This isn’t ice cream.
This entry is brought on by the general debate over ArenaNet’s decision to change their trait system from a free and open choice to a tiered and more restrictive system. Mainly, this post is about the idea of “The Illusion of Choice”. The Illusion of Choice argument basically states that though a system may allow you to take another trait or skill point over another, the fact that certain traits or skills are obviously better makes any choice but them a poor choice. In the end, you will end up taking what’s best rather than taking the what is worst. Thus, there really is no choice, but only an illusion of choice.
This is an idea, I imagine, born from World of Warcraft players who were told of the idea to explain talent changes, and partly held up by Guild Wars players who never got deep into “Build” Wars. For as much as build making was fun and creative in Guild Wars, most of the playerbase never really took part in the experimentation, but rather just co-opted the popular builds to themselves, and in doing so, saw the system as nothing but a meta game that produced powerful builds that left them with no choice but to play them. The problem with this view of Guild Wars is that people who took this route robbed themselves of choice by never pushing the limits of what they could do. It wasn’t that there was no choice, but that they abstained from the process by which such “build wars” were produced.
Yes, that sounds a bit elitist. Yes, it casts some assumptions upon the public. But stick with me, for I have an important and valid point. Namely, that the illusion of choice only exists in a vertical progression game. In a game of horizontal progression, choice is everything.
A Quick Historical Example
Guild Wars featured a tournament PvP mode called Hall of Heroes, but it was also once called Tombs and eventually retitled Hero’s Ascent. In this PvP mode, teams of 8 (sometimes 6) players formed a party and entered the tournament. They began by fighting a group of NPCs for a morale boost, as sort of barrier of entry into the tournament and test of coordination. After this, they faced off versus one or two other teams, round after round, participating in deathmatches, flag running matches and king of the hill type game modes. All of these matches included a Ghostly Hero, which was often involved in the other mades and offered a morale boost for the team that killed another team’s Ghostly Hero. For a team to succeed and reach the Hall of Heroes, and then go on to win, it must include tools to deal with all of these game modes while still being able to defeat another team straight up.
Rather early on in Guild Wars lifespan, certain easy to play but hard to master team setups began to emerge. Air Spike was a tournament team build made up of at least five Air attuned Elementalists using the Chain Lightning skill in unison. This is where the “spike” term from Guild Wars comes in, for to spike means to have all dps players hit their one spike ability at the same time, thus firing away at a target in unison, causing a coordinated and instant attack to eat through any lifebar. This was normally accomplished via voice chat, with a target caller and spike caller using the game’s targeting system to select a single target for the whole team and then giving a countdown to the spike moment.
Spike created a healing meta to counter it and other such changes in the game, but that’s not the point here. The point is that the power of this build was not permanent. A group of players from the Penny Arcade forums stumbled upon the ability to continually stack Ranger spirits on top of each other, creating a wall of area wide buffs and effects that could be used to their advantage. This created a new situation for every other team to deal with in the tournament. It also hampered the Smite builds, which were based off an Elemantalist/Monk’s ability to stack enchants on itself and then spam quick enchants to trigger zealot’s fire on friendly Warriors. For each of these builds, the healing monks featured different skill setups. Smite Healers were in for longer matches than Air Spike healers, but both healers had to be ready for Air Spike damage, but Spirit Spam Rangers needed healers who didn’t use enchantments, removing the importance of Healing Seed from the game. Though spells like Healing Seed helped heal through focus fire and Smite pressure, Protective Spirit helped with spike builds by limiting the amount of health a friendly target could lose. These were always better choices than other healing skill choices, but when faced with Spirit Spamming rangers that constantly removed enchantments and slowed enchantments down, they were no longer the best choice. Thus, Word of Healing monks were important for Spike pressure because they were not an enchant based heal, as did Infuse Health monks (which became more popular later on).
So, right away, you see that due to GW1’s lessened use of vertical progression, the illusion of choice was more a matter of what you were facing rather than what skill rises above all. Healing Seed was very popular, as is Protective Spirit. The constant removal of enchants made these less powerful. The meta changes and so on and so on. This isn’t the limit of the historical example though.
IWAY was a build coined for a single skill called I Will Avenge You. Every Warrior in this team-build brought this skill and when they hit the skill, they did a textual shout of I WILL AVENGE YOU! Players facing off against this team quickly noted all these large bruising fellows shouting the same thing and coined the build IWAY.
