Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Oh, I have one more post in the queue...

There's been some talk about choice recently. Mostly it was the usual stuff that you can read and watch every few months. That's why I decided to make a post that tells you that you got it all wrong. Yep, everything. *grin*

Take the (original) WoW talent trees. Some people argue that if one specc is more effective than another, it stops being a choice. Consequently, they conclude that all speccs need to be equally effective. Yet others reject this, because if every choice is equally effective, the choice becomes meaningless. Both are correct! And that's why both are wrong.

What is fun about a choice is the act of choosing. The final choice is just the goal and gives meaning to the journey. The journey is the act of choosing, the act of deciding. It is where the fun is actually experienced.

I don't know about you, but I found the 'talent tree' choices in Starcraft II not fun at all. They were about flavor and they were mutually exclusive. This lead to a meaningless choice at best. And a frustrating choice at worst ("I shouldn't have to play through twice to experience each option"). Actually both. If you could have 'respecced', the only reason this choice had been fun, had been for exploring and experiencing all options; not for the act of chosing.

The important thing to understand is that making a choice, deciding on something, is a journey. It has to take some time, it must not be trivial. But it also must not be too hard! If you make the process of "figuring things out" especially hard, you remove the fun from 99% of the players and move it towards the Elitist Jerks. That's not a very smart thing to do as developer.

Choices (Journeys) that happen just once can never add much fun to a game on their own. It's like trying to make a huge quest that lasts the entire game and is fun every step of the way. It's not possible.

What does this mean? Do we have to stop asking the player to chose a specc? No, not at all. We just need to stop demanding that this choice adds a hell of a lot of fun to the game. It cannot!

If you make a choice about flavor, it is meaningless, if you make it about efficiency it soon stops being a choice, unless you make it especially hard to figure out, in which case the only players who have fun are those with spreadsheets. And only so long until they actually have figured it out. Developers really need to resist trying to make the act of chosing require a spreadsheet. Only a very small proportion of players can get some fun out of this. And that's not good game design. Well, unless you think that players who need to read up on their speccs are on a really fun journey. Do you think that?

A good choice about where to place a talent point should take a minute at most to figure out, and must not require a spreadsheet. It adds fun for that minute and then it is gone. And that's ok. You can't get more fun out of this single journey.

A right choice is a goal, the choosing is a journey. And everything written about journeys applies. A single journey that keeps a player's mind busy with just one decision cannot add a hell of lot of fun to the game on its own. We need to accept that.


  1. If you make a choice about flavor, it is meaningless, if you make it about efficiency it soon stops being a choice, unless you make it especially hard to figure out, in which case the only players who have fun are those with spreadsheets.

    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.

    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.

    So here's the question: Why can't MMOs present choices without a unique right answer? Or do they already?

  2. @Tolthir
    I think the point is that there's no perfect way to do it no matter how - hence, we should stop asking so much of ultimately small things like talent specs. the really meaningful choices, the main journey and content of an MMO should be out there, on the road...not in the things you merely do to "make ready". that is a fundamental shift of focus. Frankly, I would happily have my next MMO just hand everyone the same gear and specs if it allowed for all the other things I personally look for (and "character identity" does not lie in these things anyhow).

    I wonder who came up with the idea that choosing specs, gear optimization, min/maxing and what not are long-lasting fun generators to begin with...these are choices that should take a few mins (okay, 1 hour for a noob) maximum in an MMORPG. in essence, they're just your "logistics", or pre-requisites to get ready for the real content/journey. so how 'meaningful' can a spec be?

    Meaning is what gets added later for me....what I do understand however is that in the absence of many other things (story, cooperation, simulation etc.), people will make a hobby out of flowcharts. especially in a game where items/rewards are pretty much centre focus. if there's little fun/meaning to be had in journeying, you turn to gear/stat/spec optimization - not because it's needed, but because it's there. I will happily include cosmetics here too - it can be fun short-term, but if it becomes a main focus it's probably because you're running out of better things to do. personally, I have never paid nearly as much attention to it as in WoW where it was clearly a substitute.

    maybe we can be as bold as to claim that the degree of optimization-mania (gear, specs etc.) in an MMO is relative to the absence of better opportunities? ;)

    in WoW, maybe 0.1% of the audience was really as cutting edge to justify obsessing over gear&specs.

  3. The Starcraft II talent tree should not be taken in isolation as a single player mechanic. It's purpose as I see it was to get introduce players gradually to the individual technology options available, so they read and consider each one, and gradually get them used to making the branch decisions that they have to make from scratch every game during multiplayer.

    It is important that they are mutually exclusive, not because they are always mutually exclusive in the multiplayer game, but because investing in both options would be too costly, and would put a players build at a disadvantage making it more likely that they lose.

    I tried quite hard to take the Starcraft II campaign seriously as a single player game, but it is obvious from the perspective of anyone with a basic knowledge of game design that it mainly serves as a slow, gentle introduction to the mechanics in preparation for the competitive game.

