Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

6 October, 2011

To choose or not to choose
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:56 PM

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?


  1. Interesting discussion. Not to be too caught up in semantics, but I think you have to acknowledge that there are interesting choices and not so interesting choices, with the difference being a function of how those choices relate to game design.

    For example, in those games in which there is an “optimal” build, all of those choices “right” and “wrong” are uniformly uninteresting because the fact that certain content effectively requires the “optimal” build really nullifies anything interesting about the choices underlying it. Yes, thats a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.

    On the other hand, I think a game like old EQ which seemingly has fewer choices due to a more rigid structure actually permits the player to make more interesting choices during gameplay. I think that’s what Wilhelm was probably referring to.

    If I’m given 4 skills and only 4 skills with varying effects and cooldowns, indeed I need to choose wisely (i.e., become skilled at choosing) to surmount challenges in combat. Rather than a choice about what to bring, its about how you best situationally use what you’ve brought.

    Game design that offers agnostically challenging content in this way actually permits many more interesting choices at the class/tactical level. Some would call this skill at playing your class rather than making choices, but I think if you scratch deeper you see its just a choice at a different level.

    To me its the difference of whether you make the choices in the locker room or on the field. I prefer more of the latter and think it probably supports much more diversity of game play and games that are designed with that in mind support more diversity in play style.

    I think systems like Guildwars and old EQ with its limited number of active spells for example really give the best of both worlds.

    Comment by p@tsh@t — 6 October, 2011 @ 5:54 PM

  2. One of the things that irks me most about Pinochle is that there is very little choice in the game. I’d much rather play Rage. Interesting choices are the point of gaming for me, otherwise I’m just playing with a toy. That’s fine sometimes, too, but not really what I want out of games. I don’t mind wrong choices either, so long as the punishment isn’t onerous and I have sufficient feedback to learn.

    Comment by Tesh — 6 October, 2011 @ 6:00 PM

  3. “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”

    Interesting! I was thinking about altoholics and Bartle’s classifications the other day, and concluded that an altoholic was basically a type of Explorer. Specifically I was thinking about the sort of player who doesn’t “achieve” level cap because they are constantly playing new and different alts. It’s nice to see someone else taking the view that an “Explorer” in an MMO can be someone who explores game mechanics and gameplay, not just someone who wants to explore the world and see all that it has to offer.

    Comment by Carson — 6 October, 2011 @ 6:20 PM

  4. When I wrote that piece, I actually had quite a bit more on the whole souls/choices thing, but it was beginning to bog down the post, which I didn’t really want to focus on just that. I went on with a very long, thanks to my Soviet studies background, comparison with experience of Soviet citizens encountering a US supermarket for the first time and their semi-paralysis at the myriad choices suddenly laid before them.

    Rift kind of hits you with a lot of choices in the first few very quick levels. You make the 1 in 4 archetype choice, then immediately the 1 in 9 soul choice, then a 1 in 8 soul choice, then a 1 in 7 soul choice, by which time you have to allocate points to these various souls. And while you are being asked this, you might also want to try and focus on the game. I just threw points where ever seemed appropriate at the moment, assuming that Trion would leave me a way to undo bad choices later on with gold.

    I actually like playing with different builds, and my alts are legion because of this. In any number of games I am like Carson’s explorer, many alts, but no characters at level cap. But I also like to feel like I have some firm ground to stand on before I start exploring, a main character that is useful to myself and to the group.

    Comment by Wilhelm Arcturus — 6 October, 2011 @ 6:48 PM

  5. Personally, I agree with this NYTimes article about “choice paralyzation.” In a typical PC RPG, I spent 30-60 minutes on the character select screen alone, even when there are not a whole lot of customization options available. MMOs are immeasurably worse – the choices I made in WoW had a profound impact ~7700 game hours later, even though I ended up making a bunch of alts later.

    I prefer 2-3 choices to 40 choices, even in strategy games. Choices, and their impacts, absolutely have diminishing returns.

    Comment by Azuriel — 6 October, 2011 @ 7:54 PM

  6. When people say things like, “The thing that makes a game good is…” or “Games are all about…” etc., I usually apply what I call the “Tetris Test” to whatever it is the person is saying. If the statement is wrong about Tetris, then it is wrong about videogames, in general. This gets me into no end of conflicts with the rabid narrativists out there, but they have yet to provide me a coherent explanation of what the narrative of Tetris is, or how it is central to the gameplay experience.