But I Will Avenge You was never seen as a PvP skill. Up until the point it became popular, it was seen as a PVE only skill. What the skill did was give the Warrior a regen and attack speed boost for each dead ally.There was no choice of bringing the skill because it wasn’t good enough for PvP, because if your team was dead then what use was the buff? You had lost by then. The idea of the skill was far too situational, at least according to popular opinion and the Illusion of Choice viewpoint. IWAY belonged to runner builds or PVE tanks who wanted to survive their team dying around them.
IWAY was created by a guild messing around with a Team Arena build on a larger scale, bringing in a bunch of Warrior/Rangers with Axes into the tournament mode game. Initially, the entire team was made of Warrior/Rangers, and slowly a monk or two was added, but the healing power always remained focused on moderate party-wide heals rather than large focused heals. After a few goes, someone decided to toss IWAY into their skillbar on a whim, and the discovered that it was suddenly more useful with all these bodies laying around. The advantage was that pets counted as allies, so the Smite teams eating up the bodies of the War/Ranger pets and the fellow War/Rangers dying from a lessened amount of direct healing was quickly powering up the IWAY skill, turning a basic pressure build into an overwhelming pressure build that was able to eat through the then powerful smite balls.
But this didn’t make IWAY Warriors the best Warriors, because Smite builds still worked best with Hammer Warriors creating knockdowns for the smite pressure to be spammed through. The only thing that lessened Hammer Warriors was the advantage of the armor heavy IWAY builds against their overall team build. Yet, even the guild that popularized IWAY didn’t run those type of Warriors in its GvG games. For in GvG, what is important changes and the battle is lengthened, making survival better and battles split between points. These different situations made the IWAY warrior not as effective and the IWAY skill was no longer the best choice.
The point being that the idea of best and useless is subject to change in a horizontal system with a lot of choices. Someone can take the “useless” and find a way to force it into usefulness, changing everyone’s assumptions about what is best. This would not happen in a situation in which one trait or skill is the same as another, but just improved statistically. In games where one trait or skill has different effects or different conditional uses, then choice does matter and the choices made changes the game, and thus, choice is then important.
So That Was More Than a Quick History
Yes, I went on for a bit there, but I hope it gives some background for where Guild Wars players are coming from and the experience they speak from. Now it’s time to examine Guild Wars 2 traits and the actual problems there.
There are a few traits that are mere vertical progressions, like traits that improve your power when wielding a sword or rifle. In a battle of straight up damage, these traits will tend to be most important. There also traits that directly increase the damage of a skill such as Mind Wrack. If you’re going to play a shatter based Mesmer, then this damage increasing trait will always be desirable. The question is whether sPvP is entirely about damage and whether the problem is the ease of access to these traits or that such vertical progression traits exist.
I put forth that vertical progression traits become mandatory for anyone looking to use the skill or weapon they improve. An Eviscerate Warrior will always go 30 points into strength for the Axe Mastery trait. Tiering them doesn’t change this, it just forces players into going 30 points down a line and then picking the best traits along the way. This quickly becomes a cookie cutter build scenario. That is not to say that the previous trait system didn’t have popular builds with pretty common trait setups, but there is a big difference between the two. If every Warrior must go 30 points into Strength now, that leaves less points leftover to create variations on a common theme. You might have a lot of Eviscerate Warriors in either system, but you will have more variation on that Eviscerate Warrior in the previous system due to there being more “leftover” points. Leftover points being the trait points you have leftover after you get the primary 4 or 5 traits that make up a build. In the previous system, most builds topped out at 5 mandatory traits, some maybe six. In the last BWE, six mandatory traits seemed to be the standard due to new tier restrictions. This left 10 leftover trait points, with less options to spend those 10 points on. This pushes the game closer towards illusion of choice. If you have 30 points spent in two different lines because you have to get those two Grandmaster traits to make the build function, then you are faced with picking the best of a much smaller litter.
Previously, if I had 20 or 30 points leftover, I could experiment with either trying to squeeze any extra damage I could out of a build or provide more utility to my build or provide better survival for myself or even increase my mobility. At 10 points leftover, I am far less likely to have that many options. Since sPvP is based on Capture Point, all those other options have their strengths. Mobility matters, survival matters and damage always helps.
ANet wanted to compare their trait change to ice cream, saying you could have an ice cream parlor with 300 flavors of which only 2 are good or an ice cream parlor with 30 flavors but 6 are good. First, this is a false dichotomy, but secondly, its just a horrible analogy. Ice cream flavor is a matter of opinion. Some people love mango and some people do not. The debate here is about viability. There will always be popular builds that people swarm to adopt.
