Sunday, September 18, 2011

Careful with Incomparables: Tolthir's Comment

This is the third recent post about “choice”. I'll take a closer look at a comment Tolthir left at the first one.

Okay, here's a question. You seem to be assuming that a meaningful choice has to have a unique right answer. But the hallmark of an interesting choice is that it doesn't have one.
A decision, as a response to a choice, is something that helps the player reach his goals. For example, these goals can either be doing maximum dps, or having a cool looking character – or both. Different goals induce different “unique right answers”.

We can use the Extra Credits terminology: calculations, incomplete information problems and incomparables.
Calculations can be thought through before you make a decision, incomplete information problems could be thought through before you make a decision, but you miss information and usually have to make an educated guess. Incomparables make you ask yourself “What do I actually want? Do I want the apples or the oranges? Do I want to look cool or do more dps? How much less dps is a good look worth – and vice versa?”

Calculations and incomplete information problems have a unique right answer, because they have a clearly defined goal. Incomparables don't have a clearly defined goal. They require you to make up your mind about what you actually want – something humans generally enjoy only in small doses in my experience! Should you make up your mind, an incomparable becomes a calculation or incomplete information problem, but many players never ultimately make up their mind. Consequently, the incomparable stays an incomparable forever and only generates transitory calculations or incomplete information problems.

Incomparables tend to produce less satisfaction compared to choices with clearly defined goals, because the player never really reaches his goal: the correct decision. Incomparables often are frustrating as the player really wants to have the apples and the oranges. Most players want to look cool and do maximum dps. They feel like they shouldn't have to choose. The good thing about incomparables is that the act of choosing never ends. It is therefore cheap 'content', a cheap way to keep the player's mind busy.

For example, the choice of deck build in Magic the Gathering is interesting. It's not a "flavor" choice (because some decks are more effective than others), but it can't be solved using a spreadsheet (because making a good deck isn't a matter of maximizing a single variable like DPS). You could same the same thing about the choice of move in chess, or block placement in Tetris.
MtG is an incomplete information problem. If you knew your opponent's deck and how he reacts to your actions you could easily find a unique right deck that maximizes the chances of a win. This, by the way, is the single variable you try to maximize.
The reason this works in MtG and many other multiplayer games is that players accept the fact that the opponent behaves unpredictably and sometimes irrationally or even arbitrarily. If a boss in a raid behaved this way, most players would consider this frustrating. They wouldn't feel like they should have to fight such an opponent. It would seem unfair to them. A good example for how essential the players' expectations are!

So here's the question: Why can't MMOs present choices without a unique right answer? Or do they already?
They easily can and sometimes do. But usually these choices just aren't fun. Humans like to work towards clearly defined goals, like how to look coolest, or how to maximize the dps. But we really don't like to make up our minds. A lot of people even actively seek to stop themselves from thinking about this. That's one reason we marry and get kids and try to be successful in long-term jobs. Trying to achieve something - anything - is generally more fun, than trying to find out what we actually want.

One could add lots of choices to a MMO that don't have unique right answers. For example, one could force players to choose between leveling fast or experiencing the main story of the game while one-hitting all mobs. WoW does this right now. It is an incomparable. It doesn't have one right answer. It depends on what you want. You need to make up your mind! Do you like this choice?

Sandbox games like Eve Online are a lot about making up your mind. Do you want to become a rich trader or a pirate hunter? Do you want to do PvP in null-sec or stick to high-sec? Even players who really want to like these games (like myself) suggest that new players just select one (any) goal and stick to it. Pondering about what you want is not a lot of fun. Switching around can be fatal for your fun.

One of the few incomparables I consider arguably fun is selecting your character in games like Neverwinter Nights. Do I want to play a lawful good paladin or rather a chaotic neutral rogue? Should my wizard be balanced or super-intelligent? This can be fun for quite some time. I tend to spend hours in front of character creators. But I absolutely know that, eventually, I need to decide and stick to my decision to have fun.

So, to reply to your comment: all choices, except for incomparables, have "unique right answers" xor are meaningless. For a choice to be "interesting", it can absolutely have just one right answer. And while incomparables (which never have one right answer) can be interesting, they are also very difficult to get right as a designer.

The real problem of "right answers" is that the act of choosing eventually ends. And unless it is repeated, its potential to create fun for the player is thus gone forever. Luckily, most choices in games can be repeated, often under different circumstances.


  1. Hey Nils, thanks for the detailed reply. What I meant is that many choices don't have right answer that's determinable in practice, even if one might exist in theory. For example, there may conceivably be a unique best first move in chess, but no one has been able to determine what it is, despite the fact that people have been playing for centuries. Or in poker, the decision whether to bluff may have a right answer in retrospect, but at the time you have to make the decision you don't have the information necessary to know what it is. That's what makes decisions in chess and poker interesting.

    MtG is an incomplete information problem. If you knew your opponent's deck and how he reacts to your actions you could easily find a unique right deck that maximizes the chances of a win.

    But the point is that you don't have that information at the time you make your deck-building decision. And even if you did, you'd need a supercomputer to uniquely determine the best possible counterdeck. It's a much harder problem than maximizing DPS in WoW. That's part of what makes Magic fun.

    It's clear that many games, like chess, poker, and Magic, thrive on giving players an endless stream of interesting decisions to make. Is there anything that MMOs can learn from other games that might help them present players with more interesting decisions? For example, fights in Wizard 101 have some random elements that make them less predictable than the scripted fights in WoW. Does that help make the game more interesting?

    Oh, it's Tolthir, by the way. It means "island lord" in Sindarin. ;)

  2. So, to reply to your comment: all choices, except for incomparables, have "unique right answers" xor are meaningless. For a choice to be "interesting", it can absolutely have just one right answer.

    This is like saying that the internet will any of those games on the spot, since you can always google for the answer....

  3. Sorry for the misspelling, Tolthir.
    I think there's a huge difference between a problem not having a right answer and the player not being able to find it. And even the difference between random numbers and not-enough-time-to-calculate makes a huge difference on the player's mind. Even though it has certainly the same effect in practise.

    I would agree that incomplete information problems are superior to cal,culations in games; especially in times of the internet.

    And that is also my answer to you, Helistar. Just because something has a right answer doesn't mean that it is available on the internet. The problem can either be too hard (chess) or require soo much circumstacial and time-critical information that it's not feasible to calculate it beforehand. This applies to poker. And then there's always the random number games, like gambling, which absolutely have a right answer. It's just that nobody knows it beforehand.

    But the existence of this right answer is critically important for the game. If there were no right answer, gambling wouldn't even work.

    PS: Which island, Tolthir ? ;)