    Sid Meiers’ quote does, in fact, pass the Tetris Test. However, as you rightly point out, it doesn’t pass the Guitar Hero test, so I may need to expand my informal industry pundit testing suite. :-D

    Do I like choices? Well, hell yeah. I won’t comment on Rift, because, well, I worked on it, but yeah, I like being able to try lots of things. I don’t think that’s necessarily normal, though. I’m a rabid neophile. I hate to say it, but a lot of people just want to be told what to do. Choice paralysis IS a real problem. That said, I think you can provide trail markers for people, while not blocking off the rest of the forest, so the braver sorts can forge their own paths. One of the most important things you can do is to keep the price of making the “wrong choice” (if there is such a thing) relatively low, so people don’t feel stress about their decisions. Let them shrug, and think, “I can always fix it later, if I goof up.”

    Comment by Tess — 7 October, 2011 @ 1:33 AM

  7. There are many ways to keep a player’s mind busy in a non-frustrating way. Interesting decisions are just one way.

    Comment by Nils — 7 October, 2011 @ 2:02 AM

  8. I suppose “interesting choice” means “informed choice”. Many RPGs force players to make uninformed choices, starting probably with class selection. How do I know how I want to play if I’ve not seen the game itself? In TES5: Skyrim developers choose not to present the player with decisions except for the race at the start of the game, and I think this is a good move.

    This reminds me of one case when choice was used as a tool to scare the player. In my experience, System Shock 2 was terrifying just because of many (relatively) informed decisions player had to make without exactly knowing what will be most useful, but knowing the penalty for wrong choice will be terrible.

    What Sid Meier’s quote doesn’t say though, is that abundance of choices can sometime devaluate individual decisions. Some constraints can actually make choices more interesting. In one my board game prototype, players had to construct their fantasy characters from a pool of individual abilities. Only perceived “best” abilities were selected though, and the game became a bit stale.
    After coupling each ability with stat-boost (if you take Fireball, you also boost Intellect. If you want to boost HP, you have to take ability with corresponding boost) and grouping abilities in packs (if you take one ability, you’ll likely get other two too), I noticed choices became far more meaty and deep, because of sub-optimal (or even negative) consequences associated with each choice.
    So it’s not enough for decisions to sort of be there – they must be carefully crafted to have effect.

    Comment by Phobosis — 7 October, 2011 @ 2:19 AM

  9. Note that “interesting choice” and “lots of choices” are not synonymous. To use Civilization as an (obvious) example, it starts with a handful of very significant choices — do I build a warrior or a grainery? Can I afford a second city yet? etc. — and gradually ramps up to making decisions about groups of choices — explore east or west first? Start a war or placate my neighbor? — shifting the “interesting choice” as the game progresses.

    I’d agree that “interesting” includes “informed” and “meaningful”. Blind choices might as well be random (though see King of Dragon Pass for a game where you have to make difficult decisions with often very limited information) and meaningful choices are more interesting than dominated ones.

    Having choices that don’t matter has to be balanced against letting the player make a mistake. A dominated option (without theme/message reasons) might as well not exist, a dominate option is even less interesting. A choice where the correct answer depends on other factors is an interesting part of a strategic whole. Too many and you’ll risk analysis paralysis, but where the line is drawn varies for every player.

    That said, its important to examine the possibility of games without choices. Are we missing possible games because of this strategic focus?

    Comment by Isaac — 7 October, 2011 @ 3:00 AM

  10. The way I see it, is that if you take away the choices, it’s no longer really a game, but a toy. Of course it can still be fun, but it’s a different thing. To me, this is the problem with the ‘game’ term – it tries to cover any vaguely systematic play, which is fine when talking about what someone is doing, but less useful when trying to create such a thing.

    If what you care about most is just an enjoyable experience, then the distinction becomes irrelevant. But I think that if you’re trying to make a fun experience where the user doesn’t get to make any meaningful decisions, then you are probably wasting your time making it interactive.

    Wilhelm seems to be mostly referring to choices that may be irreversible and may have profound outcomes, without being given the knowledge to make those choices, and that’s a bit different. Reducing choices generally to cut down on that sort of problem is throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Choices can be made reversible, better information can be given, and dominant strategies can be removed.

