6 October, 2011
A common game design mantra comes from Sid Meier, “A good game is a series of interesting choices.” Most designers hold this up as holy writ, saying that a game must give choices to the player in order to be considered a game.
But is this really the case? Can you have a game where you don’t have to make choices and still have fun?
A player perspective
The Ancient Gaming Noob got me thinking about this because of his post on RIFT. He contrasted RIFT‘s plethora of choices in character development to the original EverQuest‘s almost complete lack of choice. Wilhelm even mentions how this lack of choice was one of the things he really appreciated during his visit to the EQ progression servers.
Not to say that there are no choices to make when playing EQ, but they tend to be more about details of play (Where do I go to hunt? Do we want to invite that other character fighting in the same area? Do I need to even watch the screen while playing a warrior?) rather than the high level of choices in more modern MMOs. It’s also potentially interesting to look at how the revamp of WoW’s talent trees in Cataclysm to see how they removed some of the choice from players, particularly at lower levels.
A professional perspective
Game designer Chis Bateman disagrees with Sid’s quote being a guiding element of game design. He points out that this might be true for a specific type of game (notably strategic games), but once you expand beyond that narrow field you run into trouble. Games like (Klondike) solitaire are still games, but you don’t have a whole lot of decisions to make once you start playing. Other games, like Guitar Hero are more about an performance rather than choice. Sports, which many consider to be a type of game, also focus more on competition and prowess rather than ability to make choices which tend to form more of a meta-game than being part of the game itself.
So, choice isn’t necessarily an element universal to all games if you choose to be inclusive.
A popular perspective
Going back to Wilhelm’s post, we see that sometimes choice leads to heartache; he writes about how in RIFT he anticipates “that a few months down the road somebody will say, ‘LOL noob! You went with beastmaster/champion/warlord for warrior DPS?’” In other words, he worries that his choices might be poor, particularly in the eyes of other players.
In this light, the problem with choice is that there’s the potential to make the wrong choice. Usually there’s someone out there who has figured everything out, run the math, chosen the ideal variables, and can explain which option is considered “the best”. Anyone not conforming to these choices is an idiot or worse. Depending on the attitude of the community, this can lead to anything from verbal abuse to being specifically excluded from groups. Add in the pressures to “fit in” that most people feel and choice can seem a problem for some people. Choice tends to get limited own to a few “right” answers for many people.
A personal perspective
Despite all this, personally I love choice. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the elements I really like about DDO is the ability to customize a character. Being primarily an Explorer (in Bartle’s classification), with a particular interest in game mechanics, I like doing different things and seeing how things work out. I will often make choices that are not optimal to see how they work in practice. If I do want to optimize, I will make choices based on how I know I play the game; this means I’ll usually get better performance than the established “optimal” build because I don’t play the way the optimal build assumes. (Frankly, most people don’t play the way the optimal build assumes, in my experiences, which makes the optimal build not “the best” for most people.)
Of course, I have run into the people Wilhelm dreads: the people who criticize my choices and perhaps heap abuse upon me. These are the types that think you must use the absolute best option in every situation, ignoring that matching choices to play-style can lead to a more potent character. But, for the most part I’ve done a lot of PUGs in DDO, at least, without too much drama. Most of the time my ability speaks for itself.
So, personally, I like choice. I like building characters that fit my personal style. Without that, I tend to lose interest in a game.
What about you? Do you like choice and exploring different options, even if you might make a “wrong” decision? Do you prefer less choices knowing that you’re less likely to make the “wrong” choices as everyone else is in the same situation? Or do you prefer something more like a competition where performance means more than choices made?