Cookie cutters: why I love my MMO’s simple

why-buy-a-cookie-cutter-home-build-a-custom-homeComplexity is one of the most discussed topics in MMO country, and with good reason: in an age filled with simple, mass-pleasing click-games like Candy Crush Saga and Farmville (does anyone still play that?), we “true” gamers desire games that cannot be immediately understood by our grandmas and little brothers. We want titles that take time to ease in to, that have us browse the Internet in search of the perfect “build”, force us to take a crash course in Excel to make that spreadsheet and make us talk with abbreviations like “DPS”. We want to get lost in the numbers, we want to be made dizzy by the possibilities…we long for complexity.

We? Well, to be honest, I don’t.

Let me take you back to 2005, when my chin was already huge but my love for World of Warcraft even more so. Back then, WoW had a talent system like many other titles: you divided points among a couple dozen talents spread over three trees per class. The more points you spent in a tree, the deeper you could go into it and the more powerful your talents got. As a Mage, you might focus on Frost talents to be the annoying git that gets you permanently stuck in Warsong Gulch, or you might be that Paladin who pretended he could do more than healing and went down the Retribution tree (remember, back then, Paladins were nothing but healing machines in banana-colored armor). The fact that you could choose between many different talents gave the illusion that you had freedom in designing your character, creating a hero of your own making.

Did you notice how I used the word illusion in the previous paragraph? That’s no coincidence: the choice was an illusion. Sure, you could create a “unique snowflake” build and be happy with that. However, if your plan was to achieve anything in the game, you would sooner or later come to the conclusion that your build probably sucked. In order to be competitive, you had to take the same “cookie cutter” build everyone was using, adhering to the dreaded “flavor of the week” to offer the performance necessary for endgame success. Sure, you might have a few points left to spend as you wanted to, but does that even matter when most of your build has been created by a theorycrafting mastermind?

Welcome to balancing hell

Welcome to balancing hell

This is the Achilles’ Heel of every MMO offering character development, and it gets worse the more options you give the players. More options means more work to balance things, and in doing so, you will tip the scales in favor of one option. If game designers at Blizzard are barely able to balance eleven classes with each three talent trees against each other, imagine the work the devs of games like The Secret World, offering a myriad of options to develop your character, have to keep their game even somewhat fair to every possible build. Sooner or later, players will find the “one true build” for every situation. Sure, some players will still stick to their personal designs, but anyone who wants to “beat” the game will use the best build available, especially when the math proves it right.

So yeah, how to solve this? Well, prepare the gallows and your finest stones, but I’ll just say that the one thing to prevent cookie cutter builds is to embrace them. Why pretend to have options when they won’t matter in the end? Why not limit the amount of choices your players have, but make them meaningful choices? When World of Warcraft’s talent system was re-worked to offer you one of three talents every fifteen levels, I was shocked to see how well it works in practice. Sure, you’re no longer spreading points to give you the impression you’re fine-tuning your hero, but you’re getting something cool instead. You can add flavor to your character, because he will get all the tools he needs to perform anyway. A game like Guild Wars 2 limits the amount of powers on your quickbar not to annoy you, but to challenge you: which weapon supports my build, and when should I use it? Creativity is born from limitations, so get into labor, gamers!

Really, dear developers, embrace the fact your players will seek the path of least resistance, and give them something else to play it. Be it flavor or a tactical challenge, understand that you can’t balance a game with a thousand variables. You’ll be fine if you stay with about fifty, as long as those fifty are fair and have an actual meaning.

I’m the Chindividual, and I’ll be hearing your opinions while dodging rocks!


  1. I like a balance of actual choice and fake choice. The latter may seem counter-intuitive since I still place some importance on the former, but I think WoW’s leveling suffers from a lack of talent points as they were. I like the 1:1 progression level if it wasn’t progressing me by much.

  2. Well as TURBINE dithers back and forth with LOTRO difficulty issues, it has dumbed down the skills available into WOW’esque trees (so I am told), post HD simplified game to brain-dead button mash (more so than before if believable!). I quite like some imbalance in game in certain situations, encourages diversification, but when that slides to the entire game and makes 1 path the yellow brick road to victory then something has gone wrong!

  3. I kinda dare to disagree on your conclusion for the Secret World, though. The game is out for almost two years now and while there’s plenty of theorycrafting going on, nobody found “the best” build yet. There are several community favourites which are seen as performing better than many other setups, but none of them would clearly be “the best”.

    Now add that a setups performance is very much situational. For example the same combination of passives which allow you to plow through one area will immediately get you killed in another zone where mobs have passives which trigger on the effects you rely upon. Currently TSW still is far from “railroading” you. The upcoming aegis system will be interesting here, depending on how it is done, it might either encourage even more diversification or actually channel people into a limited selection of setups. Time will tell how it turns out, but currently i am still optimistic.

    [Where i agree on the whole “depth vs. complexity” theme going on at several places lately, a high percentage of setups out there have all the depth in the construction of the setup and very little in the actual application. But that’s not what posting is talking about. ]

  4. How much TSW have you played? The game limits you in a similar way to GW2, by limiting the number of abilities you can use during any given battle. And while there are surely ideal builds for each situation, none are ideal for every situation. Which forces the players to adapt. And since every character ultimately has every ability available at some point, there is less need for balancing builds against each other. I’ve seen some pretty inept builds out there. Thankfully, there are guide-post decks provided that point players in the right direction.

    But, you’re right, simplicity does have its virtues.

    1. Thanks Rowan and Sylow for both pointing out a thing I blatantly overlooked, namely the fact that TSW forces you to try several different builds for different situations. I haven’t played TSW in a while, but missing out this important aspect when using it to analyze simplicity vs. complexity shows I should give it another spin. Thanks for the input, both of you!

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