The Value of Playing “Wrong” – Why It Should Exist

Something I’ve thought about a lot – A LOT – with the introduction of Diablo IV at Blizzcon 2019 and all the loving callbacks to Diablo II is the gameplay of Diablo II.

Diablo II, truth be told, was what I would call my first “real” role-playing game. First time messing with stats, first time picking spells and ranking them up, first time crafting a character from the ground up. I’d played console RPGs – Japanese-made ones, mostly – and while they kind of mimicked that sort of play, they rarely got that deep into it. Most of the Final Fantasy games I could play let you equip a single weapon and single other piece per character. Final Fantasy VIII’s Junction System was probably the closest I got to actual RPG-gameplay, using the junctioning of spells to stats to create meaningful improvements in my party.

So Diablo II was tricky to me at first, because every level offered a choice of where to plug in my new stat points. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue where they belonged – I spent a ton of my leveling up as a Necromancer plugging points into everything across the board, and then as I began to ascend difficulty levels, it got much, much harder to win. Something I learned from that (and a thorough reading of a strategy guide later) was that stat distribution was something of a trap – it was indeed possible to roll down the path and put too much into bad stats for your class. You could also recover from that a bit – an overly-strong Sorceress or Necromancer could end up with a fun melee build that would put that to use. There was also value to investing in stats outside of your “main” – Strength was necessary for equipping better armor, and so it was not uncommon to put points into them.

In looking back, Diablo II did often allow you to recover from a “bad” build. What I find interesting is that it let you even have a bad build at all.

“Bad” Builds and Modern Games

My biggest pet peeve in modern gaming is that there are fewer ways than ever in most titles to build your character. It feels like choices are relatively safe, sanitized, and often made to be a simple choice. You have freedom in that, but it also comes with a reduced sense of accomplishment. In WoW, talents went from a point-per-level investment tree to a once every 15-ish level choice between 3 talents that are roughly equivalent. The game no longer lets you have a bad or sub-optimal build – at worst, you might be 5% under on damage from a single talent choice, and even that is a huge margin in the game these days.

When I talk about sense of accomplishment in this context, I think of one of the first Death Knight mains I raided with during Wrath of the Lich King. His character name was Alcibiades, and his trademark was playing with a dual-wield build…as Unholy. In patch 3.2. For those needing the history lesson, this was deemed sub-optimal – it was at the point at which Blizzard started to split the DK talents into more defined directions – Frost was the dual-wield tree, Unholy and Blood both being two-handed weapon wielders. The talents that made dual-wielding possible without a massive DPS loss were deep enough in Frost that taking them and then moving to either other tree often meant your build was trash.

Not Alci’s, though. He routinely was near our top DPS with a “sub-optimal” build.

When I think about how one would even accomplish such a feat in the modern game, my brain starts to melt. It is almost impossible to set yourself apart as a player in such a way – to not just meet a passing standard from a bad build, but to exceed and be near the top. I think of this often as a fairy tale of sorts – and routinely, players in the old systems could make bad choices and succeed.

Modern games (it’s not just WoW in this regard) often strip players of this agency. The game design team would rather you have an easier time performing at par than giving you means to excel in fun and fascinating ways. The fun of bad builds (assuming you do them purposefully) is to test your upper limits as a player – to see how far you can exceed expectations. I think, for all the good the franchise was and could be, Mass Effect was a bellwether in this regard – it brought RPG gameplay into a sort of action-y engine, and did so by slowly trimming “the fat.” By the time BioWare pushed out their sequels to Mass Effect and Dragon Age, both games had even more simplified RPG elements. They were still talked about like RPGs, but the audience wasn’t talking about RPG anything – it was an action game dressed up with loot and stats.

I think a lot of modern games in general have cribbed from RPGs in a way that overly simplifies what RPGs are and can be. Borderlands is a shooter, but it has loot, an equipment screen, and stats that matter – sort of. Call of Duty and Battlefield both have progression systems that unlock features but read an awful lot like RPG levels with none of the added complexity. The end result of all of this is that more games can scratch some portion of the RPG itch – but at the same time, our vision of what makes an RPG good on its own merits is hazy.

