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Customization vs Optimization

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So this post is about the difference between a game allowing you to customize elements of your characters and a game allowing you to optimize those things. Most games do both. Take league of legends (or any MOBA) you can choose 1 of over 100 characters and then tailor them to your own sense of style or competition. You can make an attack focused character and shore up their defenses with talents and runes. Or you can choose to focus on making them even better at offense or give them some utility abilities. Since LoL is a competitive game there are a lot of "trap builds" that you should not do because they are strictly worse than other things you can do or just poor advantages to gain. That said, the game is played at a more casual level in much higher volumes than the competitive level, some people play it like other people watch TV, just for fun win or lose and winning with your own take on a character can be more satisfying even if you have to lose a few games along the way. The fact that casual people love the game and the competitive scene is big enough to support a large roster of pro players and lots of people struggling to get into that tier is fantastic game design.


That said there is no competitive multiplayer in PoE. So the game is inherently about customizing not optimizing right? Well, no. There are difficulty levels that are there for people who wish to optimize the "Best Party" to beat the game when the game is the most difficult. These people start on harder difficulties and expect the game to force them to optimize in order to win. I'd wager the vast majority of backers and future buyers do not fall in this category. I do not. That said if the game can be balanced that my customized party of whatever I want to play is not so bad that I lose and feel like I must optimize to continue the game and that someone else's party of fully optimized characters can tackle higher difficulties while still being challenged and flexible, that's sounds like fantastic game design again.


But if the game is just great for me at normal difficulty, I may never even get around to harder difficulties. After all replayability is one of the selling points. I am excited because one of Josh Sawyer's core tenets of game balance seems to be building a game with no trap builds, where whatever combination of statistics you actually want to play (ie- you aren't trying to make a terrible character for the sake of it) are decent and work the way you expect them to work. The biggest problems would be if the game was too easy or too hard. Too easy and I feel like my customizations are meaningless and my choices don't matter. Too hard and I feel forced to optimize just to proceed through the game.


If we look backwards to Baldur's Gate it has a good mix. Without level scaling the game gets "too easy" as you advance in level, but it starts out pretty brutal. Level 1 characters die to almost any critical hit, armor mitigates this, but you are always worried about resting or running out of hp until you gain some levels. This style of play is great because as you get a better grasp of the game mechanics you also get stronger characters and you stop dying and reloading so much. It's poor because you might get turned off to the game entirely by having a string of bad luck scenarios early in the game, or if you aren't willing to figure out how some of the game mechanics work. The game gets very hard towards the end, and in fact I have a good friend who played through the game twice and could not beat the last boss. He is a more casual gamer but loves BG. He's played mostly through 4 times, spent hundreds of hours in it, but still hasn't mastered the very unwieldy rules (he also played a ton of 2nd edition with about the same level of mastery). Hopefully PoE strikes a good balance between difficult and rewarding and "impossible" for some people.


He's also not the kind of person that would post on the forums, so I'm making this for him in part. Anyway, how do you feel about Customizing vs Optimizing? Do you tend to use the strongest things you can even if you don't want to (you feel like you "must") or do you like the challenge of playing through the way you want, even if you know it is not the strongest way to play?

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I like higher difficulties, because they force you to experiment and go out of your comfort zone. But at the same time, I notice that I stop taking fun/interesting abilities I may be interested in, because I try to optimize too hard. 


At some point I often take a step back and say, well, from optimization standpoint this choice is terrible, but I really want to build my character this way, so I will do that even if I have to lower the difficulty/use cheats.


Ideally I customize with optimization at the back of my mind, but in the end it's always more important to have fun and go with the option you like the most. Optimization for optimization's sake is something I do in MMOs. In a single-player game i like to relax and do my own thing. 

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