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I love when articles and videos here happen to line up. Last week Extra Credits talked about choice and conflict in games. They cited World of Warcraft as an example of a game with a series of complex but fundamentally one-dimensional choices (my words, not theirs, go see the whole thing if you want the details) in allocating your talent points. I ran into just this sort of frustration this week, so I thought I'd break it down and talk about World of Spreadsheetcraft in more detail.
Before I get going, let me make it clear that WoW is not the only offender in this regard. It's not even the worst. It's just the most popular and so the easiest to talk about.
Way back in my very first column I talked about "giving the player authorship over the world," which is a bit of a highbrow way of saying "choice." Choices are good. Choices are interesting. Choices give games depth and replay value. Without choice, games are nothing more than a contrived linear series of reflex tests. World of Warcraft has lots of choices, but one place it falls flat is where it should shine the most: Selecting gear. Before they made WoW, Blizzard made the Diablo games, which are probably the zenith of equipment hoarding gameplay. In Diablo, you could agonize a great deal over what item you were going to use and weighing the various tradeoffs. In World of Warcraft, these choices are obfuscated under layers of extraneous complexity and hidden formulae.
In its simplest form, there is really only one tradeoff: Efficiency versus survivability. (Healing and PvP get more complex than this, but let's stick to the vanilla PvE gameplay right now, which is where a majority of the player base spends their time.) You can equip an item that will increase your damage and let you kill dudes faster, but that means possibly sacrificing some sort of armor that might save your life. Do you like to live fast and risky, or do you prefer slow and steady? This is a simple, straightforward choice that can have far-reaching consequences for the equipment-minded player. Unfortunately, you rarely get to make this choice. Instead of weighing these tradeoffs, you end up trying to figure out if you're making any choice at all, or if it makes any difference, and if so, how much.
Characters have over two dozen attributes. Some are derived from others in chains. Get more strength, you end up with more attack power, which leads to higher base damage, which increases your all-important DPS. Other stats are synonyms, like speed and haste. Other stats seem to overlap, like armor, parry, dodge, block, and resilience. There are tooltips for these which indicate the thinking behind them, but you're always a layer or two away from those core ideas of efficiency versus survivability. It's never clear just how much more damage you'll do or how much more safe you'll be. This is even before you have to account for mysterious variables like diminishing returns, hard numeric caps, soft numeric caps, and how your stats interact with those of the monsters you're fighting. Does dodge rating apply to incoming spells? Does Parry interact with ranged attacks? What's the difference between block and armor, since both seem to reduce incoming damage? There's nothing in game to answer any of these questions, and so a majority of the players fumble around in the dark.