World of Warcraft

Meaningful Choice vs. Punitive Choice: Understanding Covenants

wow8 - Meaningful Choice vs. Punitive Choice: Understanding Covenants

I'm not a 1%er. I don't only mythic raid, I don't only M+, I don't only PvP. I do Mythic raid, but I've never gotten a CE in my entire life and haven't been anywhere near "high end" progression (server first, etc.) since Wrath of the Lich King, and even that was on a pretty garbage server (I've heard some of their server first Mythic kills didn't happen until the following expansions from a friend still there, not sure if it's true). I've only ever been a casual PvPer in WoW (barring BC), and I pretty rarely bother with keys over my weekly reward maximum (especially in BfA, since I haven't enjoyed the dungeon design very much in BfA).

I am, however, a game designer. One of the things that's really bothered me is Ion (and others at Blizzard) falling back on this idea of "meaningful choice" as an anchoring for covenant locking. I bring this point up because I don't think it's accurate to call covenants a "meaningful choice" — they're something I like to call a punitive choice. I'd like to explain the difference, and if everyone thinks I'm smoking crack cocaine on this, please tell me — I'd love to have a conversation about it.

I'm going to be admittedly lazy and use the easiest example in the entirety of covenants for this — Protection Paladin (though it's actually true for all 3 paladin specs). Specifically, Kyrian Paladins. Both their class ability and signature ability (covenant ability) have value in incredibly limited content spaces. They absolutely excel in those spaces, don't get me wrong — I am not, in anyway, trying to say that Blizzard has failed to deliver in those spaces.

Ion would argue that this is a meaningful choice — I am making the choice to excel in those content spaces at the expense of being deficient in others. I would argue that this is an excellent example of a punitive choice.

The way content balancing works in WoW (and truthfully in most games) is that exceptionalism in one scenario cannot lead to overwhelming success, otherwise those without that exceptionalism would be barred from the content. Divine Toll cannot be mandatory for M+ on a protection paladin because if it is, not only would every other Protection Paladin that isn't Kyrian be barred from it, but other tanks without equivalency would also be barred from it.

What this means is the satisfaction of pushing Divine Toll in its best use cases can only provide limited reward; however, in its worse uses, it's a near-dead button, only worth pushing if you have next to no other options available to you.

I consider this a punitive choice. I'm driven from picking Kyrian because it's limited in its benefit in its best use cases, but provides NO benefit in its worse use cases. It's the illusion of a choice, but thought through, leads to dissatisfaction. I am never going to be in a situation on a single-target boss and think "Man, I sure wish I was a Kyrian Protection Paladin right now."

To me, a meaningful choice — and where it differs from a punitive choice — is that a meaningful choice is additive. "If I could only just…" is the phrase I associate with a meaningful choice. A meaningful choice is driven out of desire, not frustration. I want to be a different covenant when fighting a single target boss as a Kyrian protection paladin not wholly because I want the benefits of a different covenant, but rather because my covenant choice offers me NO benefit.

A punitive choice, conversely, is a choice made out of fear of punishment or deficiency. I might really enjoy everything about the Kyrians, but the fact Divine Toll offers me no value in a fairly common situation, I avoid it. I default to something like Night Fae which will always have value.

Another quick example, if you'll bare with me: imagine a talent row in your head, let's make it your tier 7 (level 100/level 50) talent row. Imagine that your talents are structured as the following: Single-Target Talent, Uncapped AOE Talent, 3 Target Cleave Talent (which is better than the AOE talent for single target, but worse than the single target talent). Imagine you've picked the single-target talent because you were questing, doing dailies, and then popping into LFR to drop a wing comprised of single-target bosses.

Your friends want to do a M+. You go to change your talent to your AOE talent, but alas, you can't — you decided to get the Transmog of Awesome and that actually locks your tier 7 talent row, so now you have to bring your single-target talent to a fortified M+ dungeon on raging.


Are you useless in that dungeon? No, of course not. You literally can't make decisions in WoW in terms of character customization that make your character useless anymore. But are you feeling good about your choice to commit to a single target talent, or do you feel punished for making that choice? Would you feel more frustrated that you can't pick the talent — which you can see plainly, right there, it's just behind a "locked" icon — that would better benefit your group, or would you feel proud of your decision to be a specialist in single-target encounters?

Psychology would suggest you're more likely to feel frustrated at the arbitrary prohibition — there's loads of non-game related examples of that, and we're free to have a separate conversation about the psychology of it — I do not think this is the place for that conversation.

The result is MOST players across MOST playspaces would take the cleave talent as it's the compromise. You trade off feeling exceptional in one space for the feeling of being competent in all spaces. The average player — yes, the AVERAGE player, not the 1%er — does not enjoy dead talents. The average player would prefer to take a talent that works in all gameplay at an average level than take the best talent in every situation. This is a result of punitive selection vs. meaningful selection.

Yes, you can give an event meaning by adding punitive aspects to it — my 3rd grade parent-teacher conference was meaningful because it was resulted in me being grounded for a week (and my parents actually following through on it) for the first time. That was a punitive event.

Just like there will inevitably some Kyrian Protection Paladin out there staring at Lonely Death Dragon and frowning at Divine Toll.

To be clear, this was not necessarily intended as an "open up the covenants" post. I just wanted to clear the air about this idea of covenants being a "meaningful choice." They are a punitive choice (imho), and it's totally okay if you like the idea of punitive choices — there are people that do. Some people value their "uniqueness" higher than anything else. There's nothing wrong with that, there's no judgement against being that way. I just fundamentally disagree with the idea that covenant choices are "meaningful." They are gated, they are punitive, they are not meaningful. Your choice in covenant does not convey with it massive power gains (they fundamentally can't, otherwise you can pick incorrectly and not be able to play the game); it does not convey any substantive narrative difference (you still quest for all 4 covenants at the endgame); it does not significantly change how characters interact with you; it simply asks you to pick between gameplay vs. power vs. cosmetics, and that isn't a meaningful choice, it is a values choice.

"Aren't values choices meaningful?"

Not really. You know which of those 3 is most important to you. You likely won't struggle much with that decision unless you care equally across those 3 things, and for most people, you don't. Unless you are the incredibly rare player that cares equally between transmog, your gameplay, and your power level, covenant choice isn't meaningful to you at all. You will pick the one that suits your content alignment best, and that will be that.

For most players, this will be the covenant that inflicts the least amount of harm vs. the one that helps them the most. I know people will reply telling me how that doesn't apply to them, and I certainly believe you — but there's TONS of great UX research out there that has proven time and time again that the average person fears punishment more than they value reward.

TLDR: Meaningful decisions should be driven by additive power, not punitive power. You cannot have a meaningful decision if your options are between "be above average all of the time" and "Be good some of the time, useless the rest of the time." A set of meaningful, competitive choices should have equal value with different benefits; envy should be driven by additive desire, not frustration.

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