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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