Off and on lately, I have been having scattered thoughts about a subject about which others have surely written more coherently. The impetus was the announcement of ED around the same time as the announcement of the Nobel prize in economics. The winners this year work in game theory, and some of Thomas Schelling’s work can be summarized as, “You can be better off, either individually, or institutionally, if your choices are limited in advance. ” (Yes, it means something different in-context.)
We take it as an article of faith that games should offer more choices. When does less choice mean more fun?
If you want maximal choice, you should be playing a sandbox game. Most of you do not play A Tale in the Desert or EVE Online. People find it hard to start up in these games. Even with a very good tutorial, at some point you are dropped in a game world with a hundred options in front of you and limited guidance on what you are “supposed” to do. Without a clear path, people have trouble getting into it.
Most of you probably play World of Warcraft or some other class-based, combat-oriented game. What to do is very clear: whack the nearest thing within your level range. Talk to the guy who has a quest, and the quest will probably send you to find more things within your level range. Quests in many of the better-designed level grinds keep you from noticing the grind and help you explore the game by keeping you directed to the shade of whack-a-mole appropriate to your level.
How are skill-based games doing? By this, I mean non-class systems, rather than player skill. GURPS rather than D&D. Asheron’s Call is an example, as is EVE Online. For whatever reason, these are much less popular. They tend to start with some class-like guidance (warrior or wizard? miner or fighter?), and they grow their own classes as people optimize skill selections. We narrow down our world of choices to those that seem to work best.
Most games give you at least a bit of choice. This usually means selecting from a small menu of options at each level, whether you are picking talents in World of Warcraft, choosing and slotting powers in City of Heroes/Villains, or spending experience in Asheron’s Call 2. This creates a continuum of choice, from almost completely open-ended to almost perfectly rigid.
Most of us seem to want to be held harmless for our choices. Let me redesign my character, let me respec at any point, refund my skill points, can I just take another class entirely? Some games are more friendly to that than others. Some games need a lot of that, since they “rebalance” in every uptdate. And it is always nice to have something to make up for the fact that we mostly started as clueless newbs, rather than statistic-spouting game experts.
I recall reading about a game that gave players fine control over characters’ facial features, rather than having pre-defined faces. Some people just could not make a good looking face, it seemed, and others’ success in doing so just made them less happy. Hey, not only is your character ugly, but it’s all your fault!
That must be a merit of games with less choice: you can blame someone else for your character design. Gimped in Asheron’s Call? Well, why did you specialize in Thrown Weapons and Cooking? Gimped in Dark Age of Camelot? Yeah, they really did a number on your class, didn’t they? Given how much time people spend on forums (or, ahem, blogs) complaining about this class, that power, and those nerfs, I think players get a lot of entertainment value out of their ability to blame someone else for their unhappiness.
We want well-built characters. We want to be able to have fun without plotting out our lives before level 1. There are enough times in real life when we wonder, “Okay, what the heck do I do with my life now?” that it is nice to get away from that. Gork SMASH! We all want fine control to the extent that we think we can improve on the developers’ work, but mostly we want something well-built given to us from the start.
The internet is the nexus of personalized options. Some stores now have virtual dolls for which you can specify your body shape and see how outfits would look on you, or get them custom-tailored ordering online. (While the men in our audience may not see the value of this, suffice that there are sometimes good reasons why a woman might be a different size in a different brand of clothing.) Wherever you shop, you have access to every option they have, rather than what is available on the floor. We take it for granted that you should be able to order anything, anytime, in any shape, size, or color. This is good. This is capitalism at its best.
On the other hand, you also use Google to look for everything. You check out who was in what movie on IMDB, and you shop at Amazon or one of a few big competitors. You get your news from the sites you like, and they filter what stories are important to you. You perhaps have a few reviewers you rely upon for picking movies, books, computer parts, or appliances. You want an infinite horizon of choices, and you want someone to tell you which are the right ones.
That is probably the best summary of things. We want to be able to choose anything, but we want it always to be the best thing. Some games just make that optimal choice for you: while Dark Age of Camelot let you max Charisma on your Ranger, World of Warcraft does not let you choose your stats at all.
For a great many things, there is one best way of doing it. How much choice do you want your game to have?