Here are your options:
1.) Get a $20
2.) Have a finger severed without anesthesia.
3.) Get $5
Make your choice. What will it be? If you aren’t a severe sadist or suffer from a dysmorphic condition, you peak an eyebrow and pick #1 without much thought. Why? It is not a hard choice, it is not a complicated choice, and it has an obvious answer.
Choice is the characteristic element most fundamental to the Role-playing game archetype. Consider, going to the most traditional and universal definitions, each game type has its characteristics. In a racing-type game you get behind the wheel/bars of a car, truck, or motorcycle and race around a course, perhaps to beat computer opponents, or your own time. In a shooter-type game you pick up your gun/laser/blaster and proceed to shoot things, repel the aliens, etc. In a sport game, well, you play the relevant sport.
Role-playing games (RPG) are all about choice. You create your character, the role you will play, choosing appearance, skills, and style. The gameplay revolves (ideally) around the choices you make where you will shape the course of the story. Your character develops over time and you choose how they grow.
Over time, the choice element has become increasingly popular among game designers of all genres as they recognize that players *like* being able to make these personal touches. In modern games you find a blending of this traditional RPG element with the other styles. When you play a First-person shooter (FPS), you choose the appearance of your character, the gear they carry, and even choose special skills and perks. When you play a racing game you choose not just the color of your car but modifications to the working systems to change how the car drives. In sports games you can choose an existing team or player, or create your own character with unique skills and style.
We eat up the opportunity to make choices and affect the way the game plays out. But choice itself is not enough. As the developers grow smarter, so do the consumers.
So what is “meaningful” choice? Well, consider the options above. You are given three paths to take, one of which involves serious bodily harm and pain. Most people will want to avoid that. The alternatives are not painful and actually involve a cash reward, which many people *do* want. So, #2 is not an appealing choice, not one that most people will even consider against the other options. So, you still have #1 and #3 though, right? Well, if you value money and you believe that more is better, why would you take the $5 bill over the $20? It is a choice, but it isn’t a comparable option. So despite having three apparent options, you really only have one thing that the majority of your players will choose. This is not a choice to consider, it is the illusion of choice. Remember the immortal words of Eddie Izzard, “Cake or Death!” Well, I’ll have cake please. Not much of a choice!
Sometimes the choice may not be as simple as a numbers game. Sometimes the choice is an opportunity to play your role, to express your character. Perhaps the choice is instead to take the $20 for yourself, or refuse to accept the reward from the poor family. These are character defining moments, rather than routes of advancement (though we add moral systems to monetize our “good” choices). These are also characteristic of the RPG genre, and can be very important to some players.
The second dynamic of a “meaningful” choice is a choice that has an impact, that changes the game, the world, or has some significance to the player. Let’s say you are a Noble Knight in a Mythical Kingdom. You come across a damsel-in-distress who has been cornered by a dragon! You charge boldly forward and free the damsel from the dragon’s clutches. Now you are faced with a dilemma: Do you go to face and slay the dragon, or do you take your damsel and flee for safety? What are the ramifications? Well, as a brave knight we want the choice to matter, yes? If you flee for your safety, perhaps the dragon flies off and burns down the nearby town! If you stay and fight, perhaps your victory will earn you treasure! Imagine, though, if neither of these is the case. If you fight and kill the dragon you receive nothing, and no one notices. If you flee and leave the dragon he simply sits in his cave, twiddles his thumbs, and you never hear from him again. What fun is that? The choice has no significance.
No One Likes An Inconsequential Dragon
So, to have a “meaningful” choice, we want two elements:
1.) Choices that actually take consideration or give us an opportunity to define our character.
2.) A choice that has a meaningful impact on the world, game, or story.
If you take these elements away, you are left with no more guidance than whim and no more reward than you imagine in your own mind. Racing, sports, and shooter games can reward the player with nothing more than satisfaction at skillful execution of objectives. I beat my fastest time, I scored higher than the other team, I killed them more than they killed me. To really satisfy on a higher level, especially in an RPG, the player is engaged and satisfied by the choices they make. If the choices aren’t meaningful, they don’t register as choices at all, just hoops we are made to jump through without an opportunity to express ourselves.
Why yes, I do have examples!
Take a modern-becoming-classic role-playing mechanic for character development: Talents! Also called skills, perks, specializations, etc, this is the place where you can spend points gained while leveling to enhance your abilities and make your Knight unique and shiny from other Knights. Perhaps you are more skilled at using a mace than a sword, perhaps you are very well practiced at blocking. Perhaps you ride the fastest horse.
The traditional incarnation of this system is a tree. It is built on a simple philosophy: investing in developing similar skills will grant you access to more powerful skills of that type. This is meant to give a time/practice-invested concept in a game that doesn’t want to measure sword swings. If you want to be better at swords, you would take points in a simple benefit to swords, representing practice with the weapon, and when you’ve spent enough points you will game access to higher portions of the tree that give more/different/better sword benefits.
