Ironically, the term “meaningful” has a long history of not meaning much of anything with MMOs.
Back in 2015 I did a Perfect Ten about terms that we can really get rid of for good reason, and meaningful was on the list. It was on there for a good reason, too; “meaningful” is so easily, well, stripped of all meaning by applying it anywhere. Saying that a game has meaningful combat doesn’t inherently mean anything because the dictionary definition of the word can be applied to almost anything without technically being incorrect.
That doesn’t mean that the concept of meaningful interactions isn’t useful, though. It just means that we have to talk about the term, what it’s supposed to mean, and why we still want it to have a purpose even if it doesn’t. So let’s start with the very beginning. What’s the point of something being meaningful in an MMO?
As an adjective, “meaningful” is usually applied to something else within a game. No marketing department not under the influence of psychotropic drugs would claim that this MMO is just stuffed full of meaning, but the marketing department would argue that a game has meaningful choices or meaningful combat or meaningful character options or whatever.
So let’s start breaking down what it means by starting with a specific term. Let’s say that we’re talking about a game – TERA, to pull one out of a hat. Let’s say that you want the game to have meaningful character options. What does that actually mean? I think you can break it down into three distinct but connected concepts: impact, knowledge, and finality.
- Impact: The choices that you’re making have a definite and discernible effect upon your overall play experience. You can tell what was changed as a result of choosing to enhance one ability over another, and you can see how that change actually makes a difference.
- Knowledge: You’re able to make these choices from a position of understanding what’s supposed to happen. Each given character option is presented in such a way that you can actually make a choice to focus on one aspect or another, and you have an actual reason to do so.
- Finality: These choices are ones you cannot make lightly, nor are they ones that only affect you for a short period of time. Whatever choice you make either cannot be reversed or requires a notable effort to reverse; you are committed to whatever decision you make about your character.
Here’s the thing to consider from a design standpoint: All of these things make a game harder to design, especially the aspect of finality. If you choose to play one of two advanced classes but one of them is terrible, for example, you can’t reverse that decision. Thus, the options make your job more complicated.
But what makes the job easier is giving the illusion of meaningful options. If your options are between giving one of two abilities a 10% damage buff, for example, that sure looks like it’s meaningful. You know it has an impact (specifically, a 10% impact), you understand how much of an impact it’ll have, and making it irreversible makes it final. There! Meaningful choice, right?
Remember when we talked about interesting abilities a while back? A 10% bonus isn’t interesting. Depending on how balanced you make the numbers for a given set of abilities, it may not actually have any impact. (If you have one thing that hits for 100 damage with a 5s cooldown and another that hits for 200 with a 10s cooldown… yeah, it doesn’t matter which one gets that 10% bonus at all.) You have knowledge and finality, but not actual impact.
There are other ways to create “fake” meaning, of course. If you have a real impact to your choice and knowledge about what you’re choosing, but you can reverse the whole thing for trivial amounts of in-game currency? Not meaningful. And if you have an impactful choice you can’t reverse based on no real knowledge of what the choice entails? Well, then you’re playing an unenjoyable game of shadowboxing, but you get the idea.
Here’s the thing, though: In order to have meaningful choices, you have to accept that you’re also going to have some bad choices. This is where things can start getting rocky.
Let’s switch gears a little bit and look at what a game means if by this definition it has meaningful action combat. That means that you need to be paying attention and watching what your enemy does reliably, that your choice of how to use the combat system makes a big difference in success or failure, and wrong moves can, in fact, kill you. It’s the sort of combat you see in, say, Devil May Cry.
But where does that leave people with lower pings? Or people who just aren’t all that good with active combat? Do you want to limit your audience to that degree?
Trying to go halfway results in things like, well, The Elder Scrolls Online, wherein you have different options meant to stop very specific sorts of abilities, and you can’t dodge something you’re supposed to interrupt. And if you fail… you take a little more damage. It’s not actually terrible combat at this point, thanks to patches and various system improvements, but it isn’t what you could really call meaningful.
I don’t even mean to imply that in this particular case this was the wrong choice for the game that ZeniMax wanted to make; just that the “action” side of things is not particularly meaningful. You’re spared the worst possibilities, yes, but you also don’t get something with a meaningful impact. And that’s fine because you have other meaningful choices, like character skills and the like.
Now let’s consider World of Warcraft, a game that has been roundly criticized in recent years for not offering meaningful character options. What leads to that? Why is it that the current system for talents doesn’t feel like meaningful choices?
- Impact: Any given talent choice is between three options, and some of these do have a real impact on how you play your spec… but more often than not they’re passive improvements to things you do anyway, rather than options that give you new powers or radically alter your overall experience.
- Knowledge: Most of the math involved in figuring out which talent is the “best” choice is complicated, but reasonably absolute. It’s not a case where there are fringe cases that may or may not be better; you generally have one obviously better choice, and that’s what you should go with. But the complexity means it’s hard to tell what the best choice is at a glance; you have to rely on outside sources.
- Finality: Here’s where it really falls down, because these choices aren’t final. They’re the definition of temporary. Hop into a rest area and you can change them; a bad choice usually requires a quick jaunt to somewhere else in order to change it at absolutely no cost. Even changing your spec altogether is usually low-impact.
And yes, the designers have emphasized making “meaningful” choices here in the past. But a choice is not, in and of itself, a meaningful one. It’s just a choice.
So what does all of this mean? Ultimately, it means having a more robust criteria for evaluating these things. Instead of just nodding along when a game claims that it will have meaningful choices, ask question. And consider what it means to make some of these choices meaningful; sometimes, that can be a risky venture as well.