Tobold's Blog
Sunday, September 04, 2011
Is that still a choice?

I was watching a video review of Deux Ex: Human Revolution. It showed the same scene played through twice, once using violence, once using stealth. Great! The player gets choice! Not so great: The non-violent way gave twice the xp of the violent version. And the reviewer showed other scenes where the non-violent choice was not only giving bigger bonuses, but was also considerably easier. So that at some point the player has to ask himself: Is that still a choice?

The question reminded me of the previous discussion here on the light side and dark side points and gear in Star Wars: The Old Republic. But ultimately, by comparison with the real world, it appears that the problem is predictability. In the real world your choices are complicated because you don't know all the consequences. You don't know if you will lead a happier life if you propose marriage to your girlfriend, or just the opposite. In a video game your choices result either in no consequences at all, or in some change in stats and points which are usually immediate and easy to understand. If stunning the guard gives 100 xp and killing him gives 50 xp, the choice you make is easy. It doesn't involve guesswork, a conscience, a moral decision, or wondering whether the police will be after you.

I haven't played it yet, but I assume that in Deus Ex there are save games, so if you make the "wrong" choice, you can reload the game and try again. And you'll either learn yourself, or read somewhere, that the non-violent option is *always* better, so soon you don't make those "wrong" choices any more. But if the option to make the "wrong" choice disappears, then that is not really a choice any more. It is like the "choice" in a MMORPG whether you want to accept the quest to kill 10 foozles, or whether you want to those foozles without a quest and miss out on the quest reward.

While in MMORPGs you don't have the option to save and reload, there are a lot of other players around who will tell you what the "right" choices are. That might be on some website or forum, or it might be people you play with. If your raidleader wants to talk to you about the "interesting" talent choices you made when building your character, you know what is coming. Now on the one hand that might be a social problem of in how far others you play with have the right of demanding you playing an optimized character. But the underlying problem again is predictability: If talent A gives 0.3% more damage output than talent B on every possible encounter, the choice between A and B becomes a false one. If encounters were more random, and talent B would be slightly inferior most of the time but much superior in some special cases, there would be more of a real choice to it.

Time to roll out again one of my favorite quotes on game design, Sid Meier's "a good game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.". Looking at Deus Ex, Star Wars: The Old Republic, or World of Warcraft, I don't think these conditions are fulfilled. And in a way that is a more general trend: By trying to prevent players' frustration from having made bad choices, developers ended up giving them no choice at all, making games more and more an exercise of following a predetermined optimal path. The consequences of every choice are now predictable and one option is clearly better than another, or our choices don't have consequences at all. Is that still a choice? No, it isn't!
It's very odd the Deus Ex is set up that way. There's really no reason they couldn't balance the lethal/non-lethal options to give the same XP. Another case is hacking locked doors. You don't get anything for exploring around and finding the codes to unlock them without hacking, AND the hacking minigame has bonus XP nodes. Again, why the imbalance? As you mention, if they are going to direct you onto a path, are they really giving you a choice?
You have to make a non-lethal takedown in preference to a lethal headshot 167 times before the difference earns you an upgrade point.

Updgrade points which are plentiful well in excess of requirements anyway.

Meanwhile a silenced 10mm shooting from stealth is quicker, easier and still gets you the stealthy XP bonuses. You get a safe path of retreat for the next encounter, which you'll be on your way to in half the time.

I've found it a pretty good choice :)
@Silvanis - because you invest 30-40K XP in being a competent hacker in the first place.

The fairly weak incremental XP incentive rewards in Deus Ex make a lot of sense in the context of the full suite of tradeoffs. Of course, that may not be the best setup, since a novice player will not understand them, and think the incentive to non-violent hacking play is much stronger than it really is.
Errr, Tobold, I thought you understood the logic a long time ago.

Choices, to mean anything, mean you can be right or wrong, depending on the choices you make. Today, we can't have that because everyone is AWESOME!
Look at the trend of MMORPGs balancing through the years for example. EVERYONE must be heroes nowdays. In the old days, people were allowed to completely screw up in how to specialise, how to play, gear up, etc.
Today, it's almost impossible and it's going to be more and more true if you check the new games coming out.

When a game starts giving you an achievement for pressing a key or simply going through the intro or killing 10 rats, you KNOW there's a problem somewhere :)
Not all games are designed in this way.

There is Blizzard's Starctaft II for example, where you have exactly the same system of "interesting decisions" in every multiplayer game.

It is not MMO, but Deus Ex not MMO too.
Exploration does net you small experience point rewards, but I don't know whether they're cumulatively big enough to offset the difference.

