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Games contain inferior options

A lot of games that I have played contain some optimal options and some clearly inferior ones. Sometimes, like in Heroes of Might&Magic IV, it could happen due to the limited time the developers had to balance it (e.g. Academy benefits so much more from choosing Gold Golems and then Genies rather than Magi and Naga that there is no reason to go the second way).

Sometimes it happens for no apparent reason

However, it often happens that the developers clearly had enough time to polish the game, didn't go bankrupt after its release etc., but it is still full of "trap" options that sound cool, but are actually inferior to something always available in the same situation, or almost always available in similar situations.

There are just so many examples of such, almost every game has something like that. For example, Age of Wonders I began a successful series thga, but a lot of abilities to be chosen for the heroes are clearly underperforming, and a lot of units have clearly better alternatives on the same levels in the same factions.

It is important that while some very overpowered stuff often gets nerfed (like it also happened in AoW I), the obviously underpowered choices often stay as they are (as it also happened there).

So, I ask: Why do game developers create clearly inferior options in their games and don't rebalance them? Is it intentional? If it can be avoided -- how?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ But... I like Nagas. And I like challenges. This is actually the optimal option for me. \$\endgroup\$ – Linkyu May 11 '18 at 10:27
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Not all players are the same, also not all players play rationally. I'm not very familiar with the specific instances you mentioned, but sometimes there are choices that seem inferior at first, but reward you later.

The player is more careful and pay more attention. If all choices are equally powerful, what exactly are you choosing? Why are you given a choice? If in the past you've been given 1 choice out of three, where 2 of them were inferior, doesn't that mean in the future you should pay attention not to make the wrong decision in a similar dilemma?

Players like to immerse in a game world. A player might choose to not accept gold from the poor villagers, because they feel bad for them, but another player might accept it, which seems rational. A player might also decide to get a fire spell that causes slightly less damage than an ice spell, but they are a fire wizard after all.

It's fun. Think of it like in pokemon, there's a lot of pokemon that are just weaker, and no matter how much you train them, they will never be able to beat the stronger ones. But it's fun to use them in battle, because they have that one ability or skill that makes them unique and fun to play.

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When you give the player multiple choices but one is clearly inferior to the others in every way, then you often have a case of bad game design. Either the game designers made a misjudgment in their design, greatly over- or underestimated the usefulness of a certain game element and then were too committed to the idea to scrap it. Or they just didn't testplay the game enough to figure out the obvious balance problems.

The only way to prevent such balance problems from creeping into your game is playtesting, playtesting and more playtesting. Get as many testers as you can and let them test your game until they figured out which strategies work and which do not. Analyze the test sessions, tweak your game, and repeat. Again and again until you run out of budget and are forced to release. Also, don't always test with the same people. Get new testers on-board regularly to get a fresh perspective on the game. A new player might try something nobody tried before and surprise you all with figuring out a glaring loophole in your game mechanics.

But sometimes bad game options can be intentional. Extra Credits mentioned some niche case where having an inferior option makes sense:

  • The developers want to make choosing the right option a puzzle game with one correct solution. The player is supposed to find the clearly superior option on their own and feel good about themselves when they found it.
  • You want to teach the player early in the game about how to tell good options apart from bad options. But that's nothing you should encounter with late game options.
  • You provide a sub-par option for players who look for a challenge-run. A player who beat the game and looks for a greater challenge might try beating the game using only the most underpowered units.

But there is another possible answer. Maybe the option you are looking at isn't actually as underpowered as you think.

  • Does the option have a hidden benefit which is not immediately apparent?
  • Is there some special situation where it outperforms the other options?
  • Is there some non-obvious synergy with other game features which suddenly make it far more powerful if used correctly?

A lot of hidden depths can sometimes lurk in an option which seems inferior at first glance.

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It depends on the type of game you're playing, and I'll try to avoid overlap with others here:

  • Player Skill Separation
    In Magic: The Gathering there are cards sometimes nicknamed "noob traps"; these are usually Life-gain cards. While affordable in mana-cost, these are card-disadvantage cards that offer no trajectory towards winning. In drafting and sealed especially, these will cause players with a low skill level and understanding to make their deck worse inherently by choosing low value cards.

  • Chance Based Acquisition
    In Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, and many other games; you don't have the same chance to acquire items/creatures all the time. It's much easier to get a Hypno than an Alakazam so Alakazam is better (in ways that tend to matter.) In Magic, rare cards tend to be both more complex and more powerful, in part because during Drafts you want some "bomby" cards.

You might be thinking "that's dumb"; but people need variance in order to justify losing. It's a highly important pair of things required for a successful game:

  • A) That you have a chance of winning. This requires variance so that even a skilled player may lose to an unskilled player sometimes. It's even inherent in rats (study found: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7250521 thanks to Theraot) that they'll stop wrestling if they don't win 30% of the time or so.

  • B) Additionally, humans are more likely to keep playing if they can blame the loss on luck. "Aw man, if only I'd drawn that [blorp]", "You only won because you just drew [sclub]", "I only lost because the packs I opened were garbage"

You see, this mentality, regardless of it's occasional accuracy, means you're willing to play again because it wasn't your skill that caused you to lose, it was just that you rolled too many ones (literally or figuratively.) Notice the popularity of PUBG; it exhibits both Skill Separation in the sense that you learn what to use and what to throw away, chance based acquisition, and of course is addictive (in part) because "if I had just found a [blipt] I would've been fine. Stupid game."