    So, for me, give me many choices, but make sure I can roughly understand their significance, and don’t punish me in the long term for a decision I had to make with incomplete information.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 7 October, 2011 @ 4:45 AM

  11. One of the interesting things about choice in RPG games, of course, is that you tend to make the most potent choices before you’ve played any of the game at all. Want to play a Fighter or a Mage? You can’t undo that choice; if you change your mind later you’ll have to start from scratch. With D&D-style games it only becomes more pronounced. You can build a completely nonviable character right at the start, and you might not know about it until you’re level 12. In RL, the GM will hopefully guide you to prevent the more obvious of mistakes. On a computer… well, you’re pretty much screwed — which is undoubtedly why most RPGs have been getting away from the D&D model of letting you make many choices at the start like that. Skyrim’s new policy of ‘play how you want and we’ll let you be good at it’ might work out just great.

    Meaningful choices of “how do you want to play” are better, I think, than “right/wrong” choices… But that requires a well balanced game.

    I’m definitely a “I’ll make one of each” altoholic. I don’t know if they’re pure explorers, though; I’ve known socializer altoholics (More people to make friends as!) and achiever altoholics (I have to find which class is the BEST!). There’s probably killer altoholics as well. (They’ll never know this is me!)

    Comment by Trevel — 7 October, 2011 @ 5:22 AM

  12. Something else to consider with regards to choice: novelty is interesting. Give me a new choice that I feel like I’m prepared for and I’ll be more interested than I would be if I was making the same choice over and over again. When WoW’s Cataclysm expansion hit I was really interested in the new quests because they were new. By the time I’d gotten to Outland though, I was actually glad to be running the old-style quests again. I remember saying “It sure is nice to be able to pick and choose which quests I want to do instead of feeling locked into a narrow story path.”

    So it’s not “choice good” vs. “choice bad.” It’s “sometimes it’s nice to be able to choose, and sometimes it’s nice not to have to.”

    Comment by Vargen — 7 October, 2011 @ 6:44 AM

  13. My biggest issue with choice is the illusion of it. Developers have been using the rhetoric of providing meaningful choices to players for so long, I honestly think they have “choice” and the “illusion of choice” confused. Once you have a set of possible outcomes, and there is only one way of getting the maximum gain, then that isn’t really a choice.

    For example, I loved playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I think it is a fantastic game. But if combat gives significantly lesser XP, and the (slower) stealth-based approach provides greater gains, I would be hard-pressed to go the combat route in the game world.

    Comment by Bronte — 7 October, 2011 @ 9:21 AM

  14. RIFT: Is choice good, and can we improve quests?

    [...] Green is taking it on today with a post on choice, and whether having more or less in a game is a better option [...]

    Pingback by MMO Melting Pot — 7 October, 2011 @ 2:03 PM

  15. I’m quite with Ben Sizer here. Without decitions, it’s actually a form of interactive movie. Final Fantasy series for example, but expecially the latest one, Final Fantasy 13 are all about telling a story.

    FF13 doesn’t have a single choice, it’s probably the most linear game I’ve ever played. It’s quite entertaining int the first few chapters, since there is quite much action and cut-scenes. The problem is, the further you advance the story, the less cut scenes you get and what remains is mindless and boring hack n slash. Sometimes you just have to beat 2-3 hours through hordes of monsters to get to the end of the current area for the next bit of cut-scene. This gets pretty boring after a while, especially in case of FF13. Until chapter 11 you absolutely run from point A to point B. You can’t even chose the order of places were you go or just visit another area until pretty close to the end of the game. This got me pretty disappointed and pissed about the game and I got bored to death towards the end (I quit playing near the end, probably less than 2 hours of playing to get to the endboss).

    The Elder Scrolls on the other side, gives you quite enough choices on how to solve a quest, with different (more or less significant) consequences. Actually I played more of the sidequest stuff, than the mainstory.

    Same goes for character generations in RPGs or MMOs in special. I just love it to thing and plan around with the stuff and the way I’ll build my char in advance before even creating it or leveling. This being said, I also prefer monolithic character development: Once you chose a talent, you stick with it to the end.

    This leads to people to think about their characters carefully and you can easily distinguish good from bad players, which is especially important in PvP based games. Good people will thing carefully about their builds and usually be better games. I really hate this whole WoW crap with easily revertible talents, which makes every choice obsolete, cause you can make it undone for some peanuts. People don’t think anymore about their builds, talents and choices: They either just take something they think its “ok” or just take the current FotM build.

    And this kind of talent/feats/skill reset stuff also makes all the “Perfect build for raid/pve/pvp” even worse, because when it can be easily reseted, you can also easily be forced into such builds. I’ve never seen a MMO where people were forced to respec into certain builds in order to raid/pvp together before I’ve played WoW.

    In every other MMO sub-optimal builds were tolerated until WoW came with it’s easy respec, to allow noobs to revert their careless decitions.

