have fun with that, and end up with a good group/ social spec too.

      I’m not sure what people are expecting of SWTOR endgame, but I think that going into any MMO these days, players want to hedge their bets. You may be expecting nothing from the endgame, but just on the very slight offchance that you do enjoy it, you don’t want to end up with a character that is gimped for endgame and will make it harder for you to get groups/ endgame guilds.

      • I expect most players who want to play socially but don’t enjoy minmaxing will take the two minutes to look up a cookiecutter build. The people who have it tough are people who are interested enough in the mechanics to want to experiment. (And people who don’t even think to check third party sites but I doubt there’s many of those).

  5. I miss having a choice in direction to go. Everything is so lead by the nose now. Dungeons aren’t to be explored, they’re to be experienced by going this one little direction and jumping through all the hoops laid out before you.

    I miss dungeon exploration (and exploration in general) badly.

    Spec points and talent point placement are not ‘fun choices’. They’re just given. Blizzard could easily get rid of the whole spec thing and just go with separate class paths.

    Gear choices are non-existent in the end game. As a Hunter I’m struggling to find a suitable 2h weapon because there are so few available that are suitable for Hunters; one world drop, one drop off Majordomo Staghelm and one dropped off Halfus – oh and one that drops off a final boss in one of the troll dungeons. I’m still running around with a 2h axe from Deadmines (the rest of my gear is T11 or T12 hehe). I considered picking up some 1h weapons but I’ll be polite and wait for the guild rogue to get them first.

    Ranged weapons? Same deal. There were two in the previous tier and I think there are two in the current tier. Crafted one maybe, but it’s weaker than the one from the previous tier.

    No, Blizzard really isn’t giving people a lot of options for gear. Min/maxing or optimization comes down to picking between one or two pieces… it’s not much of a choice really.

    Even then, picking gear isn’t a lasting fun. You’ve got it, now what? More of the same…

    Definitely agree, more fun choices would be nice.

  6. “they will socially exclude anyone who doesn’t conform or doesn’t put out equivalent performance to the min/maxer”

    This is true, but only to the extent that we all stay on the same bandwagon. Outside of the game we can find groups of likeminded individuals for everthing. Regardless of how specialized your interest in a particular area, you can find others who feel the same. Why can’t we apply this to gaming as well? We are dismissive of the ‘It’s just a game’ players, but maybe they are the ones who’ve been right all along. Why did we turn gaming into work?

    Just because ‘everyone’ seems to be min/maxing doesn’t mean they like it, and if some brave soul were to stand up and play differently they may soon find themselves with a lot of company.

    • Hi, it’s a good point, and I’d be the first person to recommend that people find guilds/ groups with people who play the same sort of way that they do.

      I think this groupthink has become more of an issue in WoW because of the random dungeon finder. If you use that, then you will be exposed to the mass playerbase. You could choose not to (and a lot of people do choose that) but if you really want to grind out instances for badges, LFD is likely the fastest and most convenient way. (In practical terms, if you seem to be performing fine no one is going to bitch you out about your gear/ spec, and the majority of PUG groups are fine in my experience too, but you always remember the ones that weren’t.)

      • There are two really good, key concepts here that quite well deserve blog posts on their own merit. The first is Eccentrica’s comment about finding you’re own group of like-minded people to play with. And the second is Spink’s comment about LFG tool really damaging this notion, because the it’s the most convenient method to group, but it exposes you to the entire playerbase.

        Having the ability to make “interesting” choices about the play style and advancement of your character in an MMO are really viable only under 2 sets of circumstances. 1.) You play in a vaccum – that is, you solo only. 2.) You play with a group of friends that don’t mind or are willing to work with sub-optimal builds/specs/whatever.

        The problem arises when you don’t want to solo, (or the game’s requirements don’t allow you to), and your circle of peers suddenly evaporates for whatever reason. At that point, you’re forced to find non-friends/associates to group with. The LFG was designes specifically to assist in that role. But the moment you do that, you open all of your “interesting” or eccentric or flavorful choices to be called into question.

        I can’t claim credit for this idea, but I saw someone mention it somewhere (it may even have been here), but instead of forcing you to play with the unwashed masses, as it were, what if our social organizations in MMO’s – guilds, were redefined. What if instead of one guild that you could only join at a time, and were essentially married to until it dissolved or you moved on, guilds were more like social organizations, and you could join any number of them at the same time.

        In fact, not only did the game allow you to join multiple organizations within game, but encouraged you to. So you could join an alchemists’ guild to swap recipes and components, a Wednesday-night raiding guild because you can only raid on Wednesday nights, and a Pig & Whistle social club to sit around and socialize with on Friday nights. I think if guilds allowed more ebb and flow of their memberships and players were allowed to participate in many of these organizations, it would help offset the inevitable dissolution of this organization or that one, and help to keep the player engaged in the game.

        Apologies for hijacking your comments thread with blog posts of their own, lol.

  7. I had a similar post lined up myself! (Based around cookie-cutter builds in WoW) Will have to link to this when I do.

    Really good outlook on the topic. I especially agree that a call for more ‘choice’ is needed. Not choice as in – “anything but this will gimp you”. But choice which allows you to develop a particular style with it’s own perk and pro/cons.

    New subscriber,

    – Jamin

  8. Dusty, I think in the late winter/early spring of this year there was a discussion about the concept of multiple guild memberships over at the Pink Pigtail Inn. Interesting. I will have to back and see if it can’t be found somewhere.

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