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The Importance of choice and consequence or How less is more

September 11, 2012

It seems to be the new flu in MMO design these days to offer players more, or more specifically, offer the players’ avatars more freedom in terms of how to progress them, which at first glance sounds really cool, exciting and fresh doesn’t it? Most notable pioneers in this field are Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World. Guild Wars 2 marketed its game as “getting rid of the holy trinity” system of Healer, DPS and Tank (and with a little good faith and help from above a Hybrid once in a blue moon).

Guild Wars 2 is essentially based on the player being able to fill all of these roles depending on his/her choice of weapon and spending skill points, which are earned by levelling up (or past level 80 by earning a set amount of experience) and completing skill challenges. One can then place the skill points into abilities that enhance healing, damage or give some form of utility such as increased survival.

The Secret World went a step further by even abolishing classes and levels. Instead of these two attributes one merely creates a character and completes quests which give Anima points and skill points. Skill points are earned every time the experience bar is full and can be used to increase your proficiencies with weapons and gear, allowing you to use better gear or benefit more from the bonuses of your two chosen weapons. For example for Blades the Survivability bonus consists of a “heal over time” every time an enemy hits you with a “glancing blow”, essentially a “miss”. You earn three Anima points for every Skill point and these are used to purchase passive and active abilities for your character. While the game does not have traditional levels, you are able to get every single ability in the game (and there are a lot of them), thus being able to fill any role at your leisure and thus forming a more veiled form of levelling. Both Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World have taken the step towards making gear merely a cosmetic option in order to achieve this freedom of roles. Gear still seems to matter somewhat in The Secret Worlds but since quests are repeatable and your equipped passive and active (seven of each) decide your play style, gearing up does not seem to be an issue. Guild Wars 2 also has gear, but your weapons decide once again the abilities you are going to have to work with and will thus prove more crucial to your play style.

So yeah this sounds great at first glance does it not? Finally I can tank or heal on my Rogue without having to reroll another class and there should be no huge dungeon queues as everyone can fulfil every role. Great! Sadly things are not quite as easy and this is where the importance of choice comes into play:

If we’d compare this to games with a much more rigid class system like World of Warcraft, Star Wars the Old Republic and Age of Conan, where classes are built around the idea of fulfilling one or potentially two roles, we can clearly see that our choice of class has a certain graspable consequence. You may be a DPS as an Assassin (AoC) but not a Tank or Healer, or you may be a Healer and DPS as a Sith Sorcerer/ Jedi Consular, but not a Tank. These kind of direct consequences to our choices are what make MMOs and RPGs so fun to play. One of the many, many things that disappointed me in Mass Effect 3 was the removal of consequence from your previous choices. It did not matter anymore whether I had killed or saved the Rachni queen in the first instalment of the series, she’d still come back as a Reaper controlled monstrosity in Mass Effect 3. Another indicator to the fact that consequences to our choices are important even in MMOs, are the rising number of complaints on how similar and streamlined classes have become, a problem very evident in WoW where every class seems to walk around with, buffs, AoE abilities and heals, or in SW: ToR where essentially you have 8 classes with 16 different names and only the story separates them. Fun? I don’t think so. And essentially that is what giving more freedom in role performance does. It is with the streamlining of all classes to look like mirrors of each other that the case of choosing a class becomes a lot less fun, because that once fundamental choice does not matter anymore so why even make?

Now those of us who are into raiding and have read some basic economy might retort that organized guilds would still enforce some form of specialization as it is more efficient than just zerging (David Ricardo: Comparative advantage:). That would of course prerequisite the tools of such specialization. Because if they are not supplied the game becomes even more about playing together and more about playing alone and it kind of makes you wonder why you even need other people if bots would be just as fine. Yet if we assume the tools for such specialization are given and they are used to enforce specialization into a system that wanted to move away from it I have to honestly ask what the point of moving away from it in the first place was if all the players do s reverse the process?

Because specialization is yet another choice, which provides an easy avenue for direct consequences: either you are a Madness Sith Assassin and focus on Debuffs and DoTs with your melee damage or you are going Deception and focus on stealth and burst damage. This way you give players of the same class another layer of tools to customise their class the way they want to play it and as a consequence you make some of their abilities less or more desirable. In the case of the Sith Assassin you’d never really use “Crushing Darkness” if you specced into Deception, but it was one of your core skills in Madness due to its talents.

I mentioned before how removing specialization or diminishing its role would damage the game even more than keeping it in a game that wants to move away from roles and rigid classes. I’ll now explain why that is the case: You see one of the things I have only started to realise maybe 2 years ago and especially as I was playing Cataclysm was that the fact that every class had a limited toolbox in which it could operate, made you appreciate other classes and more importantly other players more. I can still remember how happy I was every time I received a heal on my Rogue from a random passer-by or got a buff on my Hunter (applies to the Rogue as well tbh), because those were things I did not have in my toolbox and it made it gave a positive incentive to player interaction while questing but more importantly, it made you feel your class was needed, that without it the groups experience would be lacking something. In the case of the Rogue and Hunter CC and on the Hunter, as I levelled as Beast Mastery, a viable pet tank when things went wrong. What really made my Rogue feel valuable were all the locked chests in the dungeons or game world in general. One could summarize it by saying that differentiation is what makes the game more about playing together with other, than playing alone with others. At the very least it gives a huge incentive to do the former. Nowadays though, with all the streamlining all you get for random heals on people is snarky comments on how not to heal them because they would have used their own heals if they needed help or DPS standing in the fire because hey what does it matter I can heal myself anyway!