    That being said: Decitions make the game interesting and games lacking decision.

    P.S. For me, the decisions in offline games doesn’t increase replayability (is rarely if ever replay a game), but it allows me to play it the way I want and not the way the developers wanted me to play.

    Comment by Kosta — 7 October, 2011 @ 7:49 PM

  16. It’s sometimes interesting to see what different people consider a “meaningful” choice.

    In one kind of choice, the right decision leads to something numerically optimal. Your character performs -better- stats-wise. The wrong decision is numerically sub-optimal. For some people, this is meaningful choice, your decision has a consequence on how well your character performs. For others, this is no choice at all, economic rational sense demands the optimal number.

    In another kind of choice, there is no right decision per se. The choice is an expression of the self (either of the player or of the character the player is pretending to be). These are normally branching story paths, or stuff with visually different looks (the color your power animations are, etc.) Again for some people, this is not a meaningful choice, it changes “fluff” but not performance. For others, this sort of customisation of character is exceedingly important.

    The fun part comes when developers conflate the two choices into the same decision. A piece of gear or a skill or a power with a certain look and a certain stat/result. Or branching zone paths with differing reward levels. Making everyone and no one happy at the same time…

    Comment by Jeromai — 7 October, 2011 @ 11:09 PM

  17. If people are going to use cookie cutter builds, how about having the game provide support for them? That is, enable me to select from a menu of popular builds other players are using.

    Comment by Paul — 8 October, 2011 @ 5:40 AM

  18. I enjoy choices. I don’t understand why this:

    “I spent 30-60 minutes on the character select screen alone”

    would be considered a bad thing. Did you not want to spend time playing your game, Azuriel?

    Comment by Stabs — 8 October, 2011 @ 6:24 AM

  19. @Paul: Cookie cutters isn’t something which is give straight fromt he game, it’s something people figher out during the life cycle of an MMO. And finding out a “cookie cutter” build is about looking at all the skills, doing considerations/math on how usefull it may be in certain situations and actually the way you want to play your class.

    Selecting from a popular list of builds, will take away the choice to the players, making the game retard friendly. And often it’s so, that you have a certan build which is superior for a few weeks until someone else finds a counter meassure/build which can beat this “cookie cutter” easily.

    @Stabs: Character creating is an important “meta-game” of every RPG and is part of playing the game. Every good RPG lives and dies from character customization and it starts with creating the character or even a whole party. One of my first RPGs was a PC port of a popular german pen & paper (Das Schwarze Auge, the PC series was know as Realms of Arcania outside of Germany) game, which was acutally far more complex than D&D and it had dozens of different talents, which could be increased on level up (climping, acrobatics, musician, dancing, stealing, different weapon skills, lying, estimating). It had around 50 skills and around 85 spells and the party size was 6.

    So creating 6 characters which aren’t (and can’t be) allrounders, you had to specialize them so that the skills of each of the character will complement the others. And creating one character, especially the casters, took time. Up to 45-60 minutes per character. I think it took me around 3 hours or so to create decide which races to take and how to specialize them and finally creating them.

    Was it boring? No. Actually it was one of the best parts, because decisions you take at the beginning of the game, will have influence on the way you play the game. You can play it through without a mage with transversalis (teleport) and pentrizel (discover area around you, together with transversalis allows you to teleport to otherwise unaccessible areas), but with one it’s easier. Having a good hunter helps on long travels and having dancing/pickpocket skill helps gaining money.

    I’ve played DragonAge: Origins when it came out… It barely had a character creation, just three simple archetypes/races. You start the game pretty fast without a big character creation or customization and while you have hand full of dialog options (aka choices) they barely have an effect and that +/- influence with party members is quite useless. However, the worst part was, that the game was pretty boring. Everything that happend in the game, was very predictable. A default “world’s end” story with no major twists, nothing. I was so bored, that I quit after around 15 hours of playing and never touched it again.

    Comment by Kosta — 8 October, 2011 @ 8:07 AM

  20. p@tsh@t wrote:
    For example, in those games in which there is an “optimal” build, all of those choices “right” and “wrong” are uniformly uninteresting because the fact that certain content effectively requires the “optimal” build really nullifies anything interesting about the choices underlying it. Yes, thats a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.

