The Tyranny of Choice

So, Dawngate, one of the newer pretenders to the League of Legends throne, has finally rolled out its version of Runes and Masteries. I’m going to move right past the fact that other games in the genre have proven that this feature is just another time and money sink (and even a trap) and get right down to the problem it presents for those who are just playing the game.

The strangest thing about these meta-game stat systems is that they seem to be designed for a game that was released 20 years ago, in a vacuum, and without the internet. Except that Dawngate, like every other game in the genre, is only played online. So the developers have to know that anyone who is able to play their game is also able to do something as simple as type “Dawngate loadout guide” into a search engine. Right now that wouldn’t get them much outside of some basic tutorials, but that feature has only been in a game for a couple of weeks.

And that’s the best time for this type of system. A week or two in and everyone is still discovering the system and its components. The features are fresh and new and interesting. But what about 6 or a year from now, when many players have had access to most of the available combinations for long enough to have done the min/maxing legwork? It’s about that time that these customization options start to look like one of the Kardashians without the benefit of makeup or Photoshop.

I have already made my case about the current fixation with guide-based gaming, and I think this type of system is one of the reasons it’s such a problem.

I’m willing to give these games the benefit of the doubt and go with the idea that there isn’t one or two optimum setups for a given hero or role, that with enough ingenuity and forward thinking it’s possible for any player to actually customize their selected character or role in a way that will make them both unique and viable at all play levels. Even then, in that scenario that is, frankly, a fantasy, these systems fall apart under their own weight.

Too many choices can be just as much of a problem as no choices at all. This isn’t even unique to games and stats, The Economist has written about how modern consumers are often overwhelmed by available choices, and how that has a become a problem for all involved. As far as I’m concerned, the same basic ideas apply to anyone playing one of these League of Legends clones–and since they have to pay for customization with time or money they’re not much different from someone trying to buy a traditional product.

In this ideal world where anyone could succeed with any number of combinations of gems or sparks or runes or whatever they’re being called, how many are actually willing and able to follow through? Even if they had it in their minds to experiment, how many would be willing to spend their hard earned in-game currency on a setup that may end up being a complete waste? A simple and very generalized Rune page in League of Legends starts at the low, low price of 5 digits worth of IP, which is more than enough to purchase multiple champions, and is likely to be all (or more) of the IP a player has earned at the point where they can fill it out. How much of that would they be willing to gamble? I’d be surprised if Dawngate didn’t end up with the same general numbers.

If only to save time and headaches most players will opt to follow a guide even if those guides weren’t already considered to be the optimal min/maxing available. They would do that for the same reason people don’t comparison shop in 5 different grocery stores when they just want a box of crackers. It’s easier to pick a brand in the shop they’re already in than to spend all of that extra time trying to grind out potential advantages. There is only so much time in a day, and only so much attention a player can realistically dedicate to learning these systems. If 9 out of 10 pro players use a setup for their role or character, why risk trying to break the mould?

Which leads into the next problem with these systems. Say a player finally has their ideal min/maxed setup for their character and role of choice, what happens when they want to try something new? Can they properly support without a proper support setup? Can they be relied on to play a carry role without the Rune page to back it up? Would they want to try?

Of course, many of the benefits given by these expensive and time consuming customization systems are measured in fractions of a percent. How much of an impact do they really have? In an era of pro gaming any amount of min/maxing will be disseminated rapidly, and anyone who cares to know what the “best” setups are will. Then there are the dual problems of how much they matter: If the overall impact of a complicated meta-game system, one that requires dozens of hours of grinding for a player to achieve, is actually negligible while playing the game, then what’s the point of the system if not to suck extra time and money out of the players. On the other hand, if having the most optimal meta-game setup does have a noticeable impact to player’s performance, then giving them so many extra ways to do it wrong–which would be a waste of their time and money on top of hurting their impact in-game–is just as questionable.

It’s even more suspect if, like in League of Legends, the developers also tell the players what setups they should be using. We’re approaching the point of these guys becoming used car salesmen, trying to sell a new character, but also making very sure the customer won’t be able to play it properly if they don’t but all these extras as well.

In the end, as long as players can min/max, they certainly will min/max. It’s more than likely that within 9 months any deviation from standard, established setups will just be an invitation for flames.

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