So yes in this case giving people less choice and more rigid classes actually in my opinion turns out to be more, as the social part of an MMO (which forever seems to be overlooked nowadays), as well as the actual core reason why to play the game “because it’s fun!” both benefit from some really direct and sold consequences on your choices. I really hope both Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World succeed in their vision but they need to supplement the lack of choice in their character creation process with something equally as fun and defining. Because let’s face it its damn boring if everyone is the same and can do the same things!

Feel free to post any thoughts or comments you have on the issue!

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2012 4:42 pm

    What if those games that allowed so ample choices (TSW, arguably GW2) made it so that each point you invested into a specific role was numbered and irretrievable? You would still have a consequence stemming from player instead of developer input. The problem with those systems is that, as games progressed with their quality-of-life conveniences that eased them to a particular kind of market, the average player has become accustomed to her mistakes being cushioned, and will not accept a system that deals punitively with bad choices (for consequences to have any weight, they must follow bad choices as well). Diablo 2 did it wonderfully, there being no re-specs at the time. Your first character would be skewed no doubt; the second would not be the most efficient; the third one would be a God; your other alters would all deal in those specs that you had not mustered the courage for before, and would be indubitably fun. WoW (pre-Wrath) had also instigated this type of system where your choice mattered, and made so through a more liberal talent tree which allowed for interesting combinations, and through punishments in the form of gold and time.

    PD: First!

    • September 13, 2012 5:27 pm

      First of all thanks for the comment! Sadly I have no laurels handy to award you the first prize with. As to your proposal I think that would be great in any game that has a system to create your character like GW2 and TSW have. The problem with those games is they were marketed in a specific manner saying you could do everything. So I dont think we will see them incorporating a “punishment” like that.
      I also absolutely agree that “bad choices” have to have consequence some form of consequence. My trouble with that kind of hard-line attitude you described from D2 is that for an MMO it does not work because of the following two reasons:
      Neverending story: Which basically means no character should be unplayable if the bad choices are made as there is no “end” to the game. In an RPG you could propably reroll the character and complete the story and thats it. In an MMO you’d feel a bit more “cheated” on your game-experience as there is no real “goal” to reach merely play the game.
      Rerolling = Boring: An ultimate choice like that is very often also a detriment to many players as it requres rerolling as the only option to fix it. I for instance screwed up my first NWN2 character and it took me months to pick up the game again. And that was not even an MMO and I had not played through the first chapter yet! Bottom line consequences are scary and to make them appeal you have to offer some other way out than just rerolling. After all gamers are not known for their patience and if you give them a game that forces patience this has to be done in small dosages. At least thats how I believe it could work in today’s market.
      The reason I guess I am a proponent for rigid classes is that I am not sure how to make a good consequence for your “bad choices”. One that still feels like a consequence but that does not scare away players. The rigid classes let me have the best of both worlds: real “hard” consequences when you pick your class, but the option to redistribute talent points within that class, bought essentially by nvesting time into an activity.

      Thanks again from your comment and I hope to hear more from you!

  2. September 14, 2012 4:38 am

    “Rerolling = Boring: An ultimate choice like that is very often also a detriment to many players as it requres rerolling as the only option to fix it. I for instance screwed up my first NWN2 character and it took me months to pick up the game again.”

    This is one of my main complaints about NWN (the first one, hated the second one). If you picked the wrong feats/classes, usually the only way to “fix” it was to start over again. On top of that, even picking the current starting ability bonuses were important.

    It’s one of the major things I like about WoW. You can always fix what you mess up. Might get very expensive if you kept messing up but you weren’t hosed beyond “make a new character.”

    • September 14, 2012 11:33 am

      As much infuriating as that desing in NWN 1 and 2 was it’s something I found good for RPGs as most people play for the story and once you have done it the incentive to go through it a second time are not there, at least on the story front. So you have to have dfferent incentivess like “I really want to check out this class/ability/spec…” to gve the game more replay value.
      As the Dablo franchise focuses heavily on replayability through grinding your way through the same content on harder modes I think it is a good and natural choice to make the talents non refundable. It merely enforces the same design of replayability yet again.
      In MMOs though such hard consequences dont work imo, or rather I have yet to see a system that I’d support. It is an interesting queston though something I think we can only have an answer for if we rehaul the talent-system completely and do something new.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • September 15, 2012 1:09 am

        “As much infuriating as that desing in NWN 1 and 2 was it’s something I found good for RPGs as most people play for the story and once you have done it the incentive to go through it a second time are not there, at least on the story front.”

        I think there’s two sides to this coin.

        First, yes, having a not-perfectly-optimized character usually doesn’t matter and there’s usually no incentive to play with said character for years. That does seem it would make a difference.

