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.

Playing with people who have more/less time to game

In any MMO, there will be some people who play more, and some who play less. Unless you either always solo or always play in a fixed group who log in at the same times every week, you will hang out with both people who have more time to play and people who have less.

At the moment, I notice this because I’m playing more than one MMO (WoW and LOTRO). In one, I’m the ultra casual. In the other, I’m not. And in both cases, I play with people who spend both more and less hours in the game than I do.

Can it cause friction? For sure. People who play more hours will almost always have more stuff, more alts, more trade skills, more time to raid, more practice at the game skills, more friends/contacts in the game. After all, most ‘choices’ offered in MMOs vanish if you have enough time to do everything. (Which class should I pick? I’ll just level one of everything. etc.)

People who play less may be more casual, less skilled, have less gold. And that takes some adjustment. It can be frustrating for the lower hour players (why do I always have to be worse at everything? Isn’t there any one thing I can do that player X won’t pull out 17 alts who do it better?) as well as the more intensive players (how can Y not understand this simple thing?)

And of course, people often change their playing schedules. For example, at the start of Wrath a lot of WoW players featured it heavily on their gaming schedule. There was a lot to do – levelling, rep grinds, gearing up, organising raid groups. And as people get more bored or have completed more of the game, they tend to play less. They still have all the stuff and all the skills which they accumulated during the initial glut, but will spend less time right now. This type of play isn’t the same as a more casual player, even though they might be putting in the same hours.

Do you play with people who spend a lot more or less time in game than you? What issues have you found? And how do you deal with them?

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?