    Inspired by the multiplayer Starcraft II experience I have been speculating on what an MMO design would be like if during the endgame players got to re-build their characters from scratch for and during each major encounter. Just as a Starcraft II player begins from a clean empty tech tree at the start of a multiplayer game, the MMO player would begin with a blank slate character at the entrance to a dungeon. Prepared by the levelling game the player should already be well familiar with the options available, and could build a character as the dungeon progresses that was optimised to both the dungeon and their role within the party.

    This would obviously be a very different game from the current mainstream, and would need a talent tree designed with this endgame in mind, but it's something I have enjoyed thinking about.

  4. This post mostly shows me that none of us actually have perfect grabs of what makes a game fun. I enjoyed the SC2 talent trees, even though I had already clocked tons of hours in the "real" part of the game (the multiplayer mode) in beta. Mutual exclusiveness made the choices meaningful to me ("If I pick this I can't have that. This is a choice I have to consider carefully!") While respeccing would have made them trivial and irrelevant.

    I enjoyed talking to other players about their campaign experience and how they used their technology choices to find different solutions to campaign problems than I had.

    I especially enjoyed the fact that performance in the single player campaign was a rather secondary issue which in turn meant that I didn't have to spend a lot of time theorycrafting while still making choices that effect how I play the game.

    Sure, the SC2 talent trees didn't provide a whole lot of fun in isolation, but they added an element to the game that much improved the experience for me.

  5. @scrusi

    Based on your last comment though, that means choosing/creating the specs wasn't much fun in itself, but rather the impact they produced from there, right? so maybe we'd have to say that things like speccing can only generate meaning in for fun, not sure it's the same thing.

    as a consequence, the worst that could happen here is if there's no difference between specs at all. at the same time, players often want specs to be equally viable in MMOs which is difficult to balance around spec variety (since encounters are always situative as well, or then group setup).

    I agree with you, it's very difficult to discuss this without throwing terminology around. what generates fun/content/meaning/impact and how are they related (or to what extent synonymous)? another problem is that we're not all talking about the same MMO sub-genre here; if I talk about WoW, I don't talk about SC or EVE.

  6. I really think Tolthir is onto something. Games like Magic support a wide variety of decks partly because there's a feedback loop where if one deck type starts to dominate we'll see a lot of nemesis decks appear and the cookie cutter will start losing a lot. And will stop being the cookie cutter.

    In Vanilla WoW it really wasn't clear playing a healer whether it was optimal to gear for throughput or longevity. I tended to go for longevity because I placed a higher value on never being short of mana than I did on bigger heals. What's more in raids I teamed better with people who took the opposite approach than I did with people who also prized longevity. I could cover them if they ran dry, they could cover me if big burst healing was needed.

    That's far more interesting than let's make things dumber because it's not fair to make people go to EJ.

    Another point is that fun is related to novelty and that games are more fun while everyone is still figuring out the mechanics. Prolonging the fun of game mechanic mystery is done by obfuscating the mechanics or simply by releasing more games. I've read that in China most people don't stick to one MMO long, people play for 6 months then move to the new one. That may be a better way of finding the fun.

  7. Part of what makes Magic as fluent as it is is that it is ultimately a PvP game, while WoW's optimization woes stem mostly from PvE. The metagame shifting Stabs describes happens due to players reacting to other players decisions rendering useless what might have been an optimal decision at one point.

    Less complex PvP games show this as as well. In professional League of Legends, it matters a lot which champions are picked and which positions they play in. You don't simply pick the strongest champions and are done with it, but also need a plan of how to divide your team. Certain compositions are better against certain others and the game keeps shifting slowly between configurations. It is hard to emulate this in a PvE game since simply changing parameters frequently would only lead to smaller optimization cycles but there would still be an optimal build at any point in time.

  8. I think its all about complexity.

    Regardless of a particular player's goal, regardless of whether its PvP or PvE, if a choice is to be meaningful then some choices have to be better than others. By "better", all I mean is that the player making the choice will be happier down the road having made that choice.

    The problem arises when the "best" choice becomes too obvious or well-known due to lack of complexity.

    Consider chess. Simple, deterministic rules, but so complex that the theorycrafters have yet to pin down the best possible play. So, for now, there are interesting choices for a chess player to make. Not so with Tic-Tac-Toe.

    Magic is sufficiently complex. Even the talent trees in Diablo 2 were sufficiently complex. But the talent trees in WoW are not.

    Its always cool when someone designs simple easy to understand choices for which the consequences are far too computationally complex to yield to analysis. That's what makes choices interesting.

  9. @John

    I think this is still incomplete. imo there can neither be an obvious best choice, nor any "better choice" - only a "better choice for a particular situation" (or group combination).

    otherwise, you have a player choosing one spec and then never changing it again when he figured out it's the best one. (btw, why is it the best one for him and how do you define "happier choice"?)

    that's essentially cookie-cutting, because it means he has found a spec that is ALWAYS viable, while others are not. there should never be absolute better choices or by the time the game is a few months old, you have 99% same specs per class. and that is no choice at all.