    The problem I find is that, as I said in the post, the “optimal” build assumes some things that aren’t necessarily true. Like for melee DPS, that you’ll be in perfect position and won’t have to move around. Feral druid DPS in particular, when I was playing, assumed that you’d keep a bleed effect on an enemy continuously for maximum DPS. This mean that I had to focus entirely on my rotation instead of doing things I found more fun, like popping out of cat form to throw a HOT on someone when needed. I was fine doing 80% of my theoretical maximum DPS to get a bigger increase in all-around utility. Same with DDO, where I’m very interested in playing around with different builds to see how things work. And, I think that saying some content requires absolute maximum DPS is not very accurate. As the old saying goes, “Your DPS is 0 when you’re dead”, so very few people get ideal situations since they have to do things like get out of the fire.

    Carson wrote:
    Interesting! I was thinking about altoholics and Bartle’s classifications the other day, and concluded that an altoholic was basically a type of Explorer.

    As with many things, a single behavior might have many different explanations. As Trevel points out in a later comment, there are many reasons why people make alts. An Achiever might do a lot of alts as another “bar to fill”. A killer might have alts to escape wrath after a kill. A socializer might have alts with different circles of friends. Bartle’s expanded categorizations (“intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivations added to the four types, making eight) goes into more detail one type of Explorer as one digging into the mechanics (I believe he called it the “scientist”).

    What’s funny is that I’ve not been a big altoholic in most games. In WoW I had one main at max level, and then I spent a bit of time working up another character during my longest time playing, but didn’t really invest much into it. LotRO saw me get 2 characters to cap, but one was very much the poor cousin. DDO, on the other hand, I’ve got about 4-5 characters I’m more or less actively playing.

    Wilhelm Arcturus wrote:
    Rift kind of hits you with a lot of choices in the first few very quick levels.

    Well, I think a good design needs to make sure it doesn’t overwhelm the player. But, restricting choices too much makes the game feel stagnant later. Ideally, you want to give the player limited choices at the beginning then expand them later (or when they go through the intro again). You also need to consider that eventually the choices will be dissected and analyzed to the extreme degree. When you go into a game relatively fresh when it’s new, the choices feel a lot tougher than later. Especially the second or third time you go through the content with a new character.

    Phobosis wrote:
    I noticed choices became far more meaty and deep, because of sub-optimal (or even negative) consequences associated with each choice.

    I’d argue that the problem was that the choices weren’t interesting. By forcing compromises in the choices, you make them more interesting to the player.

    I do agree with a lot of what people are saying, though: choice for choice’s sake isn’t interesting. I’d rather have a dozen interesting choices than 50 empty or useless choices. But, only having 2 or 3 choices where I might expect a dozen leads me to boredom quicker.

    Ben Sizer:
    So, for me, give me many choices, but make sure I can roughly understand their significance, and don’t punish me in the long term for a decision I had to make with incomplete information.

    Yes, give the player a way to make a different choice easier if it fits within the context of the game. An MMO that doesn’t offer a way to respec a character is just asking for heartache. On the other hand, having some choices have weight that the player can’t anticipate 100% can be interesting in the right situation. It’s about using it as an interesting mechanic rather than just to frustrate the player.

    Jeromai wrote:
    In one kind of choice, the right decision leads to something numerically optimal.

    The problem is that analysis can be skewed. As I said above, the ideal situations where a bigger number is better may not hold. Let me use this as a simple example: one skill gives +10% ability, the other gives +5% ability. Which is better? What if the +10% ability requires you to stand still while you use it, thus making you more likely to die from standing in the fire? In this case, I’d go with the +5% ability, but I know some people would roll their eyes at that because it’s not the bigger number.

    Interesting discussions! Thanks for the comments.

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 October, 2011 @ 1:40 AM

  21. Tobold posted on his blog, linking to this one. He talked about choice in terms of single-player games:

    Doing a manual trackback since Blogger never seems to send me proper trackbacks.

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 October, 2011 @ 1:41 AM

  22. Late to this very interesting thread so just a short comment: I don’t like a lot of choice.

    Wilhelm’s reference to the soviet visitors being mazed by a U.S. supermarket is just the extreme version of how modern life feels to people of my age and upbringing. To me, choice is often an imposition, a nuisance and a waste of my valuable time.

    I prefer the choice to have been made much earlier in the design process. Leave out all the padding of choices that make little or no functional difference. Give me the appropriate tools and let me choose how to employ them. That’s enjoyable choice.

    I might blog on this later…

    Comment by bhagpuss — 10 October, 2011 @ 3:56 AM

  23. “What if the +10% ability requires you to stand still while you use it, thus making you more likely to die from standing in the fire?”

