Responding to Rosewater

Mark Rosewater recently made a podcast explaining the differences between Choices and Options in his design terminology, and arguing for why he feels Choices are superior. I predict we’ll be dealing with the confusion from this podcast in the MTG design community for a while.

Rosewater starts by defining Choices vs. Options in a useful way. Choices are presented as binary “either/or” decisions. Options are presented as lego-like “A or A+B” decisions. The Choice example is getting your hair cut short OR long. You can’t have both. The Option example is getting a car without any add-ons, but also having the option to add on power windows, power steering or both.

These are fine examples and useful terms when discussing game design. They’re useful because they create fundamentally different gameplay experiences. Either/Or choices can be stressful, as players feel they have to consider them more carefully. If the choice is too difficult, the experience becomes negative as humans feel “losses” more strongly than gains. The negative sensation of losing the unselected option can outweigh the positive sensation of gaining the selected option. Not many people enjoy decision paralysis. However, there are many benefits to this kind of choice as well. There’s a stronger feeling of identity and customization. The evaluation puzzle also becomes a satisfying game in itself. Draft is based on it after all.

Rosewater begins to stumble shortly after. He starts to argue that MTG’s options aren’t really options because you have to pay to gain them. Um… Excuse me? Do you get your power steering add-on free to your car? If so, is it not really an option?

What’s happening here seems obvious. Rosewater’s basic thesis is that choices are better than options, because choices require the difficult decision games are based on. However, in the process of trying to rationalize this he’s forced to undermine his definition of what an option is until it means “you can have A or B or A and B… For no downside”. Not kidding. He mentions the “Choose one or both” cards as the example of pure magic options.

This is no longer a useful way to categorize things. Obviously any card that offers A+B for free is a meaningless option, unless specifically designed so that A+B is not always a superior choice to A OR B alone. Even in that case, it goes right back to providing the good gameplay that makes rosewater like choices. “Deal 3 damage to a creature or player, gain 3 life, or do both” might as well be written, “Deal 3 damage to a creature or player and gain 3 life”. You don’t need a term for the former meaningless-choice design.

So just stick with rosewater’s original definitions and ignore his attempts to justify his thesis. It’s just a mental trap that muddies his points. Furthermore, his thesis is just plain wrong for reasons he tiptoes around in recent podcasts.

Rosewater spends a great amount of time bringing up tracking complexity again (though not in this term). He mentions how players have limited brainspace to keep track of all this stuff. This is where options, or even no choices at all, come in handy. Options, like kicker, provide the benefits of more variety in gameplay within the same cards without providing much added mental stress.

Let’s jump back to Zendikar. Rosewater has talked about how the original design of landfall was land-short. Allowing the player to spend a land drop like a resource. Instead of playing a land, you could activate a land-short ability. The cycle of ETB-and-effect lands also required costs when you played them (basically “when this land enters the battlefield, you may pay 4R to deal 2 damage to something”). The first is a choice, the second is an option. The painful landshort mechanic (choose land OR ability) was later replaced with the far more popular landfall mechanic (you get your land AND a landfall trigger!). The ETB cost lands  (play me early or save me till you can pay for my effect) were also replaced with far more popular lands like Khalni Garden that gave you a free minor effect the moment you played them (you get your land AND the trigger!).

I’m certain Rosewater is aware of this. He’s talked about the benefits of rewarding players for doing what they already want to do before. I expect that the reason for this muddled podcast was because he realized the flaws in his own simple examples as he was speaking and started trying to justify them by expanding and shifting the definitions mid-podcast.

It is very true that providing too many options to players is a standard design mistake, but I feel the way he went about explaining and justifying it creates more problems than it solves.

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