Let’s use World of Warcraft as an example. The original model that was advanced into the Wrath of the Lich King expansion was a 5 points per tier, 51 point deep trees, 3 trees per class, and 71 points to spend. The 51st point spent would gain you a special, iconic ability for that tree incentivizing you to invest to the very top/bottom of that tree, which would necessarily be at the expense of putting more points into one of the other two trees. Choosing one talent over another would shape the way your character plays, the abilities you use, and grant you new abilities to use. Great, right? Sounds like meaty choices, and so many!
The critical failings were fairly straight forward. The abilities in a tier needed to be balanced against each other. If one was significantly more powerful, you would choose that instead of the other. If you needed to take more points to reach a higher tier, you would take the most appealing talents, and skip any you didn’t need/want. This is not a choice, this is the appearance of a choice, this is a $20 bill or a $5 bill. If you have to take a $20 and two $5′s, so be it, you’ll take the $20 first, grab the $5′s and ultimately feel like you gained nothing other than walking a path set by the game.
Another problem is that of passive elements that have no impact on how the player plays the game. Getting a passive buff to all sword damage or a passive increase to sword swinging speed is a lukewarm difference. If there are no cooperating elements, it is like the inconsequential dragon, kill him or don’t, no one will care or notice, potentially even the player.
The WoW developers noted this issue and committed themselves to improving. The third expansion of the game, Cataclysm, brought a new shift. While the structure remained the same with 5 points per tier, the trees shrunk to 31 points deep, and many of the passive, obvious choices were pared out and given as default elements or were re-balanced out of requirement. They admitted that this was just an intermediate step in the direction they wanted to go, an easy temporary fix that didn’t segue too abruptly from the previous system. Part of the down-side of the new system is that you only got one point to spend every other level, instead of every level, cutting your opportunities to make choices in half. Now, the intelligent observer noted that the at least half of the previous choices were non-choices anyway, but if you are only looking at the number of opportunities to choose, you feel robbed. As intended, this was a step in a good direction. Many no frills, no significance, and no-duh choices were removed, but a central problem remained: the choices were still not much by way of choices.
Issues remain. To keep talent trees comprehensible to the gamer you can only have so many options on any given tier of talents. To keep the style distinct and balanced, these choices were fairly focused. Generally, the choices were still not really choices. You would take everything you could, and only a select few points out of your 41 opportunities would actually change from player to player. If you get to pick between a new $5 bill and an old $5 bill, you feel like you *can* make either choice, but does anyone really care which you take? Do you, beyond excitement at the opportunity to make a choice that isn’t obvious? Some of these “swing” choices would impact gameplay, many would not.
To Blizzard’s credit, they made a real step forward in their designs for the next expansion, Mists of Pandaria. They removed all the obvious choices and embedded them in an early choice of what flavor of your class you wish to be. Picking your style gives you all the necessary tools and perks. With all that pared away, all that was left was 6 tiers of meaningful choices. Every 15 levels you get to pick one of three options. No option is always obviously superior to the other two, but the choice has an impact on how you play and the value you can bring as a character. This is a solid embodiment of meaningful choice.
The problem here is not in meeting meaningful choice, but in how bare we are stripped. For those who were not aware of these distinctions before, consider the process. In the first form of the game, you had 51 opportunities for choice, one each level from level 10 to 60. The the second form of the game? 10 more choices! Third form? Another 10, bringing the grand total to 71 choices! That’s a whole lot of choice, right? Well, when we apply the above-developed critical eye, we start to question that.
Take surveys from the Armory representing every player in North America playing WoW at the time. Pick any class and you will see a single spec/style for each tree representing 92-95% of the population playing that class and spec. This may represent some degree of sheep-esque following, but it demonstrates how little actual choice there is. The talents left a single, intelligent route to take, and most deviations from that were either a small loss of effectiveness in the most general of measurements (damage per second, say), or at worst a more significant loss in functionality. This is not choice. This is 71 opportunities to take a $20 instead of a $5, don’t screw it up! The step into Cataclysm changed things, but not entirely. Still you will find that 31-41 points of each class and spec will be still consistent for the majority of players. That said, you might find that the last 10 points will vary across players and that there isn’t a set, obvious answer. This is something, it is hardly the ideal, but something.
Now with the Mists of Pandaria design, we are given 6 choices. The choice is never written in stone, it is personal and will change the way you use your abilities and interact with your group in the game. This is the ideal. The intellectual mind finds something not so thrilling here, though. “We’ve come from 71 choices, no matter how little *choice* there was, and are left with 6?! We’ve lost so much!” Well, we know we haven’t lost much; at best, and this is a stretch, we’ve lost 4 choices (from those 10 swing points). Realistically speaking though, those 10 points where never as meaningful in sum as any one of these choices is by itself.
The one problem I see with this new system? The reality has been laid bare. In Wrath of the Lich King we had 71 non-choices. If there were 6 real choices in there, most people wouldn’t notice the difference. They actually put a point in their tree every level. With Mists of Pandaria, there are no more illusions: 6 choices (7 counting your spec) is all you get, and you only do it once in a long interval. Really, it is not the change, but the confrontation of reality. We want more choices. If we’re now being honest that we didn’t have many choices before, we want *more* choices now!