The game engine does provide the potential for making choices whose consequences do not appear quickly enough to be explored through save scumming (like in the Witcher series), but they're not used much. For example, the resolution of the first mission's hostage situation only make the full consequences apparent right before the last mission in that storyline. But other similar choices have obvious consequences that appear right after the choice is made, so you don't have to settle for anything less than optimal rewards.
Hopefully Guild Wars 2 will offer meaningful choices with the personal story.. otherwise its as you said..not much of a choice at all
I'm surprised you know enough about Star Wars: the Old Republic to call it out on this issue. I certainly don't know enough to attack or defend it. And are you talking about class specializations or light side/ dark side choices in conversations? I'm merely curious, and curious to know how you formed your opinion.

More generally, great post. Decisions that aren't really decisions unless you are uninformed irk the hell out of me. Almost every MMO I've played has tons of them.

For example, in DDO (my current game of choice) there are a ton of potential feat/ skill/ enhancement options on any given character build that no-one in their right mind would take if they understood the overall trade-offs. The "flexibility" of the character generation system is largely an illusion.
I think you're misunderstanding the Deus Ex "choice" mechanism. The game doesn't play like an A/B choice in a Bioware dialog tree. It's much more open. Here's a big open room with four guards I have to get past. Do I just go in and murder them all with a shotgun? Do I go for a series of stealthy kills? Do I knock them out one by one, risking that another guard will find their unconscious body and revive them? Or do I sneak by and avoid them entirely? The choice is in what tactics the player takes to each room, in what you yourself want to do.

The XPs do feel a bit unbalanced, and in my playthrough I'm doing things in certain ways just to get more XPs. But you don't have to play the game that way: there's plenty of XPs to go around. I think non-lethal and stealth kills are rewarded with extra XP because the game designers assumed you'd have fewer total takedowns if you played it that way. You can exploit that, but it doesn't really matter if you do.
"But if the option to make the "wrong" choice disappears, then that is not really a choice any more. It is like the "choice" in a MMORPG whether you want to accept the quest to kill 10 foozles, or whether you want to those foozles without a quest and miss out on the quest reward."

I do that every day, pretty much. There's a massive incentive in MMOs fot killing quest foozles without the foozle killing quest: personal freedom. It trumps any possible reward an NPC could ever give you.
Nils' had a good post on this a few days ago, too, and I agree with your sentiments as well. While it's a great game, the way that XP is rewarded is odd. I find myself compelled to go the stealth route to max XP, and also to obsessively search out every terminal to hack. Hacking gives so much XP that I will go back and hack security stuff even if I don't need to.

Choise in Deus Ex is a bit of an illusion.
I'm wondering if stealth kills are worth more simply because you will be killing less people to get to the objective.
I think there are tons of meaningful choices in WoW, even in how you spec. Some talents are superior to others, and generally each tree has a "cookie-cutter" spec that is considered optimal, but within that framework are a number of choices to be made based on your raid/arena/bg team comp, playstyle, gear level, etc. The fact that people min/max is unavoidable; when performance matters, optimization will occur no matter how evenly balanced you make the options. I think the existence of websites like Elitist Jerks is proof that the decisions in wow ARE meaningful - if they weren't, people wouldn't spend hours researching and testing different approaches.

I guess I'm a bit confused about what you're looking for. It sounds like you want the choices a game asks you to make to be meaningful, but you want the results of all the choices to be functionally equivalent. I'm not sure that's possible, as meaningful consequences be definition require different outcomes. If it's the min/max "this spec is best" that you don't like, you can't do much about other people choosing to play that way, but you are free to make those choices based on your own criteria, or without their input. The dark/light side points example from SW:TOR seems like a great choice, even if one of the sets ends up being better from the min/max perspective; you can choose something considered sub-optimal if it's rewarding to you in another way (roleplaying e.g.).

I don't see the trend toward fewer choices that you lament in this post. I'm not claiming it doesn't exist, only that I haven't experienced it. Are there other examples you could give, or more specific ones perhaps? I'm curious and interested to discuss this more thoroughly.
You cannot have it both ways.

If there is the possibility of a "bad choice," what player would ever knowingly choose it? A lot of people complained about the talent tree revamp in WoW, for example, but a large majority of the talents were designer traps, "Gotcha!" moments in that a player thought Talent X sounded cool/useful but really was not in practice. If the player does not know that a talent is actually terrible in practice, can it be said they really were informed?

It is the same thing with Deus Ex. I presume that nonlethal takedowns are harder/riskier than just shooting them from stealth, so it makes sense for them to reward more XP. If everything rewarded the same amount of XP no matter what you did (takedown, killing, avoiding them all) then the player would simply do whichever was easier. Is that supposed to be a better outcome?

