To anybody who studies communications and/or marketing, this fact should come as no surprise. But the more interesting aspect of the discussion was what Celestalon--a technical game designer on WoW--posed to the community at large:
Discussion Topic for the Day: What can we (Blizzard) do to help solve the problem described in this article? https://t.co/Wv7H0xwAWI— Celestalon (@Celestalon) December 10, 2015
Game design, you see, absolutely influences player behaviour, in-game and out. There seems to be two schools of thought on the matter: design the game and let players interact with it and each other as they will; or design the game specifically to encourage players to behave in certain manners. When said like that, it sounds pretty clinical, but it's really not in practice.
In World of Warcraft, and many other MMOs, to do group content you used to have to find and build a group yourself. You spent time (often a lot of time), gathered people, and hopefully managed to get through the content okay. Good players built up a reputation with other players on a server, and jerk players generally got shunned.
Enter LFD in the Wrath of the Lich King era, which took players from any server and threw them together in a random group to play the same group content. Less control over your group in exchange for a high level of convenience. This absolutely changed how players behaved. More people did group content because of convenience, but things like personal reputation mattered less because the pool of people to group with was orders of magnitude larger.
This was a case where the system was designed, but the influence on player behaviour was either not thought totally through, or deemed okay in balance with what the game gained from having such a tool available.
FFXIV evolved the concept keeping player behaviour in mind with further systems like handing out extra currency and experience to parties with a newbie in them, and commendations to hand out to others for whatever you wanted--good behaviour, great guide, awesome player, the rare dragoon that didn't die in the fire--and as such has helped FFXIV's community be nicer players (even if they aren't generally better players, but that's a different discussion).
In Eon Altar, we design around a very specific player experience--the couch co-op slightly competitive but mostly cooperative experience. Players play together as a group, but the game story and mechanics all subtly (or not-so-subtly) nudge players into competitive play styles. Friendly fire for AoE, real-time looting system where trading with each other is important, character agendas and secret quests/missions that may conflict with each other. Playing Eon Altar with friends is a very different experience than say, playing Goldeneye or Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles with friends, despite all of them having heavy focus on local multiplayer.
The Eon Altar example I use very specifically because it shows that game mechanics and meta player behaviour are absolutely intrinsically linked. You can't just design something and say, "players will be players, yo." Can you imagine if we released Eon Altar in its current state online? Without having players be local and therefore with local social norms to enforce acceptable behaviour, the game would be troll city. That's not to say we don't have ideas, but it's clear because of that player behaviour component, the game would not translate well as-is to pure online play.
Simultaneous Insufficient Info and Info Overload
For Celestalon's issue of cookie cutter builds and people just wanting/requiring/taking a given choice suggested from the community, there isn't an easy answer. Some people like choices, others just want to be told, "this is the best option," because they don't want to choose or can't fathom the choices available.
But just because it's not easy doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile exercise. MMOs like WoW are complex beasts, and so much information isn't in the base game itself that gets built by the community at large. Other times some of the information is in the base game, but without any context from the designers and so the players are expected to come up with ideas themselves, to which a large subset turn to the community to make those decisions for them.
Some of the problems are that they're imminently calculable. When someone can say, "this talent or ability does 20% more DPS than that one," it's a no brainer, and a robust theorycrafting community will discover these quite quickly. Some of the problems are that the theorycrafting community gets something wrong, or right but heavily caveated and the caveat gets lost, and then you have this strange state where the community as a whole has a gospel that's factually incorrect.
But at the end of the day, you're in a group, and that group requires a specific minimum level of performance, therefore between peer pressure and mathematics, there's a heavy push towards conformity and the "correct" choice. If the designers won't--or can't--provide the information towards the players or even make some of their choices for them if the player opts into it, then the player will seek that information elsewhere. To be fair, even if the designers provided that information, the player might seek that information elsewhere, but is there anything the designers can do to reduce that need or requirement?
What to do?
If we're spit-balling, perhaps remove talents entirely, or making talents generally utility-only perhaps so there isn't a correct answer? Maybe provide default options--all passives because a player who doesn't want to think about the game will probably not play at a level sufficiently to use active talents to their maximum effectiveness.
If the designers can help solve or ameliorate this issue, it's a huge win for them because it means they're a step closer to interesting choices (or they've basically cut them from the game and no longer need to spend design time on them). But leaving it to the community to solve by itself probably won't solve anything.
Rather, they should use game design to help address the issue, and Celestalon's question probably stems from recognizing that. Heck, if they can "solve" it, you bet many other games would take note and follow suit.
Rohan at Blessing of Kings has an interesting take on whether it's an issue to be "solved" at all.