WoW is not the only act out there. Let’s peak at the recent past and the near future in other games, with an eye for the same shared character mechanic.
Rift stirred some measure of popularity, and there was plenty of movement from people who didn’t want something new, they wanted a shiny skin on the thing they’d known for years. That is what they got. The classic problems persisted. The game gives you talent trees 31 points deep, 5 points per tier. For added flare you get to pick 3 trees out of 8 possible for your class. Mathletes say, “Oh, the permutations!” Sadly, reality slims down those permutations for practical consideration. Ultimately, harvested statistics show 2 or 3 builds (combining 3 trees) per class, of which there are only 4 parent classes. And again, like the classical WoW talents, there really isn’t much choice in the trees, there are obligatory spending options from bottom to top. You will choose which talent to start with, sometimes, but that significance will vanish in a couple levels, just like WoW and like every game before it.
Star Wars: The Old Republic, a very exciting new contribution to the field, is sadly *not* an exemplar in this respect. The talent trees again are 41 points spent on 3-sets of trees, 31 points deep. As much as ever, there are no real choices to make, you are simply going through the motions of filling out the tree corresponding to the role you want.
SW: TOR, however, deserves an honorable mention when we’re discussing choice. Where they *do* embody the ideal is in the story-telling and character gameplay. A first in the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) incarnation of the RPG genre, you are able to express your character in the game world in a meaningful way. Instead of simply accepting and declining activities, you speak in the game world and pick between dialogue options. The result is a remarkable sense that who your character is matters; and the reason it feels that way? You choose what to say. Time will likely make it plain that the dialogue options are limited and really it is a black and white choice, but white or black is a meaningful choice, and for the time being, it is a new and ever-present choice that we get to revel in!
Guild Wars 2 offers new promise. While we haven’t seen the character development options, the game designers have been patently clear about their plans for the world. They have an express understanding of the ideal of “meaningful” regardless of how well it comes out in the end. Their goal? Your actions matter to the world. Kill the dragon and save the village, but perhaps that also creates a power vacuum for something else to become a threat. Don’t kill the dragon and the village is burned, and you may get the opportunity to help them rebuild. Practically we understand there is a limit to how far they can take this. The more the world can swing the programming required scales exponentially. It must be able to swing in both directions, or you run out of change. The repetition of swinging back and forth might then cheapen the feeling of consequences. But I think it is still exciting to see developers *trying* reach that ideal.
TL;DR Edition of Meaningful Choice Math
The following attempts to sum up meaningful choices in character gameplay and development. This is a lot easier than trying to sum non-character-centric choices when playing the game. Though SW:TOR will win that tally, hands-down.
Vanilla WoW = 53 choices (race, class, talent points) = 4 meaningful choices (faction, race, class, tree/role)
Meaningful Choice Options: 2 factions, 4 races (per faction), 8 classes (1 exclusive to each faction, limited to 2-5 per race)
Burning Crusade WoW = 63 choices (race, class, talent points) = 4 meaningful choices (faction, race, class, tree/role)
Meaningful Choice Options: 2 factions, 5 races (5 per faction), 9 classes (none exclusive, 2-5 per race)
Wrath of the Lich King WoW = 74 choices (race, class, talent points, role) = 4-5 meaningful choices (faction, race, class, role, tree)
Meaningful Choice Options: 2 factions, 5 races (per faction), 10 classes (none exclusive, 3-6 per race), dual specs allows for multiple roles to be played at any given time* (*late in the expansion)
Cataclysm WoW = 45 choices (race, class, spec, talents, role) = 4-8 meaningful choices (faction, race, class, role, tree, swing talents)
Meaningful Choice Options: 2 factions, 6 races (per faction), 10 classes (none exclusive, 4-8 per race), spec choice locks you to a tree and gives you style-specific moves/perks, final ~10 talent points can go between 4-8 different options, multiple specs allow you to change your role to suit your need
Mists of Pandaria WoW = 11 choices (faction, race, class, spec, talents, role) = 11 meaningful choices (faction, race, class, spec, talents, role)
Meaningful Choice Options: 2 factions, 7 races (per faction), 11 classes (none exclusive, 5-9 per race), spec determines your abilities and perks/style, each talent has an impact on what you can do and how you play, dual specs still allow you to choose your role and change that choice over time
Rift = 73-76 choices (faction, race, class, trees, talent points, role) = 6-8 meaningful choices (faction, race, class, role, build)
Meaningful Choice Options: 2 factions, 4 races (per faction), 4 classes, 8 trees (3 at a time) but will usually be grouped predictably into 3-5 practical combinations, 2-3 with equitable performance, multiple builds allow for any role to be filled that the class is capable of
Star Wars: Old Republic = 46 choices (faction, class, race, advanced class, role, talents) = 6 meaningful choices (faction, class, race, advanced class, role, tree)
Meaningful Choice Options: 2 factions, 4 classes (per faction), 5 races (per class), 2 advance classes (per class), 3 trees per class, each capable of one role