    In this case, it is the player making an error in what he was counting as numerically superior if he goes for the +10% ability knowing he’s going to die shortly in a fire. :)

    The “correct” number to analyze should be the best amount of ability/time achievable on the mob the player was trying to defeat. Still doesn’t change the fact that there is a situationally numerically superior option, and my point about different players perceiving choice or no choice still stands.

    The optimal strategy then becomes “Pick 10% if you can afford standing still for, say, 2 seconds, else run and move and fire 5%”

    Technically, at every moment, you still have a choice between 5% and 10%, and for some players, making the correct decision at that exact situation is a meaningful choice. For others, there’s still no meaningful choice, you “should” be performing like the optimal strategy suggests.

    (I’m now trying to grope towards why this might be, if there is some kind of difference between player type 1 and 2. Hypothesis: Did player type 2 already make the choice and pre-analysis, solving the problem sum, before the battle even began? Is player 2 looking on from a more rarefied metagame level?

    From a personal standpoint, in RIFT, I was under the impression that there were a lot of skills and spells my cleric could be firing at any given moment, eg. I have lots of choice. Possibly too much choice, and for some, confusing.

    When I installed a dps meter and started trying out attack rotations, I suddenly realized there were optimal “in-melee single target” “in-melee aoe damage” “ranged single-target” “ranged aoe” and “ranged instant-cast” (for those times you need to move constantly) chains. Those optimal chains meant I should actually leave out some of the spells I was previously choosing to fire, there weren’t a good bang for buck given the global cooldowns and how quickly the more-damaging stuff could recharge. My perception of meaningful choice at any given moment went down to about 4-5 macro’ed attack chains.

    The good news is, in this particular game, there still are 4-5 choices when distilled down, and by changing builds, one can do other things. I am given to understand that in games like chess and Starcraft, the complexity of choice becomes even greater when one goes “deeper.” In other more games, which some may term “shallower,” the viable choice drops to one only.)

    Comment by Jeromai — 10 October, 2011 @ 6:50 AM

  24. I love choice – give me infinite choice! In MMOs I am an extreme altoholic. In almost every game I fill up my character slots and purchase more or even have multiple accounts. I love character creation choice – I know people who talk about getting on City of Heroes simply to play with the character creator and I know what they mean (now that it’s free I can play with that too).

    My absolute favorite game is Magic: the Gathering CCG. And although I like playing the game, my favorite pastime is getting out my cards and putting together various decks. I don’t even have to play with them – just coming up with different combinations is fun for me.

    I agree that sometimes you need a way to streamline choices – like if you’re in a hurry randomizing is nice. But give people a chance to change later.

    I definitely do not agree that a person should be locked into a choice. If being hardcore and sticking by your choice no matter what is important to you, you can choose to lock yourself into that choice. I think it’s funny when I read stuff where people complain (for instance) that a game makes it too easy to get from place to place so no one walks and enjoys / explores the scenery anymore. They say games shouldn’t have these features; I say don’t use them if you don’t want to :) Choice is good!

    Comment by Djinn — 10 October, 2011 @ 11:43 AM

  25. Bhagpuss’ comment shows an attitude I’ve seen elsewhere, and that I tried to address with my Autopilot Character Progression system. It seems simple to me; give templates and let players play with them, but if they want to dig into the nuts and bolts of the system, let them. Phrased another way, make a lot of choices, but prebake a fair dose of them and leave respecs open. I’m trying that with my Zomblobs! DNA layouts, too. I’m the sort that loves to dig into min/maxing and tinkering, but I totally understand the desire to just go and play. I think it’s possible to serve both impulses.

    Of course, that doesn’t change the “optimimal” argument, but I’m also thinking more along the lines of single player games. I think the stress of optimization is more of a social issue.

    Comment by Tesh — 10 October, 2011 @ 12:23 PM

  26. Jeromai wrote:
    In this case, it is the player making an error in what he was counting as numerically superior if he goes for the +10% ability knowing he’s going to die shortly in a fire. :)

    Actually, listening to the complaints on WoW blogs over the last few expansions, I think this tends to lead more to that DPS player complaining because the healer “wasn’t doing his/her job” and healing the person through the fire damage. It seems some players seem to boil the responsibilities of each player down to one thing: a DPS’s responsibility is to do maximum damage, a healer’s job is to keep everyone alive, etc. A lot of the disdain for DPS I saw in WoW was for people who wanted to be on top of the DPS list no matter what. We called them “meter maids” for always posting the DPS meter results when they were on top. I didn’t care to be at the top of the list, because I knew I provided more than raw damage, and the guild never told me my DPS wasn’t good enough; maybe it would have been different in the higher tier guilds, though.

