Today I want to bring you a bit of a rant spurred on by some spurious popular wisdom – that more options are always better. I frequently see this used in forum posts or articles, always with no justification or support provided. It’s as if people believe this bit of logic to stand as axiom, and with how rarely the statement is questioned, it’s no surprise. Now I know it’s easy to dismiss this simply because it’s an absolute statement; any claim using the word “always” will be incorrect the great majority of the time. That wouldn’t be a very interesting post though, so instead let’s take a look at a few commonly accepted instances of new options harming an MMO, and try to determine when it is that more options are a detriment. It’s important to point out that while a lot of people dislike these features, I’m not trying to say that their inclusion is always negative. This post is not about how the following features are bad; it’s about how more options are not always better.
Options gone wrong
Flying mounts and instant travel – Perhaps the closest on the list to a universally reviled feature, the question of flying mounts and instant travel is raised with the announcement of every new MMO, near always to be trashed by the great majority of respondents. Flying mounts are criticized for emptying out the world by allowing players to easily skip content, harming world PvP with easy escapes or avoidance, and simply making the game world feel smaller and less immersive by reducing the sense of scale or there being any connectivity between zones. Instant travel, such as the extensive portal network in Dalaran during World of Warcraft‘s Wrath of the Lich King expansion, brings about all of these same negatives to a much stronger degree.
Dungeon finders – World of Warcraft‘s dungeon finder -known as LFD- also frequently finds itself under fire, though less often than flying mounts. WoW‘s LFD has greatly eased the process of running a dungeon, automatically creating groups of players across multiple servers and teleporting them to the dungeon at the click of a button. The feature has drawn flak for drastically reducing the need for socialization (or ability to do so, with the cross-server functionality), harming the game’s community, and further reducing the feeling that you are in a living world with the complete removal of travel requirements.
Instanced PvP (in certain games) – Now instanced PvP is a popular feature, and while it isn’t my cup of tea, it definitely has its place in the MMO market, particularly in games that were designed to support it from the ground up. While preference arguments against this form of PvP don’t hold water, the addition of instanced PvP to a game originally based around open world or RvR PvP has often been detrimental to the game’s PvP environment, as players slip away from the original design, naturally gravitating towards more rewarding or more efficient styles of play. This phenomenon is the very essence of why more options are not always better, and applies equally to the two features listed above.
Separate, but not equal
In every situation above, we are presented with a feature that when added, in no way removed the options that existed before it. They were simply new options, and players were at least superficially free to continue playing as they had before. In practice, of course, this didn’t work at all – but why?
The unfortunate reality of the situation is that options do not exist in a vacuum, and the inclusion of one may very well decrease the attractiveness or viability of the other. When one option is overwhelmingly more effective than the other, they can no longer co-exist effectively. This is because we, the players, will almost always choose short-term advantages over our own long-term enjoyment and the long-term health of the games we play – often because we simply just don’t know any better. Professor Richard Bartle (yes, that Bartle) touched on this in his 2013 paper The Decline of MMOs:
Most players can’t or won’t see beyond the short-term. If a feature has a short-term disadvantage and a long-term advantage, they will not go through the pain to reach the gain. Likewise, if a feature has a short-term advantage and a long-term disadvantage, they will take the gain then leave when the pain comes (then in all likelihood decry competing MMOs that don’t have the very feature that caused them to leave).
I’m not a fan of any of the features I listed above, but I would be a liar if I claimed to have abstained from a single one of them. When presented with two options for accomplishing a goal, the players will choose the path of least resistance almost every time.
This is the crux of the problem with this popular wisdom. More options are not always better, and they can easily be worse when those options are not equally effective. Developers are forced to choose which option is the best for the long-term health of their game, and many times the answer will not be “more options”. Let’s drop this saying from the lexicon of public discourse and go back to seriously considering the collateral damage some features can leave in their wake – and that’s the rant.