When I advocate for a chance to fail, I don’t think games need trap talents, bum stats, etc – but rather, the Diablo II design is actually a really good example of what I think works in this regard. It is possible to make a “mistake” in a sense, to rob yourself of efficiency early in the game. However, investing in Strength might not altogether be that bad – you can then equip heavier armor, and that allows you to “recover” your build and play in a way that works with your choices. Modern games use scaling systems, flexible difficulties, and the like to adjust to how you play so that the game poses a similar degree of challenge to everyone – unless you are a Souls-genre title or something with a hard-coded difficulty switch. What I loved about Diablo II is that the game taught me how to make that choice better through gameplay, and gave me gameplay methods to fix the wrong choices. If I over-invested in a bad stat, I could gear differently, or build differently and begin to focus in on different choices. I could play a tanky-caster, or a glass-cannon Barbarian, and if it drove me nuts to do so, I could farm levels on lower difficulties or in lower Acts in the same difficulty until I reached a point where I could level out my build and proceed forward.

The thing about that process is that it is fun – it gives me a gearing puzzle and an invitation to play more and engage more with the game. In most modern games with RPG elements, hell, even in a lot of modern RPGs, the game simply makes an invisible-to-me difficulty adjustment designed to keep me playing without thinking about the choices I made before. That is the key to me – Diablo II made me think about how I distributed skill points and attribute points, and caused me to debate how I should handle it going forward, where a lot of progression-system games today simply provide a smaller possibility space and don’t expect me to think about it much at all, or provide me with simple tooltips with green up and red down arrows to attempt to distill these choices to binaries.

I wouldn’t advocate for the removal of all of these things – quick comparisons are good for gear, for example, but I want agency and choice to come into these things. If that means I can make a wrong choice, so be it – as long as I have gameplay means to fix that, a wrong choice is only temporarily burdensome.

13 thoughts on “The Value of Playing “Wrong” – Why It Should Exist

  1. I’d like to remove Legion’s restrictions from playing Windwalker and Frost Death Knight as dual-wielders 🙂 In fact, making Frost obligatory dual-wielding is what finally led to deletion of the character.

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  2. Brilliant post. I agree 100%. Where is the entertainment value in having all your decisions taken for you? In many modern MMORPGs all of your decision-making takes place at character creation and at the one or two single points when a new system becomes available. You pick your set of rails at the junction point and then ride down them on autopilot until you hit the buffer of endgame, after which it’s micro-management of percentages forever more.

    I spent two years in EQ main-healing for groups at max level in current content as a Gnome Cleric. Gnomes at the time had the lowest wisdom of any race that could be clerics and were strongly advised against in most guides. I didn’t even choose to be either a gnome OR a cleric – my wife made the character and took him to level 9 by running errands for high levels outside the gates of Freeport (EQ was a real virtual world and quasi-sandbox in those days and there were a million ways to play). She was going to delete him but I intervened to save him and he ended up becoming my “main” for a year and a half or so.

    That kind of serendipitous, unplanned emergent gameplay is what makes MORPGs for me. Too many developers try to design it out. No wonder the audience for the genre has been declining. The version they’ve been promoting is… a bit boring.

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  3. I agree with all your points for single-player games. For MMORPGs though, I have some concerns.

    The first one is that in a MMORPG I think there should be an way to redo your choices. The reason I think that is because I am reminded of Ragnarok Online. In that game you had to spend points into your stats and choose different skills. But it was a very grindy game, with pretty much no quests. So you had to kill mobs and over to level up. So finding out your build was terrible at… say, level 60, really sucked.

    I don’t remember if there were some stat/skill requirements to unlocked more advanced classes too. I think there were. So if you just went blind and spend the stat points willy-nilly and found out you couldn’t unlock your favorite class after so much grinding was demoralizing to say the least.

    The game didn’t have any way to reset your stats or skills at the time I played. Although I heard they implemented it a long time after I stopped playing it.

    On the other hand you could also customize your character with gear and cards that gave certain bonuses. Combining all these together you could make some really specialized builds that could make short work of certain mobs. It was a thing of beauty to see.

