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.