        That said, what if you wound up in a position that due to bad choices you literally cannot win? Doesn’t matter how well you prepare or how well you play, you are literally just stuck. Is that a good situation? “Oh, too bad, you didn’t know how the game works and you have to start over in order to finish.

        • September 15, 2012 12:20 pm

          Firstly are you talkng about RPGs or MMOs when you ask that question? Because in RPGs you usually have a party that backs you up and you can work around the flaws of your characters with them as you can find nice synergies and the like. Of course RPGs also have some missions when you are on your own, but in general terms I am aganst those missions as they are detrimental to the party-design and give you too much incentive to make a powerhouse character instead of one that s fun and works good with the party.
          And yes maybe there are a few people who manage to screw up so badly that they need to reroll, no system is perfect after all but if you can minimize that number then I’m fine with it. After all if you are not challenged chhances are you wont be learning anything as what ever you are doing now seems to work well enough.
          In MMOs on t he other hand I already stated that as they work differently the respec option should be avaivable for a price. That said you can make that price high so you force players to work around their specs weaknesses. You may not have a party at your side but n the dire situation where you feel lke you cant improve personally anymore you can always socialize and jon a party cant you?

          • September 15, 2012 6:22 pm

            “Firstly are you talkng about RPGs or MMOs when you ask that question? Because in RPGs you usually have a party that backs you up and you can work around the flaws of your characters with them as you can find nice synergies and the like.”

            RPGs (like NWN1).

            Imagine, for example, that you tried to make a Drizzt type character in NWN. You thought you’d try to be true to the books so you do something like

            10 strength
            16 dexterity
            12 constitution
            14 intelligence
            14 wisdom
            12 charisma

            You then go pure ranger and have him dual-wield scimitars (which cannot use Dex for AB). You wind up having a character that has like 40% of the effectiveness of what is intended.

            So, assuming you’re in a party of 3, for example, you have a 100% party member, a 100% party member, and a 40% for you. That’s 240%, effectively. If a fight is made difficult for a 300% party, how is a group that, at most, will be 80% as effective succeed?

            And, of course, NPC party members tend to be less effective than the PC character, which makes the situation worse.

            In addition to that, assuming you manage inventories of the party, you’re likely to the gear the characters with poor decisions as well. Which further compounds the situation.

            It seems you have to make a choice between “you might just be screwed and have to start the entire game over” and “make the game so easy it doesn’t matter.”

            • September 15, 2012 6:23 pm

              Side note. These comments are getting awfully squished!

  3. September 15, 2012 7:13 pm

    yeah the comments really got squshed so ill do a new comment here: looking at the Forgotten realms wikia you would see though that Drizzt is 10 Fighter/5 Ranger/ 1 Barbarian. I dont know how this effects all the rules but it changes some of it quite drastically. And yes companions are a weak link and thats something that further developers could work on but I have been playing NWN2 as a support char (which makes the solo modes a pain) but it helps work out the group to a better over all input. Ofcourse you could also always do what I did in DA:O on all the fights where I did not know how to complete them, with your 80% party iin a 300% fight, you kite the boss with what ever chhar has the most aggro, rest dps. Boring for sure but it got t he job done 😉 So yes there is mostly a way around that but as I said for a single player I dontmind rerolling but you haveto make sure that those occassions are minimized by having a good tutorial tooltips etc.

  4. September 15, 2012 10:48 pm

    “yeah the comments really got squshed so ill do a new comment here: looking at the Forgotten realms wikia you would see though that Drizzt is 10 Fighter/5 Ranger/ 1 Barbarian. I dont know how this effects all the rules but it changes some of it quite drastically.”

    It would make it even worse. Experience penalty and no Ranger spells/animal companion.

    “Ofcourse you could also always do what I did in DA:O on all the fights where I did not know how to complete them, with your 80% party iin a 300% fight, you kite the boss with what ever chhar has the most aggro, rest dps.”

    If you can kite the boss like that, it’s a poorly designed fight.

    “So yes there is mostly a way around that but as I said for a single player I dontmind rerolling but you haveto make sure that those occassions are minimized by having a good tutorial tooltips etc.”

    Unfortunately, for a game with as much complexity as NWN that’s rather hard to do.

    Site note: let me know if you ever want to play a campaign or something in NWN1, I still enjoy playing it. But not NWN2!

    • September 16, 2012 12:24 pm

      Unfortunately I only own NWN2 and it was already impossible trying to buy the expansions for that one (nothing on steam, amazon, GoG, gamersgate), so I’ll have to disappoint you there. And yes a game of such complexity might make it hard not to screw up if there (like in NWN2) does not exist a proper tutorial/ help menu what have you to guide the player in how the character builder works. That said I have to try and chip through my last NWN2 campaign on my Rogue/Assassin/Cleric or Wizard have to choose the last one yet.

  5. September 16, 2012 4:38 pm

    http://www.gog.com/en/gamecard/neverwinter_nights_diamond_edition

    If finding it is your only concern.

    • September 16, 2012 4:45 pm

      cool thanks I’ll give a look at the moment though I am way too swamped with games I want to play and don’t really seem to have the time for all of them sadly 😦

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