    Another example is Fallen Earth. It was post-apocalyptic MMO where you had to spend points in stats and skills. It had no classes but it did have some factions that filled the “class” idea. Those factions would sell you their more specialized gear and I guess give other perks too? I am not sure since I never got too far into that game sadly. Anyway, it had an item that you could use to partially reset your stats and skills. Meaning that after a certain point what you spent in stats and skills couldn’t be reset. I think after a while they introduced an item in the cash shop that allowed a complete reset.

    Something like that could be a good compromise into being allowed to make mistakes and still being able to change things if you aren’t happy with them.

    My other concern is with other players. There will always be someone that will be a jerk to you because your build isn’t “optimal”. On the other hand those kind of people will just be a jerk anyway, for whatever reason, no matter what we do. So maybe that is just an unavoidable problem, no matter the system. :p

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    1. A lot of good points – I generally support a respec system, and I think in a modern game that would be the compromise. A lot of the old systems were very unforgiving in that way so a chance to fix it without an excess of pain or just starting over is good.

      Sadly, the closest I’ve ever played in an MMO is the old talent system from WoW, fixable as it was, and by the time I branched out to other MMOs, they’d taken that system from WoW in a lot of obvious ways!

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  4. This model works with those players who have an understanding of PnP mechanics. Where the player’s skill can offset the players’s stats.

    WoW’s problem was never the floor, it was the ceiling. TBC was designed for min-maxers, making it near impossible for “playing wrong” to be even remotely viable. How many guilds then were stacked with leatherworking Shamans? Blizz then opted for a “bring the player, not the class”, which meant a simplification of content. Rather than add CC to each class, they removed the need for CC altogether. Cataclysm tried to put it (and skilled-based play) back in… and history has shown where that has lead. (Side note, the fact that MC is being cleared in under 30 minutes should be ample evidence that general skill levels today are much, much higher than they were in true Vanilla.)

    There are still a lot of MMORPG players. Just that the population levels are more reflective of the choices present to gamers. A gamer who wants a high-skill game is frankly not going to select an MMORPG – they are going to play a MOBA or FPS that’s online. Neither of those were anywhere close to viable options 10 years ago when WoW was at it’s peak.

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    1. That does bring up a good point, and a wrench in my ideal situation – it would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate that player choice from player skill. In my mind, I wouldn’t picture stat allocation and building as being high-skill exercises – but in reality, the implication of choosing and being able to make a “wrong” choice implies skill in choice and a lack of skill. The only way I could foresee making bad choices work would be the sort of auto-tuning gameplay I mention as a negative, or an overly simplistic stat loadout with a generic damage increase stat that everyone takes, a health stat, and maybe one other?

      I think a part of what I really want to see is a bigger possibility space for player choice – if allowing for “bad” choices is difficult to do without the punishment being too heavy, a system like WoW could then introduce more choices – the current talent setup of retail but with 4 or 5 choices in a tier, perhaps?

      I do think a solvable part of the problem is airtight encounter balancing, though – in WoW, fights often play best with specific ratios of trinity roles, and in FFXIV everybody piles on with DPS and the mark of a good healer is knowing when to leave your party alone to do more damage. I think you could adjust that ever so slightly in a way where people aren’t judged as suboptimal for taking a talent that offers 1.28% less DPS than a different choice in that same tier.

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      1. Let’s explore that for a second, specifically where I think Blizzard has painted themselves into a corner – stats. Or perhaps more acutely, stat growth and the lack of control.

        To your point, encounters in WoW are balanced against a specific player model, which includes a specific level of stats and talents. The public testing this content is not the general masses, but a dedicated group, which applies a significant bias to balancing. In that sense, a large amount of content is over-tuned on delivery, and scaled back as time progresses and heat maps show chokepoints. All of this is reasonable.

        The gap then becomes on how people progress through said content. Either the skill makes progress easier, or the stats make the content trivial. There are dozens of encounters (within a patch cycle) that have mechanics that are simply ignored once you have the necessary stats. That Blizzard’s design choice is to trivialize current content due to stat increases, moves the conversation of “bad choices” to “no choices” very quickly.