The underlying issue is one of rewards. Clearly a lot of players have trouble NOT augmenting their behavior for XP that they likely don't need (e.g. you will be fully upgraded by the end anyway). So Deus Ex and these other games don't have a choice problem, they have a reward problem. What they should have done is made enemies all the same XP, but then had an achievement or non-XP reward for takedowns or sneaking past everyone. Then it would be an interesting gameplay choice.
Sounds to me that the problem isn't so much with choice in how you resolve a mission, it's the reward structure and the progression mechanics.
Personally, this kind of problem has become less prevalent for me lately.

I have laid waste to the fun in countless games by creeping through levels maximising my exp/upgrades/whatever. Always the same thing, always thinking I was having fun but finding the game getting boring half way through with all upgrades already purchased.

The thing that changed this wasn't so much my play style but the time I have to play games. I've found that I no longer have the luxury of playing through games at any pace I choose. If I want to complete a game I have to do it straight through without reloading and optimising my exp.

Interestingly, it has made games more fun for me. I haven't played the new Deus Ex yet, but I'm hoping that I will approach levels as they come, taking some stealthily and some less so.

I hope!
It's really easy:
If you go around and find the code, you DON'T NEED XP.
Hacking everything for the purpose of getting XP and investing it in more Hacking serves no purpose if you don't like hacking. And I didn't play DE, but I saw some videos about it and in my opinion hacking is boring as hell.
So if there isn't a point in the game where you totally need hacking, because there is no code anywhere to be found, then getting XP from hacking is totally irrelevant.
RPGs, for me, are always a blend of self-imposed and game-imposed restrictions and rewards. This is especially true in single-player RPGs, with the pressure to min-max naturally somewhat higher in MMOs.

If I play a D&D/Neverwinter Nights style game, where at the final "boss" encounter my character is objectively 10% weaker for being 'lawful-good', that is quite acceptable to me. If it were 20% or so, I might start questioning game design, but I'm definitely willing to give designers of complex, very long games some latitude for imbalance and make up for it with my mad player skillz.

This is why I am not too worried about SW:TOR's system. The roleplaying experience of being a pure light-jedi, or a studiously neutral Boba Fett-esque bounty hunter is likely to make up for the ultimate Dark Side robe being 5-10% better than my best piece of swag. And I doubt the designers will be silly enough to make the advantages any greater than that.

At the moment, I play a destruction warlock in WoW. After a pet bug hotfix and a couple other changes, it's the weakest of the three warlock specs. This is especially true on single target fights where the spec's unique ability to mirror 15% of its damage to a secondary target does not shine. It got to the point where the relevant thread fell off Elitist Jerks' warlock forum main page due to commenter inactivity. Nonetheless, in the RPG sense, my character was conceived to play with fire. I like the style of play, I know the spec's quirks quite well, and I can overcome its inherent current disadvantage to top the charts or contend closely in the normal mode stuff I casually do. I'm willing to live with the slight extra struggle; the most serious of raiders cannot afford to, but I don't think the diversity of player choice needs to be balanced around people who will happily ferret out even the slightest advantage for their own bosskill achievement metagame.
I think that specifically in the case of Deus Ex, the choice is quite interesting. If you decide to play as combat, it is much much easier to actually reach the places where there are hackable computers for the XP bonus. Attempting to reach said computers in a non-violent manner is very difficult, as hacking takes place while the guards still do their usual patrols, and you can be caught very quickly. The XP gain is therefore balanced on the difficulty of the task. You COULD just walk in and start a firefight. This is much faster. Or you could make your experience much longer, possibly three to four times longer by slowly crawling through air vents to past guards, and then eventually sneaking past them once they turn away from your location. The choice is entirely the player's, it's just that stealth players are rewarded for their time investment.
To put it more simply: To be a badass killing machine requires fewer points (from EXP) than being an effective ghost/hacker. So, it rewards you with fewer points.

That is the premise.

In practice, you have OCD types like me metagaming the exp. As often as possible, I took down enemies I did not need or want to. When my moral centre was telling me to brutally murder them, I was still using non-lethal take-downs for exp, then putting a few pistol rounds into their unconscious skulls to finish them off silently. Hacked alarms and computers I did not need to. I could have the code staring me right in the face, and I would tell it to fuck off because it was standing between me and potentially 200-300 exp from a successful hack.

The game's load screens tell you to be careful with where you put your points, because you'll never be able to afford them all. I can tell you... I came VERY close, and that was without realizing until halfway through how to completely optimize every scrap of exp. (I still had a blast, mind you.)

Still, I ran a second playthrough, determined to play the game how I WANTED to play it, and not how the game wanted me to play it.

