There is a pretty famous essay written by Greg Costikyan called "I Have No Words & I Must Design." You can find it here: www.costik.com/nowords.html. It is a great essay on the elements of a game and something that any game designer (or in my case, armchair game designer) should read. In any case, I am not going to go over the article point-for-point, but I point it out to highlight the importance of meaningful choices in games.
Personally, I feel that having meaningful choices is the single most important aspect a game can possibly have. I play games to interact with the system and environment. To interact, I mean that I make choices and that those choices directly affect the outcome of the scenario. When I park my infantry squad on a wooded hill, I expect that they have some advantage -- cover from enemy fire and a better line of sight perhaps. In a roleplaying game, I expect that my choice of a battle axe over a dagger means that I will do more damage, but attack more slowly... whatever, I just want my choice to make a meaningful change in the way the game progresses.
It always bothers me when I see what I call "non-choices" in a game. Take Talisman, for instance. Most of your time in Talisman is spent rolling a die to move and then choosing to move to... say the hills, where you draw a card, or the forest, where you... draw the same card. Not much of a choice really. And there are quite a few of those situations in Talisman. For instance, when you do have a choice, it is often something like, "Do I face the dragon who has a 5/6 chance of killing me, or do I head to Chapel and get healing?"
Now obviously there are choices in Talisman. I just feel that over the course of a game, there aren't that many interesting ones and they are far outweighed by the tedium of the non-choices that exist turn after turn. So, as I attempt to steer this to the realm of MMOs, let's see what constitutes a meaningful choice.
Makes a Noticable Impact on the Outcome -- Heads or Tails!!! Well it hardly matters, does it? My choices have to matter and I have to see that they matter. The silly Talisman example aside, board games are generally pretty good about this. Since they have to be adjudicated by humans, they abstract out choices that have no impact, or only a tiny impact on the game.
Computer games unfortunately, can let the machine handle the math and so you see CoH IO enhancement sets that give a 1.23% reduction in fear duration... huh? So if a fear effect would have lasted 30 seconds, now it only lasts a mere... 29.63 seconds... Beware Evildoers!!! I am sure we have all seen games that sport pieces of gear that increase stat X by miniscule percentage Y. When you actually calculate the magnatude of such a change, it often does not matter.
Has a Known (or at least knowable) Effect -- If I don't know what the effects of a given choice are, then it is just as bad as having no choice at all, because as a player all I can work with is blind luck or worse, a bad assumption as to how the game mechanics ought to be. This is why I am never a fan of obsfuscating game mechanics in an MMO.
At its release, CoH had largely opaque game mechanics. You had no idea the actual effect of a power, only that it did "minor" damage, or held foes for "a long time". I understand the urge a game developer might have to hide their game mechanics. They don't want to muddy immersion with game numbers and they want to slow down powergamers a little. It doesn't work. All it does is take away the average gamer's ability to make a reasoned choice about what powers to take and how to enhance them.
Obvious Choices Aren't Meaningful -- When I played Shadowbane, I played an Inquisitor. Essentially, an inquisitor is a priestly nuker with the ability to cast fire on his enemies, tap his own health for mana, heal and had a few interesting powers relating to the undead. Except Shadowbane is a PvP game first and foremost -- moreso than any other game I have played. There is no point to PvE except to farm and level so that you can kill another player. Problem is, all the undead are found in the largely meaningless PvE game. There were a couple of classes that had these sorts of powers... and no one ever took them because they were pointless in the context of the game.
I think you see a lot of "obvious choices" in character build systems and this leads to systems that seem to have lots of choices, but really boil down to a handful of FoTM templates. EQ2 just revamped some of their AA trees because many of the branches were so obviously underpowered that no one bothered.
Choices Imply Limits -- Having a choice implies that you are taking one thing, but giving up another. When you choose an advantage, or a power, there should be some tradeoff -- even if that means giving up another power. Most games have this to a degree... though often the biggest tradeoff you ever make in most MMOs is when you choose your class.
I always thought it might be an interesting twist on the traditional EQ/WoW/EQ2 model if instead of getting powers as you leveled up, you got a choice of two powers each level... but you would have to give up on the other power. So, instead of getting Ice Blast at level 5, you got a choice of Ice Blast or Freeze Ray. You could choose another attack and kill your enemies faster, or you could choose to hold your enemies and be better a kiting and crowd control at the expense of doing more damage.
Choices That Aren't Meaningful Should Be Abstracted -- Not to pick on CoH too much, but I always thought the original enhancement system was an example of a non-system... a system that should have been abstracted because it added nothing to the game. I remember in the early days of CoH, whenever someone would get an enhancement drop, people in the team would sit there and try to trade them. "Anyone need a level 32 tech accuracy?", "No, but I have a 33 natural damage. You want that?" At some point, everyone realized that selling the enhancements to a vendor and then buying the ones they needed was the sensible way to go. The whole faux economy of dropping, trading, selling, buying of enhancements was a gigantic waste of time.
The designers of CoH could have easily abstracted the entire enhancement system with some kind of point allocation system. When you level up, you can allocate a certain amount of power points to enhance various aspects of your powers. Doing this would have been quicker and would have highlighted the important part of the enhanement system which was choosing what powers to enhance and how to enhance them.
Anyways, I have to get back to work. I will talk to you all again later when I post on the concept of including non-combat skills our mostly combat-oriented MMOs.