Choices

Tobold asks about choices in games. Come on back after reading it, because I substantially agree and just want to extend on the last paragraph, because the optimal solution cited is rather difficult. Of course, I think we should be more demanding of our games, so that’s not a problem for me in particular, except for the disappointment.

Set aside the two easy cases first: one choice is clearly better than the other (once you know the consequences or do enough math), or neither choice has any meaningful consequences. If you want to argue that there is still a meaningful “choice” to be had there, you can argue the point back at Tobold’s.

The goal is “different but equal.” Choice A gives you 10 armor and choice B gives you +30 to attack rats. Tobold cites Sid Meier, while my favorite quote on the subject comes from a fellow posting under the name Tempest Stormwind: “Taste the indecision? That’s balance, right there.” That is the goal, to have a non-trivial choice where you could go either way. Let’s add some complications to that.

First, one choice can be clearly better for one purpose. The armor is clearly better for an optimal tank, although you could complicate that decision by having an armor cap (hard or soft) such that you would get to choose which armor trade-offs not to take. The usual system is to have trade-offs between offense and defense, solo and group, PvE and PvP, etc. If you are focusing on one side, the choice is a no-brainer. This can contribute to the downside of optimizing the fun out of the game, in that your specialized character is now clearly suboptimal for doing anything else, so you get in a rut, grumble and quit. So many games give you the option to switch between the options, some very cheaply, which takes us back to minimal consequences. But I do like the notion of a game that lets you make what would be a suboptimal choice that is optimal for your playstyle. That is, as suggested, hard to balance.

Second, one choice can be clearly better given the current game and metagame environment. If the endgame is mostly rats, that is clearly better than the armor in the long run. In the long run, the endgame will change, maybe moving away from rats, so now you have a lot of formerly optimized players who feel betrayed that the game moved away from them. The major downside here is “flavor of the month,” where AoE rules under this patch, and crowd control will next month. It is not so much balance as lurching to imbalances that average out over time. A patient, contemplative player can see the variance and be comfortable that his/her class may rise and fall over the years, but compare how many of those you have versus calls for the DPS class next door to be nerfed. But I do recall this fondly from the Champions pen-and-paper game, with discounts for attacks/defenses that worked only/not against certain damage types, so you could try to optimize by predicting the metagame of how many characters took which discounts to make certain choices under-costed. That is, supply and demand can be self-balancing.

This also goes back to the original specification: “one choice is clearly better than the other (once you know the consequences).” In an MMO eternally under development, you never really know what the consequences will be next year. We also tend to be against punishing players for making choices you encouraged them to make, which is what it feels like when your choice gets nerfed.

: Zubon

12 thoughts on “Choices”

  1. Single player games have an advantage over MMO’s in this regard. Your choice benefits or harms you and you alone, and can only affect your enjoyment of the game. Land yourself in a raid group in a MMO, however, and your choice affects the others in that group as well. Some of which may not be as happy that you chose some DPS gear to boost the damage of your tank, despite you being completely fine in regards to survivability.

    Basically, social pressure has an impact on the choices you make as well, and when you encourage your playerbase to optimize in order to succeed, you find yourself in an “optimize or gtfo” situation very often when in groups.

  2. I put all this down to overthinking.

    For all the time I’ve played MMOs the people I’ve played with who have been the best company, the most fun to spend time with, the ones who, when you see them log in your mood lifts, are the people who pay little or no attention to any of this stuff. They don’t just not read blogs and forums and websites, they can’t even tell you what was in the last patch notes for the game they are playing.

    This doesn’t make them incompetent. They generally read the manual when they bought the game and they look at the mouseover tooltips. They know what their spells do and what’s expected of their class. But that’s where it ends. They use the gear they get from quests or whatever passes through the guild bank. they craft and make their own kit. They do quests because the quests are interesting, not because of the rewards.

    These people, and I’ve been in guilds largely composed of them in several MMOs, just toddle along in good humor for weeks, months, sometimes years. They think about what they are doing but they don’t overthink. So long as what they did was fun, what they got from doing was satisfying, it’s of no concern to them whether or not they could have done better by doing something differently.