    Still, it’s rarely the case where there’s always one “right” answer in ever situation. In my silly example above, I would obviously take the 5% bonus but keep my mobility, because I saw survival as being partially my responsibility, too. :)

    Tesh wrote:
    It seems simple to me; give templates and let players play with them, but if they want to dig into the nuts and bolts of the system, let them.

    The problem with having paths for people to choose is that it ends up making nobody happy. People will want to tweak the character for the most power, and those that stick with the predetermined template are going to feel screwed over if they aren’t as powerful as those that tweak do. Plus, as a game changes, those templates might become outdated. It could add fuel to the “devs are stupid and don’t even understand their own game!” fires that spring up.

    A concrete example of this was Asheron’s Call where the game had some pre-determined character types that you could pick, but they were pretty much universally reviled. Picking one of the predetermined paths was a sure way to “gimp” your character. But, then again, I think AC was stingy with the respec opportunities as well.

    Comment by Psychochild — 11 October, 2011 @ 4:00 AM

  27. Late to the discussion, but I’ll chime in anyway…

    I generally define an interesting choice as either 1) an informed choice or 2) a revelatory choice. (There are exceptions, but they are rare.) The issue with things like the RIFT situation, to me, along with 99% of the rest of the MMO/RPG options out there, is that the choices are being requested/required before you even really know how to play the game, for your first play-through at least. If the player is willing to view that as a revelatory choice, as a step toward getting a “playable” character via the exploration of multiple alts, then it works fine… if not, you get the situation in Wilhelm’s post. (It’s kind of ironic that RIFT generated this discussion, because my impression was that RIFT gives far more ability to adjust a character’s build over time than most games…)

    As an aside, I am still hoping someday to see more RPGs where you first just spend some time dabbling in the system and setting, _then_ start making decisions about what your character wants to be when they grow up…


    I would disagree somewhat with the characterizations of Solitaire and sports as not being about choices (and I’ll refrain from commenting on Guitar Hero based on my lack of in-depth experience with the genre… just haven’t been interested.) In the first, the decisions are highly constrained, which is good given the large amount of uncertainty/lack of knowledge involved. However, it is still the decisions about which cards to move within the constraints of the rules, whether to draw or move/reveal, etc, which are the core of the game. The rules provide the framework for the choices to be interesting: try playing the game without any of the rules… does Solitaire retain it’s playability if you can just grab any card from anywhere and place it on any other, or anywhere on the table/in the room for that matter?

    As for sports, any decent coach will tell you that while rudimentary skills and athletic prowess are fundamental to success, the game is still really about the choices during play: the meta-game IS the game at all but the most novice level of competition. Feel out the opponent, find their limitations and weaknesses, and focus on creating opportunities by attacking those deficiencies and forcing errors, while limiting their ability to do the same to you.

    Even individual performance sports like cross-country, gymnastics, and golf which do not feature direct opposition still incorporate significant (if sometimes subtle) decision-making: estimation of personal capabilities in the present situation, evaluation of the competition, selection of a strategy or tactic to maximize success within those boundaries, attempted performance, then periodic adjustments based on revised evaluations. (I can recall a couple cross-country meets in my youth where I likely sacrificed a position or three due to a poor decision about how hard to push in the first mile, underestimating the impact of a headwind or slope, etc.)


    For my part, I seek games featuring choices, both in the design and execution parts of play, tho I do prefer that all the options be either 1) productive or 2) adjustable upon review. Despite all the everpresent warts and quirks of the existing paradigms, my overwhelming preference is still for strategy, RTS, and RPG-style games over FPS, Facebook/”social” games, and the rest. Since I am not an exceptionally social person to begin with, the “lol, noob” types either get ignored or /ignored with little concern or regret… a respectful, informed discussion of design strategy, on the other hand, is usually fascinating.

    Comment by DamianoV — 11 October, 2011 @ 4:44 AM

  28. Thank you for your post, Psychochild, I agree that a simple “choice” is not interesting or fun per se, unlike what many people claim and I also think Blizzard designers had this in mind when developing the new talent trees. I think the biggest problems with many choices in traditional MMOs are:

    The “wrong” choices are too wrong (i. e. punish the player too much). This is a bit hard to compare, for some games a 10% change in power is not a big deal, for some it is. It’s also individual for players, some care more about maxing their character’s power, some less. However, the more wrong the wrong options are, the more each individual players is likely to go into avoidance mode (e. g. look up the results on Internet to find which are correct and which are not). Think lack skill/talent tree resets – a wrong choice locks you forever or until you level a new character. If some resets (even limited) are implemented, you can try new skills and combinations without paying the price of releveling.

