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WoWJan 12, 2022 10:00 am CT

Game choice can get overwhelming — even if it’s just a cosmetic choice

I love having more options when playing a game, and yet, I often find the options a bit too much.

When World of Warcraft introduced extra options in character creation with the arrival of Shadowlands, I was very excited, and I still think it was one of the better choices of the entire expansion. But I also spent hours constantly redesigning my characters. Over the course of three months, I doubt a day went by that I didn’t stop by the barber shop to add or remove scars, change my hairstyle, my gender, pretty much anything that could be adjusted.

And it’s not just WoW. I started playing Mass Effect Legendary Edition recently. I’d probably already be done playing the original Mass Effect by now if I didn’t keep stopping, deleting my level 12 character and starting an entirely new playthrough because I got the chin wrong, or the jawline, or the eyes look a bit too wide or a little too surprised. I have done this four times since Christmas. I literally just did it again not five minutes before deciding to write a post about it.

There are a lot of choices to be made before you even start playing

The fact is, for some people, too much choice is almost as bad as not enough. Added choice also adds complexity — an MMO with eight races to choose from makes it easier to get started than one that has potentially 24 of them. This is also the case when adding new classes, new transmog options — something WoW has done with every single expansion since the system was first introduced — or new battlegrounds. Anything new added to the game adds choices, and while choice isn’t inherently bad, it must be something we’re aware of.

This growth of complexity is one that happens to every game that gets DLC or expansions, of course, but MMOs like WoW are uniquely subject to it by their very nature as persistent worlds one can come back to again and again. Games like EverQuest have been around since the late 90’s, with expansions coming at a frenetic pace — there has been so much EverQuest that is frankly difficult to know all the content the game has had over the years. WoW, despite its comparatively slower expansion release schedule, has released some very large patches over the years, added and subtracted features, even crushed the game from 110 to 60 levels in an attempt to keep the game from feeling overwhelming.

I mentioned before, there are a whopping 24 potential playable races, each with their own visual customization options. And then there are 12 classes to choose from, the majority of which have 3 specs to choose from for a total of 36 total subclasses. (Yes, Druids have 4, but Demon Hunters only have 2, so it evens out.) This is a lot of choice, and that’s not even talking about the various talents you’ll have to choose from, or the choices like Covenants, Soulbinds, what legendaries to use — end game WoW can be a dizzying blizzard of options, and it’s not surprising that players often just go to their favorite site of choice and pick whatever they’re told is the best talent specialization for them.

Is there good complexity and bad complexity?

Clearly there is a difference between, say, a talent or class choice and a racial or cosmetic choice, in WoW and in many other games. The more in-game power a choice presents, the more judicious we should likely be about introducing more of them, especially at the point we are at now with 12 classes and 36 specs, but racial options that add small power boosts must also be considered, complicating the issue.

As we head into Shadowlands’ final patch, one thing I’m hoping for the next expansion is that there will be no borrowed power, no special added complexity for the next expansion. Perhaps a simple 5 or 10 level jump, perhaps no level jump at all — but frankly it’s time for WoW to slow down a touch on options and choices. I’m aware that every expansion needs new and shiny things to get players excited, so I doubt we’ll really get a cooling off expansion. I don’t really even expect one. Whatever the new hotness turns out to be, however, I hope we can keep the idea of choice paralysis in mind. Sometimes, less is more — a few really meaningful choices are a lot better than an avalanche of them when it comes to certain aspects of the game.

But not character appearance or transmog. More, more, more, forever, please. Drown me in choices there. Just hook me up to the cosmetic firehose and blast me in the face with it. Choices that don’t affect gameplay are the best choices to be paralyzed by, because they’re utterly subjective — they never have to be nerfed, because you’ll never kill a boss faster because of them. So perhaps that’s what the next expansion should focus on as its sizzle hype feature — something cosmetic, something that doesn’t matter in a numbers sense.

I’d say I promise I’ll keep the choice paralysis at a minimum if the options are purely aesthetic, but I’m pretty sure we all know that would be a lie.

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