False Choices Are Worse Than No Choices

Sometimes, listening to players is bad. Players will constantly say that they value choice. They like choices. They want more choices. This mentality drives me nuts, because…

Lots Of Choices Are False

I’m playing in a D&D 3.5 campaign right now, and we just hit level 2. The normal rules for HP work like this: each class has a die representing it’s HP (called a Hit Dice). At level up, you roll that, and gain that much HP. Because this sucks horrifically for unlucky people and can make characters unplayable, a very popular house rule (and the actual rule in organized play like Pathfinder Society) is to use a fixed number like a percentage. A popular number in my circle of friends is 75%, because we don’t like super lethal games.

When I was DM, I just used 75%, period. In the game I’m in, the DM is giving us a choice of rolling (with reroll on a 1) or 75%. Everyone loves choice, right?

It's a trap!
Admiral Ackbar knows what I’m going to say.

I did a bit of math, and you’re 98% likely to do better with 75% than you are with rolling. For a Cleric, you’re 52% likely to wind up with at least 19 HP more with 75% than you are with rolling. There is a choice here, but it isn’t what it seems. The choice is actually between “do you want to have lots of HP” and “not that”. It’s a choice between doing the correct thing and the wrong thing. The choice being offered is a trap that will lure in players who don’t know better. Nobody who does know better will make that choice.

This is the kind of choice that is really a false choice and shouldn’t exist at all. Offering up bad choices in the name of “more choice” makes no sense. If I offer you a cheeseburger or a turd sandwich for dinner, do you really feel better that I didn’t just go ahead and only offer cheeseburgers?

Talent Trees Are So Guilty

Big, complex talent trees are another thing players like. They’re another thing that tends to suck in a lot of games. If you played earlier versions of WoW, you’d remember the large trees with lots of talents and points to spend. You could come up with all kinds of builds, and in the easy solo game they’d all work fine. Trouble with that? Sooner or later, the easy solo game ends.

Once you hit the difficult content, most of those build combinations suck. There’s talents that are required to play effectively, and those aren’t really a choice at all. It was pretty common to see builds that spent 47/51 points on mandatory things, and then gave you 4 points to spend on whatever you wanted because they didn’t matter. The actual choice there? 4 out of 51 points. The other ones are only a choice between doing the best you can, or doing less than the best you can and forcing the rest of your group to carry you.

Rift was also notorious for this. It featured an extensive talent system, with tons of build options. Again, most of them sucked. Only the system was so complicated in Rift that doing the right thing was much harder, and it was really easy to make a build that sucked. I literally doubled my DPS in five minutes by changing builds to one I found online. That’s a 100% effectiveness boost in game due to spending under 5 minutes on Google.

Does that seem right, to you? Who makes the choice *not* to do that if they know better? Why would a game developer want me to get better at the game by copying what I see in Google instead of by playing the game?

The whole thing against “cookie cutter” builds is a misguided reaction to this very problem. Players love choice, but players also hate it when someone who doesn’t want to deal with all that choice can get an optimized build really easily. But that isn’t the fault of anyone except the people demanding more choice, because lots of people just want to play the game effectively without dealing with trying to optimize 50 talent points. There’s even more players who don’t have the game knowledge or math skills to have any chance of coming up with a good build on their own. For those players, the cookie cutter builds are actively helping the developers by giving those players the means to actually function in the game halfway effectively. Those players would likely just quit otherwise after finding the game frustrating.

Players also hate it when there are optimal builds at all, with the idea that everything should be equal. That’s an ideal that almost never happens in reality because the more options you have, the more difficult it is to make them all line up equally.  Against a given raid boss, one option will be better than the others. If the boss difficulty is high enough that being optimized matters, one or two builds will fit it. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Give Me Fewer Choices, But Make Them Good

Sid Meier said that “a good game is a series of interesting choices”. He was right. I wish more developers would heed his lesson. Many of the choices we’re given are not interesting. They’re a choice between a right and wrong answer, where the only people making the wrong choice either don’t know it’s the wrong choice, or don’t care if they’re sabotaging themselves or their team. This is why simplified talent trees (like what WoW did) are often the right way to go no matter how players react online. When most of the choices are just cruft and not really an interesting choice, you’re better off cutting them out entirely and only leaving the real choices. It’s easier to develop, easier to balance, and easier to understand for the players.

If the players don’t know what’s good for them? That’s fine. It’s the developers getting paid to make the game, and their livelihood on the line with it. They need to know better.

4 thoughts on “False Choices Are Worse Than No Choices”

  1. I don’t fully agree. While I want choices to be meaningful, there’s more to a talent tree or its equivalent than just the art of choosing. I want to feel like I am progressing, in some form or fashion, and the ole ding for leveling up just doesn’t do that for me anymore. Earning a talent point every level was a fitting addition. Yes, it was mostly meaningless in how little it effectively contributed to my character, but I always felt like I was making some degree of forward progress.

    1. To use an example from the old days, the WoW Mage Fire tree had lots of stuff like “increase fire damage by 2% per point.”

      If I choose “Fire”, you can just give me another rank in that talent instead of giving me a point and making me pick it. There’s no possible reason I’m not going to pick that unless I don’t know what I’m doing, as it was one of the best talents in the tree.

      The tree only had a few interesting choices at all (primarily the one to pick that tree vs Frost or Arcane). Pretty easy to make that stuff passively gained and not give me the option of doing it wrong.

    2. My personal choice would be a talent tree where you get exactly as many points as it takes to fill it as you level up. You don’t have the pitfall of a wrong choice at level cap content where it matters most since you get everything at that point, but you do get a choice in how you reach that point by choosing the order in which you unlock the tree.

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