        I will point out that Blizzard is entirely conscious of this issue. M+ is built entirely around the concept of eternal power creep. That we’re at +25 (250% more stats) speaks loudly to this. I much prefer FF14’s normalisation/level-sync approach – content is forever relevant, and you only need to worry about a current patch’s content in terms of difficulty.

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      2. The stat growth is certainly a great point – since Wrath of the Lich King, player stats have inflated majorly at each endgame plateau to a point where a level 80 at the start of WotLK in heroic dungeon gear was probably only around 60% as powerful as a same-level player in ICC raid gear. That delta has only grown larger in newer content – my Havoc offspec has 3 times the health I did at the start of my level 120 journey and does roughly 3 times the damage too. Based on how Blizzard describes an item level as a 1% improvement in all stats, I think having so much variation in item level is a factor. Looking at PTR for 8.3, it seems like BfA is going to end with an item level range for endgame content of 195 levels – starting at 280 for a lot of the quest rewards and going up to 475 on Mythic. With that kind of power scaling (195% increase in stats start to finish!) it’s little wonder that the earlier content ends up being ridiculously trivial.

        To be honest, I’m not sure you could fix that in WoW, not without a serious, ground-up renovation of how almost every system works in the game. Even my own desire for flexible customization can’t really be done in WoW without changing the game so hugely that it becomes something different.

        It’s kind of why I want to see Blizzard make a second MMO – certainly not WoW 2, but a Diablo MMO or something from a new franchise altogether, just to see how they’d apply lessons learned. Some of it they can do in WoW – talents changed, leveling has changed and is changing again in 9.0, but it seems like to really get to it, you’d have to start completely fresh.

        I’m kind of just babbling now, but it is interesting to me the design challenges the game’s core model introduces and where the team has really adhered to a base model after all of this time.

        I’m definitely also in favor of the FFXIV model – it brings some annoyances when you queue up on a max level character and end up running Sastasha with sprouts for the 1,000th time, but that flexibility means all tiers of content have value, which is a good thing to ensure!

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  5. “He routinely was near our top DPS with a “sub-optimal” build.”

    The problem here is that he would have been even higher with the optimal build. He might have been the top DPS if he had gone 2H. The math is remorseless. The only time this isn’t true is if you can’t play the optimal build very well, and need to use an easier build. (Which does happen, I used the traditional Holy Paladin build instead of Glimmer because I could not figure out how to play Glimmer correctly.)

    The plain fact is that DPS is a math problem where there is one right answer. It’s unfortunate, but that’s reality. Until we get something like DPS caps (the way tanking and healing can cap), playing sub-optimally is a bad idea.

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    1. I do think that a portion of this is a social contract problem as much as a design one. In my example, since the player in question was the top performer in his class, it worked and there wasn’t social pressure to change. If we had been a top-end guild, that likely would have changed, and he would have, mathematically, performed better with 2H weapons.

      It’s a dilemma that is difficult to solve. As a player, I could theoretically find a new raid group if my current one doesn’t like my playstyle, but there tends to be a tribal knowledge of builds – everyone “knows” that these talents are the right ones and using anything else is “wrong.” The current system even has that, and there are only a few choices!

      A DPS cap might be interesting, but I can’t see that working well for another reason – pushing the highest number is a part of the fun and once enough people hit the ceiling, it would likely be a weird dynamic with a lot of objections.

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  6. Couldn’t agree more!

    I used to successfully play a hybrid build with my SWTOR guardian tank. Other tanks in our guild always tried to talk me out of it, but at some point they couldn’t argue anymore because I evidently was just as tanky as they were and my DPS was even a bit higher (not that tank DPS mattered much overall).

    Then a big patch came (I think it was 2.0) that brought five more skillpoints and a rather drastic reshuffling of the skilltrees with it, and the concept of hybrid builds went pretty much out the window because there was only one “right” way to do it anymore.

    I didn’t quit right away or anything, but in hindsight it’s pretty clear to me that this patch was the beginning of my falling out of love with the game, mostly due to stuff like this.

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