    These people, and I count myself among them, already have complete freedom of choice while playing. We don’t need it engineered in.

        1. Actually, this is why balance is interesting. It’s not really so much over thinking as it is a case of group opinion creating illusions within the system.

          Most games are actually ridiculously well balanced to begin with. The designer usually has a handful of formulas and some gut instincts about the less measurable advantages that get them excellently close. The problem is, the players don’t have access to all the information, and so they come to some very wrong conclusions. For an example lets go ahead and use Deus Ex: HR, though I haven’t played it so I may be stretching a bit here.

          What do we require in Deus Ex: HR if we want to go in guns blazing. Rather, what is the xp cost to do so? From the look of things, nothing. If you are a decent fps player you can engage in pretty much all combat systems without the need for any skills at all. Does this hold true for stealth though? Well no, there are stealth skills and hacking skills that are completely necessary when playing the game in that manner. So if the XP bonus were equal, would the two paths be equal? No, because one doesn’t have any built in costs while the other does, so their net xp would be significantly different. Since the net xp should be the same, the gross xp between the two paths should be significantly different. But players seeing only the gross of amount of a valued resource being higher get confused and start calling imbalance, even though this is a result of it actually being balanced.

          On the other hand though, it doesn’t take forbidding all strats and blogs to avoid the illusion of bad balance. It just requires having an iota of trust that the designers actually do know how to design a game. Taking those gut feelings and accepting that you have them, but eventually pulling them out for closer evaluation expecting them to be wrong or incomplete. Most of all though, it just takes a certain willingness to be wrong. By and large the reason things like FotM catch on is because people DON’T try out other things to see if they’re actually worse. They don’t want to be wrong so they just go with what everyone else says is right.

    1. Hehe, baghpuss is correct, of course. today’s MMOs are neither made for over-thinkers nor do they require them. but then, what would we be talking about on our blogs? ;)

      I wonder if any of us even care half as much about all the “wrong choices” and imbalances in a game, if we’re having the right company with us…at the very least, this is a powerful variable for altering average player perception. we don’t necessarily have fun with perfect games, we have fun with good people.

    2. I’m right there with ya. “Overthinking” is what is driving me away from MMO gaming and back to single player games.

      Why? Because it’s all about stats nowadays. And if you don’t obsess about stats, you won’t get groups, and if you can’t get a group, you won’t get to finish your storylines or see cool new content.

  3. I routinely trash Bioware’s games because they really offer no choice in gameplay. You can only get certain weapons by being bad or good, which ruins the way you want to play your character. “Oh, I’m a paragon of virtue, but that guy over there has an item I want. I will kill him and take it!” They need to provide alternate ways of getting the gear.

    And the party members pretty much make sure every game plays the same regardless of which class you chose.

    The other thing games should do is make it easy to experiment and change as far as talent points are concerned.

    In WoW I made 3-4 frost mages and deleted them all before I made an arcane mage and loved it. if the game let you freely reassign talents until level 30 or so, you could experiment and see what fits your playstyle and what you find fun.

    As it is, in several games I have many spells and talents I’ve never used because I dont want to spend an unrecoverable point or pay for an expensive respec. And in many of these games (like those made by Bioware) I dont experiement because the game autolevels the companions to a certain point, taking the choice away. These spells may be a lot of fun, they may be terrible but I’ll never know.

  4. People often aren’t aware of the choices they are making, and often complain about the consequences of their choices. I’ve seen a number of posts on blogs and fprune about deus ex giving more xp for hacking, and people saying that forces them to level their hacking skill to get that xp. They’ve made a (subconscious) choice to get every point of xp they can, and that choice is higher in their decision tree than not liking hacking. They feel forced to hack because they’re unaware of the choice they’ve made. Real decisions have opportunity cost, as in what you lose for not choosing something else. If you design away that opportunity cost then choices have no meaningful consequence. I guess to sum up I’ll say that you can’t have your cake and eat it too; if you want ALL the xp, accept that hacking and sneaking are required. If you don’t want to hack, accept that the extra xp won’t be yours. Make that decision an active one, and live with it. Dont complain that you don’t get any real decisions while also complaining that you don’t get all the toys.

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