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The Lunch Break Blog

For those of us who would rather be leveling right now.

Author: cmagoun

The Tyranny of Choice (or The Darkside of Open)

Posted by cmagoun Friday May 13 2011 at 7:53AM
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One way to classify character development systems in rpgs is how open or closed they are. An open character development system allows the player to choose his character's abilities and skills. A closed system determines a character's abilities based on some pre-determined role -- usually the class picked at character creation.

Now, I don't know of too many systems that fall on the extremes of the open/closed scale. Most open systems have some restrictions on your power choices and most closed systems allow some degree of choice. Games tend to fall somewhere along a continuum. For instance, I would consider Champions Online (gold) and Darkfall to have two of the most open character development systems ever seen in MMOs. By comparison, City of Heroes (where about 80% or more of your powers are determined at character creation, just not the order or how developed those powers will end up) is mostly a closed system. Modern WoW falls heavily on the closed end of the scale, with players having little choice in how they develop as they level up. Though it casts characters in a specific calling at character creation, Rift allows such variation within those callings, that I would have to consider it an amazingly open system.

In theory, when it comes to character development, I am a big fan of open systems that allow lots of choices. I like to pour over long lists of powers, looking for just the right blend of synergies that will make my character powerful. I also like playing concept builds -- self-buffing melee mages, drain tanks, characters whose sole purpose is to produce hideous amounts of knockback -- the more variety, choices and permutations, the better.

So, it would stand to reason that I would enjoy Champions' character development more than City of Heroes'. Champions offers a huge number of power combinations and permutations. CoH offers a ton of different types of characters to play, but once you pick, you pretty much know your build.

And I do sorta like CO's character development. I have about 8 characters in Champs and play a couple of them on a semi-regular basis. But, after a hard look at all of my characters, I realized a sad fact: all of my Champions Online characters were built the same.

Not exactly the same, mind you. Just mostly the same. Every character has an area attack to deal with henchmen. Every character has a hard-hitting single target attack. Nearly all of the characters have the force shield with the Energy Sheath (for energy regen). Most characters have a defensive passive. Self-heals: Check! Emergency click power: Check! Damage enhancer: Check! The specific powers may be different, but in general, the builds are alike. They have similar types of powers and more importantly, they play alike.

(I had a similar experience in Darkfall -- in a game where you can have any skill you want, why was everyone leveling two-handed swords, swimming and fire magic?)

In contrast, my dozen or so CoH characters are all wildly different from one another. I suppose I expect that from CoH since essentially, that game has something close to 300+ classes from which to choose. But take a game with much less variation... Nowadays, WoW has perhaps one of the least interesting character building systems on the market, but of course, my WoW ranger and warlock are nothing alike.

So, my question is, why with all of these wonderful choices, do I end up with the same result over and over? Is this inherent to all open systems, or is this just a flaw in the current designs out there? Should game developers even waste their time with open character systems, when more restrictive systems seem to offer a better game experience?

Personally, I still like the idea of open systems, but I do admit that I have had more fun in games with more restrictive systems. Still, I am not yet willing to throw in the towel. Next post, I am going to try to answer some of the questions posed above.

MMORPG.com writes:
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