    So, if you wanted to maintain spec variety and avoid cookiecutting, you need equally viable choices (that way they cannot be obvious per se).
    PLUS you need the game to require such variety in encounters and balance them appropriately, also in terms of player power (includes gear, buffs etc.); otherwise players will just "brute force" / undermine the concept by bringing better stats and being prepared to the toe.

    Take all this into account and you arrive at the type of MMO that must have "hard" requirements, inflexible setups, benchmarks and caps - which would put many players off. ;)
    dynamic scaling sounds nice here, basically have the boss "always be 2 steps ahead of you" no matter what. but then this approach has the potential to make choices more obsolete again. =D

  10. Oh and this last point is why "choices" worked better in vanilla WoW, of course.

    if you can't have an intelligent, reactive opponent like in a MAGIC match, which you do not in an MMO where the opponent isn't another player (unless you expect Blizzard to constantly change encounters - and a lot more consequences from there...), you can at least dictate very clear requirements and benchmarks. that way, you might not make all specs viable, but more of them - because when flexibility in beating a boss gets lost, spec choices gain meaning. funny enough in Molten Core we wanted healers with different stat/talent prios for this very reason (plus it wasn't nearly as easy to switch often as it is today).

    It's paradoxical how a game that allows for anyone to play together in many ways easily, enforces cookie cutting a lot more - it kills variety because it does not require it. who if not WoW has proven exactly this?

    So, as far as WoW with its classic role-based model goes: we must choose between more meaningful choices OR high accessibility / option to play with more people. someone correct me if I got that one wrong. :)

  11. @Syl

    I think this is still incomplete. imo there can neither be an obvious best choice, nor any "better choice" - only a "better choice for a particular situation" (or group combination).

    I didn't claim the best choice need be obvious -- in fact I think I was saying the opposite, that it must not be obvious. I was only saying that some choices have to be better than others for the choice to matter.

    And, yes, "best choice" definitely depends on the particular goals of the player at that particular moment in time. It also depends on the personality of the player, and what type of player they are going to be days or years later -- for however long the consequences of the choice have any effect.

    Regarding how I define "happier", I think the meaning is both obvious and impossible to pin down. Only I can say whether I'm truly happy about a choice or if, when given an opportunity to go back and play the same game again and make a different choice, if I'm "happier" about the first choice or the second.

    If all choices make me equally happy (or unhappy), then the choice itself is pointless and adds nothing to my experience.

    Similarly, if I already know in advance which choice is going to make me happiest, then again the choice itself it pointless and not really a choice at all.

    Hence my comment that choices are only meaningful if there is sufficient complexity to make the full spectrum of consequences unclear.

    Of course, if a player doesn't want unclear consequences, then there's no point in even attempting to give a player meaningful choices.

  12. "I didn't claim the best choice need be obvious -- in fact I think I was saying the opposite, that it must not be obvious."

    well yes, you did - I was quoting you there (hence the use of "neither....nor"), but adding/emphazising a second element. :)

    I agree with your explanations. as long as it gets clear that "some choices are better than others" stays a relative, situational thing, rather than an absolute. that addition is crucial imo (for specs mind, not things like quest answers etc.).

  13. [q]Why can't MMOs present choices without a unique right answer? Or do they already?

    most of them do to various degrees. For example there is more than one competitive composition for arena teams.

    I do think WoW cut down on amount of viable options within class/spec precisely not to making it "too difficult" for newbies

    I personally dislike the approach as it limits my interest in game (large part why I enjoy games like this is templating - coming up with builds, compositions and such)

    MTG has one approach which is essentially very broad customization per individual player (which makes it newbie not friendly btw). WoW places more emphasis on overall composition metagame (which is only available to experienced players without affecting newbies learning curve ).

    I think more choices there are more interesting the game is but that inevitably makes it newbie unfriendly. All the games with more interesting choices are very newbie unfriendly . For example League of legends is a game with deceptively simple setup , but a lot of variety (over 70 champs)

    It is daunting to learn (you have to know what each of the champs does to play well and know how to pick and counter-pick)

  14. Sorry to be way off topic, but I was wondering what you thought of this:

    Ie, people skipping the voice for the quests?

  15. I'm not sure about how this debate is being framed.

    For example, I consider being a Prot / Ret paladin a choice. My further choice was my Ret off-spec being a hybrid PvE/PvP build, because I wanted to be able to do BGs and switch to DPS in raid fights that only required one tank. My raid DPS spec was not optimal, nor was the PvP one for that matter, but I decided that both were good enough (and I didn't want to spend the time respeccing inbetween them all the time).

    What I'm kinda getting at is that choices that become a part of your identity are A) fun into perpetuity, and B) are neither flavor nor efficiency. Looking at it from the design angle, I can see why Blizzard has resisted the tri-spec idea so far. If I could be Holy/Prot/Ret or Prot/Ret/Ret, the sense of identity would evaporate.