  • Specialization
    Often times people will claim that something is inferior but not realize that it does have niche use or a specific strategy that can be employed with it. In 40k, Lootas and Tankbustas (in the 4th ed Ork codex) were an example of this. Lootas were good against most vehicles and had no real drawbacks. Tankbustas were good against all vehicles, but had less average damage against the less-armored ones, and had a significant drawback. For people like myself, I found this drawback worth mitigating because their power-level against many targets was several times better. When those targets are what you're worried about it's worth paying the penalty. To most people, however, it was clear that Lootas were the best, end of story.

EDIT:

  • Financial Incentive
    Financial incentive is also a cause at times. In the 40k example when the Carnifex was initially released it was very under-priced and the army allowed 6 of them. This newer model and it's ability to allow (essentially) 6 heavy support slots created an entire trend for the army called NidZilla; where 6 Carnifex, 2 Hive Tyrants, and then a few troops choices for scoring or walling off opponents were the trend.

The next codex they nerfed Carnifex to nearly double the points (from mid 80s to 160-200), nerfed Hive Tyrants a bit, then a Trygon was added with double the Hit Points (around 200 pts to purchase) and a higher power level in general (attacks, initiative, deep striking, etc) at the same time they created the Tervigon as a troops choice in a similar price range as the Fex but the Terv also created dudes.

Suddenly you had scoring Monstrous Creatures that created more scoring units, and you had better Heavy Support choices; both competing for points and slots with the Fex. This is hardly the only time this has happened in 40k; and hardly the only race. It happened with Flyers in general, Space Wolves, Blood Angels, Tau (multiple times), Necrons (multiple times), a general cheapening of units to include more models in your army, and a price hike on anything that was a common choice even when it was a balanced option (Sluggas and Shootas were both viable in different scenarios, Shootas have been nerfed in both points and effectiveness.)

While I can't claim for sure that this was a marketing ploy, it certainly looks like exactly what you'd do if it was a way to sell the newer models and obsolete the old ones. Regardless of it being the case for 40k, it's going to be a case for some games.

  • Purposeful Meta Game
    Again, for Mtg as an example, units and sets can be released with a purposeful expectation of what a meta-game will look like; and it may be that these units are just there as clutter for you to dig through in order to find the optimal choices. They are still choices and may serve some other metagame purpose (a unit that's good against a set of units that are not useful for the intended metagame, intended to snuff out attempts to curb the metagame into something less desirable.)

See Innistrad. They wanted a metagame of Tokens, token-buffers, and some grave-strategies for longevity; but in case it was too much they included Rest in Peace, Deathrite Shaman, Grafdigger's Cage, Dryad Militant, and other grave-hosers in standard (over time) in order to be sure that the non-grave decks stood a chance. Snapcaster was a high enough power level to keep some level of grave recursion on the map and is one of the obviously best cards ever printed. Note that this ties in with Financial Incentive above.

  • Legacy Units and Power Creep
    By power-creeping here and there, things are "exciting" for current users. If everything new is average or below average, or at best a lateral upgrade, users won't be incentivized to purchase it or expand their collection. But if it is grossly powerful (or at least looks grossly powerful) people will purchase a lot of product to get their chase rares, to capitalize on the secondary market, or to be sure they're able to compete in the new metagame.

Even in RTS, they don't tend to add bad units; but rather things that you say "holy crap, I can detect stealth units reliably now?", "I now have a mobile unit that can harass their economy?" etc. It has to be "unbalanced" in some aspect in order for it to be interesting; and hopefully you just balance it in such a way that your old units aren't completely obsolete. See Reapers for Nod in Tiberian Sun. Reapers were a strict upgrade to basically everything. A self-healing, anti-air, good against all targets unit that could create a ball-of-death much easier than before. That's exciting.

Stealth tanks, tick tanks, etc were still useful; but the feeling of having a self-sufficient unit was big; and it was clearly unbalanced in the roles it was made for (end-game ball-of-death stuff.) No more did you use Tick Tanks for that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You seem to focus a lot on cases of randomized choice, while I thought a lot more of deliberate choices, like in 40k or most strategy games, and of cases when some variants are not niche, but rather just bad. Do I get you right that they serve a purpose of giving the player a feeling of "making the right choice because a lot of wrong ones are present" even if there is never a reason to pick something? \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy May 10 '18 at 15:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I partially focused on Variance answers because they weren't mentioned in other answers (and because they're interesting.) If we're specific, something like the Pyrovore was (originally, I'm not sure about the current codex) was exceptionally bad, but technically filled a niche (there weren't flamers in Tyranids.) 40k is an interesting case study because they purposely nerfed popular things to sell more models, or seemingly did this anyway, which new models often being OP. I'll edit in a note about financial incentive, because it's a pervasive balance issue at times. \$\endgroup\$ – blurry May 10 '18 at 18:48
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While the other answers so far give some excellent reasons, I can think of a few more:

  • To give the illusion of choice. Often, designers want a more controlled, guided experience for players. Those players, however, want to feel in control. One way to make both possible is for the designers to offer a choice that is imbalanced enough that they can predict what players will choose. The players get the best experience through the outcome that designers gave the most focus, but they also don't feel like they had to make that choice.
  • To make the game seem bigger than it really is. If there is a fork in the road, and you choose one road, you may never know where the other road leads. If the road you followed led to a large city, you can only assume the other road led to something just as large. You would never know that the other road just dead ends as soon as it passes out of view. Game designers want to immerse a player in a world, but making an entire world isn't easy. Why not hide a game's lack of detail by discouraging players from getting too close? If the dead-end road is obviously the wrong road, most players, at least on a first play-through, will not know that it dead-ends.
  • To offer a new challenge. Just because one choice is obviously better does not mean the alternative is not fun. Players will often handicap themselves for the thrill of winning at a disadvantage. Picking up the heart container after clearing a dungeon instead of ignoring it is obviously the better choice, yet many Zelda players still try the 3-heart challenge.
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