You want to know how I completely rid myself of the temptation to meta-game and actually enjoy choices as CHOICES?

I cheated.

A trainer does the job. Give yourself all the points and exp you want, and all of a sudden you're no longer contorting yourself into absurd, out-of-character decisions to get it.

This probably has parallels to other 'choices' we're lacking in games.
Another game mechanic in Deus Ex that artificially inflates your duration at the cost of fun is weapon-selling.

If you pick up a weapon and sell that weapon, you can get anywhere from 350-1900 credits for it. So if you knock out ten guys and they were all carrying assault rifles (630cr ea), you stand to make 6300 credits, right? Wrong. You will make maybe 700-800.

If you already have a copy of a weapon in your inventory and pick up another, you get a couple rounds of ammo for it instead. ...A full clip of which sells for roughly 10-20 credits.

So, if you suffer from cripplingly anal-retentive tendencies, you WILL find yourself leaving weapons lying on the ground after any minor skirmish, picking up one of each and heading to the nearest gun-runner to flog them off for optimal cash (usually enduring 30sec load screens on the way), before returning to the scene of your horrible crimes to pick up more lucractive copies of the same items.

This adds literally DAYS to the game(play?) if you let it. For anyone who feels they may fall into this trap? Please don't. You will never use all that money. I'm pretty sure it's impossible to spend it all. I spent frivolously toward the end of the game and still ended the game with a few hundred thousand credits (no cheating).
Actually, I was under the impression that stealthing through the areas (and investing in the appropriate skills to do so) made the game considerably harder, especially when you factor in the boss encounters, where a ghost character will have his @$$ handed to him.
Yeah, Penny Arcade did a very good strip about that particular disconnect: "They're always telling me I can 'make choices', but I guess my choices were wrong? I built a comp-sci major and the game locked me in a room with a robo-bully and his fully automatic arm-cannon."

I think the idea of stealth/non-lethal being easier is due to the fact that A) you can line up your shots carefully without watching your health trickle away from incoming fire, and B) non-lethal take-downs are always much, MUCH quieter than lethal ones.

Even the silenced pistol is a little misleading. It's not a quiet way to stealth through levels... It just means they don't know where YOU are. The enemy's death rattle will still draw their allies in to investigate from the next room, whereas you can punch someone's lights out non-lethally in the SAME room and remain undetected.

I think the thing is that you may think you want to play a certain way, but you will play the way you want to play. The fact that you OCD did everything in the game instead of sticking to a certain gameplay type shows that you did what maximized your enjoyment rather than sticking to some imaginary principle.

I did the same thing on my first playthrough as well, extending my playthrough time probably from 20 hours up to 40 hours just so I could explore everything, hack everything, and kill everything (all in stealth of course). And I enjoyed every single bit of that time. I'm very much a type of player who has a track record of abandoning games midway through, and yet I managed to finish this game playing every night straight.

So do I lament that I spent the extra time to do everything even though I didn't need to do any of it? Not in the slightest.

Actually the bosses aren't crazy hard in the first place, and have environmental things to help you win the fight, so if you know what you're doing, you can win whether you're decked out in assault augs or not.

Fighting the 3rd boss in fun time mode kills any augs you have on you anyways.
Good post. I agree that the experience allocation in Human Revolution doesn't always make sense. I even hacked the security panel in my own apartment because it gave more experience than entering the code.

In fairness to the devs, I think they were trying to present the player with balanced choices and not a predetermined optimal path. They just didn't always balance the rewards very well.

There also isn't any real need to get every single experience point unless you're a completionist. Playing as a stealthy hacker, I finished the game with about 10 unspent praxis points because I felt like I was running out of stealth skills to spend them on.

In any event, it's a great game. You should give it a try if you haven't already.
I actually completely agree with the XP disparity. if you go in guns blazing, you can take cover and continue to slaughter your way through the enemy combatants at a fairly decent pace.

If you decide to go the non-violent route, you have to spend a fair bit of time exploring, trying to find that hidden backdoor that lets you in and out without, at times, ever encountering an enemy.

When you do engage the enemy, you have to be patient, you have to observe their patrol routes and fields of vision, you have to keep cameras and turrets in mind, you have to carefully hide the bodies so no one else sees them and sounds the alarm.

I think the non-violent route takes a lot more time and effort, and as such the XP bonus is completely justified. If anything, I think they should give more XP for taking said route than they currently do.
Maybe there should be a penalty for time taken to complete missions. Then only the more efficient scumming methods (generally less boring, at least, than things like selling one weapon at a time and such) will be advantageous.

[Note: this is a general comment, I haven't played the game in question.]
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