In a forgotten corner of an old thread on this blog there is a debate raging between Nils, Nils, Nils, and a bit of me, in which he argues that the Dungeon Finder is bad, because it allows him to optimize the fun out of World of Warcraft. I think that is a totally valid argument: A developer offering a game with different modes of gameplay must count on players choosing the most efficient path en masse, and ignoring less efficient activities even if they are more fun. WAR very much suffered from that in its first few months, because doing PvP scenarios was so much more efficient than doing public quests that in the end the public quests nearly died out. And in WoW it is certainly possible to ignore much of the game now, and just sit in Dalaran all day and queue up for dungeons all day long.
Thus from this point of view we could demand from a developer to restrain a player's activities in order to FORCE him into a more varied and fun content, instead of letting him optimize the fun out of the game. Quote Nils: "Rules need to restrain me. That's what they are there for. That is what the game company is there for."
But there is a Catch-22: To prevent players from optimizing the fun out of everything, the game has to be what some people dubbed a "theme park", not a "sandbox". Or in other terms, the game can not give the players much freedom, and certainly not a huge range of infinite possibilities, because in a range of infinite possibilities some are always more efficient than others. Developers *can* balance a game by creating rules that restrict what a player can do, and make all activities equally efficient. But that only works for a limited number of different activities, each of them being strongly guided.
In a completely different game, Magic the Gathering, the developers where asked the question: "Card X sucks, why do you put such a sucky card in the set?" And their answer was that if all cards were equally strong, players would not have the freedom to make the mistake of choosing a less good card. Picking cards for your deck is more fun if there are good picks and bad picks. If every choice you can make is equally valid, the choice becomes meaningless.
Thus the idea to create rules to prevent one activity to be more efficient than others clashes with Sid Meier's theory that a good game is a series of interesting decisions. Instead of the players optimizing the fun out of the game, you'd pass that task to the developers, and it would be THEM who optimize the fun out of the game.
So what do you really want? Freedom, including the freedom to make bad decisions? Or a game which prevents you from optimizing the fun out of it by making all choices equally efficient? Me, I prefer choice. Because I have the self-control to prevent myself from optimizing the fun out of a game, and explore less efficient but more fun other options. Games shouldn't be terribly unbalanced, but there should be enough difference in efficiency of different paths to allow players a meaningful choice.
[I have the feeling that this is another post in a strange series of posts where syncaine and me agree on something.]