    Then there’s the whole right/wrong choice business. A choice between 8% bonus and 10% bonus is not a choice but searching for the truth, choice that attaches advantages and disadvantages to all options (as the one with 5% and 10% abilities you mentioned in one of your posts) would be more interesting and ultimately lead the good players to select their own way than just go with what they read on the Internet because there’s an objective truth.

    Another question is how the choice is made and how the game provides feedback. Think about the difference between healers and DD-s in e. g. WoW. Healers get an immediate feedback because their heals have a visible effect on others’ players health and their own mana so they know whether they are using too small heals (people die) or too large (OOM too quickly); on the other hand, DPS don’t get this feedback from the game as the individual spells’ effect on mobs’ health is low. Sure, they do get some feedback (if mob enrages, DPS is too low) but not in a form that would give them help with their spell choice. Instead, they have to use out-of-game resources (databases or calculators) to find how to use their spells to get the performance that is needed from them.

    I think that if the choices were created with the 3 points in mind, it would be possible to make more choices into game that are both fun but do not cause choice paralysis – at least not too much.

    Comment by Imakulata — 18 October, 2011 @ 12:41 PM

  29. [Blizzcon] WoW: The So-So

    [...] choice, and choice generally is good. (We recently had that discussion on several blogs. See Psychochild, Tobold. Yes, I’m paraphrasing the results. *g*). On the other hand, it feels like it clamps [...]

    Pingback by Random Waypoint — 22 October, 2011 @ 2:41 AM

  30. Thoughts about WoW and pandas

    [...] a shame, because I like choices and that includes the ability to make the wrong ones. I enjoyed playing specs that leave other [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 24 October, 2011 @ 12:38 AM

  31. “and concluded that an altoholic was basically a type of Explorer”

    I think this is one of the misunderstood aspects of the explorer personality. It’s not just about physically traversing the zones. It’s about exploring the game and for me at least that means wanting to experience how levelling up a troll warrior is like compared to a human warrior or an high elf enchanter compared to a dark elf necro. In EQ i think i levelled up pretty much every race/class combo, at least for melee and melee-hybrids, up to about level 15-ish and that took up maybe half of my six years subbed time as playing 2-3 hours a night each combo might take a few weeks. It would be very interesting to see stats from games like EQ or WoW to see how many people do this. Also i think it was only up to about 15-ish because it was only the newbie/lowbie part that was unique. Once a char was out of the newbie/lowbie section they’d converge into the general flow of the game so a level 24 troll warrior and a level 24 human warrior could be wearing the same gear levelling against the same mobs in the same zone so the *experience* of the two characters (which is another way of saying story) became the same.

    “He contrasted RIFT’s plethora of choices in character development to the original EverQuest’s almost complete lack of choice.”

    I think the opposite. EQ’s choices may have been more pre-canned but were vastly more influential in how you experienced the game. The race choices for at least a while and the class choices throughout the game. The variety in Rift’s class-skill system, interesting though it is in itself, didn’t come close to matching that variety of choice in experience. Obviously if you’re only looking for the optimal choice then the Rift system is more interesting but if you’re interested in the variety of experience EQ wins.

    Games need to go back to that and extend it imo. Make multiple paths through the game by breaking it up into segments and then adding options to the segments e.g. you mentally divide the game into four quarters A, B, C, D of sixteen levels each with five races with four classes each. Making the first quarter be race-specific immediately gives you five paths A1 to A5 followed by B, C, D (plus distinctive classes add variety all the way through). Part of the first expansion adds a lot of class-specific content to the first quarter and adds a race-specific option to the existing path in the second quarter. Now you have optional(A1-A20) followed by optional(B1-B6) followed by C then D. Next expansion etc.

    Say completing each tier took 1, 2, 3 and 4 units of time then in the first version i might take eight of the twenty race-class combos through the first quarter, maybe two through the second and one through the third for a total of 15 units of time. With the changes in the expanded version it might be something like twelve of the twenty race-class combos plus at least one of each race through each of the race-specific paths in the second quarter so that’s five and again probably the two faves through the third quarter for a total of 28 units of time (which could be hours, days, weeks or months depending on the game).

    And that’s without ever coming close to max level.

    Comment by bloob — 29 October, 2011 @ 6:14 PM

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