Many games promise you “choice.”
Games are interactive, and the fun of them is often how we have our own freedom to dictate what happens on the screen, what happens to the character, and how we want to play.
Sometimes the fun of a game is being pushed to make strategic decisions, or being given the ability to do things “your way.”
For me, this is one of the biggest draws to playing a game. All of the decisions, big and small, of picking “this or that.” Jumping up to the high platforms or staying low near the ground. Picking a warrior, wizard, or rogue. Boosting your ATK or boosting your HP.
Every little decision is like a little burst of joy for me, a moment of interest that lights up my brain.
To make matters even better, these choices make it so that my playthrough of the game is likely different from your playthrough. And if I decide to play the game a second time, it will be different yet again.
The most important word here is “or.” I like when games let me do one thing “or” another thing. Not “and.” If I’m nudged to do everything and take everything and benefit from everything…I’m not really making choices, right? When designers allow for this, our playthroughs of the game will be more closely identical, instead of unique.
When I pick something, there’s a part of me that really wants the other choice to be locked away. When you go through one door, you can’t go through another.
The current wave of roguelikes that utilize a sort of “pick your reward” system, like Slay the Spire or Hades, have made this a common design philosophy. In non-roguelike games, it’s a little trickier to pull off, but I love it just as much.
I’ve decided to call the feeling I get from these interesting decisions “JOMO.” Put simply, the Joy of Missing Out.
Maybe the most famous example of this, distilled to its simplest form, is in the very first Pokemon game.
At the beginning of the game, Professor Oak lets you pick your starting partner: Bulbasaur, Charmander, or Squirtle. This choice, as simple as it is, is clearly one of the most iconic and fondly remembered elements of the series, and has been re-used in every mainline game since. It’s a choice that can define your playthrough, or define your preferences as a person, or define your “story” of your adventure. People talk about it, debate it, and grow attached to their starter Pokemon choice.
Professor Oak does not let you pick Bulbasaur, Charmander, AND Squirtle. To me, this is a crucial distinction. There’s no reason the devs couldn’t have had the professor give you a team of three Pokemon party members to get you started, so that every player had a handy Grass, Fire, and Water Pokemon on-hand. But doing that would dilute the experience and push everyone’s playthrough towards being the same.
How deflating would it be if you picked Charmander and then a few towns later, Professor Oak caught up to you, panting and sweating, and gave you a Bulbasaur and Squirtle to help with the tough gym battles ahead?
It would render your big choice meaningless.
To me, the limitation of Pokemon you can find in any one game, or game version, is more than just a cynical trick to get you to trade with friends. It’s the spice that makes your adventure a little more unique to you.
That deflating feeling of a hypothetical Professor Oak showering you in starters is what I feel when I play a game with a skill system that gives you too many skill points.
What’s the point of giving me a skill tree and asking me to carve out my own unique character build and play style if, a few hours later, you’re going to spoil me with skill points that will max out all of the tree’s branches anyway? If we all have maxed out skill trees by the last quarter of the game, then we’re not really heading into the climax with our own “unique character builds and play styles”, we just all took paths that led to the same result.
It’s a bit of a bummer, isn’t it? If I was neglecting my DEF stat because I wanted a character with high ATK and SPD, I don’t really want to end up with all my stats maxed-out by the final boss. I want to feel like my choices meant something.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I think these interesting choices should be irreversible. I think RPGs that let you spend skill points on slots or skill tree branches should let you refund them and re-spend them, if you change your mind.
But changing your mind still necessitates picking a path and seeing how that goes. It doesn’t mean letting you access all the skills and upgrades together.
Making these choices and having my own unique playthrough is what makes these games fun for me, and makes me feel like I’m being allowed to use my own strategy and express myself my own way.
To take this one step further…I think embracing this feeling is why I don’t worry so much about the FOMO of live service games.
When I play Marvel Snap, I’m not stressing about the cards I don’t have. It’s literally the fact that I don’t have all the cards that makes my experience, and strategy, unique.
Players in Marvel Snap unlock cards in a randomized order. This ensures that everyone has a slightly different pool of cards to pick from when making their decks. In addition, like many live-service games, they roll out content in “seasons.” Purchasing the season pass that month will instantly nab you a card (which stays exclusive for a month, and then is added to the public pool as a very rare card.)
I’ve been perfectly content to alternate these season passes. In season one, I bought Miles Morales. In season two, I skipped Black Panther. In season three, I bought Silver Surfer. In season four, I skipped Zabu.
By making this choice with intentionality, I’m selecting which rare cards to add to my arsenal and which to decline. Opening one door and closing another, on purpose, to pick my own tools at my disposal.
To be completely honest…if there was a button you could press that would instantly purchase all the cards in the game, I wouldn’t press it. Suddenly having every single card would ruin a bit of the fun for me. Same goes for a hypothetical option to gain every single character in a gacha game. The draw for me is in working with what I have.
Monetization based on FOMO, which is utilized in almost every live service game, preys on the player’s desire to not miss out on things they feel they want. It also preys on the “completionist” mind set, which is a way of enjoying games that was solidified long before live service games were invented. Completionism, for those who enjoy it, makes sense in traditional games. In live service games, unfortunately, you might be setting yourself up for heartbreak.
To be clear, of course I wish that game developers would rein in their capitalistic torture impulses, and I wish that these live service business practices were much more regulated. That said, I also hope that players can embrace the joy of knowing that their experience with the game is unique to them.
It can be easy to think about all the things you don’t have and wish you had them. It’s doubly true when you see players around you flaunting those things, or the meta of the game feels off-balance.
But maybe there’s a value in acknowledging what you do have, feeling pride in your decisions, and accepting that your unique playstyle (and luck) will make your play experience unlike any other person’s.
Sometimes, there’s something fun about missing out.