I’d rather compare it to a pizza parlor and the idea that people like pizza and that pizza is popular, meaning that a popular build is equal to pizza. You will always have crust, sauce and cheese on your pizza for that is what makes it pizza. You can either have a pizza parlor with the 7 most popular toppings or you can have a pizza parlor with 35 toppings. In any scenario, the more toppings offered the greater variety of pizza you’ll see. If you’re a vegetarian, the 35 topping place will have more options. If you’re on a diet, then you’ll pick healthier toppings rather than the more popular pepperoni and sausage type of toppings. If you’re vegetarian but allergic to mushrooms and olives, you may be out of luck at the 7 topping parlor. Eventually, you’re pleasing less people at one parlor than the other because of your limited choice. Everyone is still having pizza, but people are having less types of pizza when you offer 7 toppings in total. You are assuming what everyone will want and what will always be best for everyone. You’re excluding people by having less topping options and you’re leaving yourself prone to burnout once everyone gets sick of pepperoni and sausage for the 100th time.
I’m not saying my analogy is much better, but it at least accounts for the fact that the game changes and nothing can be absolutely known for sure. But I feel I’ve gotten off-track, as the point here is horizontal versus vertical progression.
There are certain traits in the game that have extremely limited use. These are the “on downed state”, “when reviving”, “upon rallying”, and “when taking fall damage” traits. Nobody is taking these traits due to how situational they are and how minimal their impact is on the outcome of the game. As I mentioned, you can force situations that make useless skills suddenly useful, but it’s hard to see where these traits will become increasingly valuable. For example, there is really only one point in the sPvP maps where you can take fall damage and not nearly kill yourself, and the areas where you can do this are not really high traffic spots that would make the fall effect trait worthwhile. In tower defenses in WvWvW, an “on fall damage” trait might prove more effective, but it also plops you right down into the heart of a zerg more often than not.
So when traits like these face the battle of being chosen over other traits, they will almost always lose. This is the illusion of choice, but it’s not because there’s too much choice, but because the traits themselves are poorly designed. Tiering them helps them in no way. Improving them or removing them actually does.
So what would you have instead?
If you’re going horizontal progression, which I think ANet hopes to be doing, and what I feel is best for PvP balance, then you need more traits that add functionality to an existing ability and less traits that simply increase damage of an ability and less traits that simply have too little advantage to them. For example, the Mesmer has access to traits that make Glamour skills cause blinding, and skills that make blinds cause confusion. These sort of traits evolve the functionality of Glamour skills to a new purpose and they would be desirable skills if the Confusion condition wasn’t so weak.
You have traits that make Warrior shouts heal allies, giving the Warrior more utility. These are the choices that are interesting while not being absolutely better. They improve shouts, but you may want to go in another direction with your utility skills and seek to add functionality to your weapon attacks. Both are legitimate choices. You could have shouts add a stack of might, which then makes them more viable for damage builds. It’s all a choice though whether you want to eek out more damage or provide more utility.
But ANet doesn’t seem to understand the power or functionality of their traits so far. The initial tier system for Mesmer made little sense. The Grandmaster tier for Illusions provided a 12th trait that heals the player on a shatter. This is not a trait that benefits Phantasm builds more, but a trait that adds functionality for any build that may use shatters. In fact, if you spend a ton of trait points improving your illusion damage, you are less likely to shatter and thus less likely to benefit from that trait. By isolating such a trait at Grandmaster status, it makes the trait less desirable due to the traits a player is forced to take in order to acquire it. What was once a good trait that many different builds could use is now an unused trait for it doesn’t work into enough viable builds. Immediatly, the attempt at vertical progression through tiers creates an illusion of choice where there was once actual choice. Maybe last BWE, you were picking between shatters healing you or shatters crippling your target or shatters causing more vulnerability. Now you’re not picking that first option at all. It’s no longer worth the investment. It’s not an actual choice.
Give us flavor
So, if you’re trying to argue that something only has the illusion of choice then make sure you understand where the illusion of choice comes from. There is an illusion of choice if you’re picking between having your house repainted or having your house lit on fire, but the color you paint your house is an actual choice. Preferred playstyles and roles within a team can benefit from horizontal progression. Game length benefits from horizontal progression. Vertical progression is the illusion of choice, but a GW2 system with properly designed traits will feature less direct power battles. Instead, you’ll ideally find options that provide further functionality to the base of a build.