Hey everyone! Last week I started a two-part article on maintaining player morale. Player morale, the feeling of confidence and enthusiasm that players have while playing the game, is a major factor in determining whether players will finish your game and want to play again. If you want players to keep coming back to your game it is important to keep their morale high.
I also broke player morale into two major components. The first major component, which I looked at in-depth last week, was making players feel like they have a chance to win. However, this by itself is not enough. This feeling must also be paired with the second component of morale – the feeling that the choices and decisions that you make while playing the game actually matter in determining your victory.
Note: This article is not going to be talking about choices having to deal with the storyline of the game e.g. alternate endings, morality trees, etc. This article is about tactical and strategic decisions made during gameplay, but if you are interested in an article on that topic please let me know!
My Meeple My Choice
I recently took a trip to Arizona to visit some of my wife’s relatives, and while I was there we spent some time at a Casino near Sedona. This trip was my first time actually gambling at a real Casino, and I was shocked at how unsatisfying I found the games to be.
Every game I played I knew I had a chance of winning – there was always the possibility of winning a huge jackpot and walking away thousands of dollars richer than when I began. However, although I knew the possibility existed, I didn’t feel very hopeful because I knew that it was entirely out of my control. There is nothing that I could do at the slot machines or roulette wheel that would give me any type of advantage – I could choose my bets, but at the end my choice didn’t really matter. After losing a few bucks I decided to call it quits.
There were a wide range of different emotions that could be felt in that building – desperation, frustration, bursts of adrenaline – but morale was definitely lacking. I really don’t think that anybody was there just to enjoy the games – they were there for the possibility of financial reward.
As game designers, we can’t just bribe our players with the possibility of financial gain. Instead, we need to design games that keep players coming back again and again for no other reason than because they love playing. This means that (with the possible exception of games for very young children) your game should provide the player with real decisions that allow them to directly affect the outcome of the game.
In last week’s article I talked about possible ways to create the feeling that everyone has at least the possibility of winning. However, this week is a little different. Depending on your definition of games, games already must include player choice. However, there are a number of pitfalls to avoid in your designs that can minimize a player’s feelings of agency. These include using total output randomness, having too much hidden information, or taking last week’s strategies too far.
* Avoiding Total Output Randomness
In the last several years there has been a lot of discussion about input vs output randomness in the game design world. To briefly summarize, input randomness refers to randomness that occurs before a player decision and requires the player to react, whereas output randomness occurs after a player decision and determines the outcome of that decision.
In the game design world input randomness is usually considered to be something that can test a players skills and force them to think on their feet, while output randomness is considered to be something that reduces player skill and makes the outcome more random. However, I don’t think that this distinction is so clear cut.
I do not believe that having some amount of output randomness in a game is necessarily a bad thing as long as players know what they potential outcomes are and their relative probabilities. If this condition is met, then the player is able to make decisions that take the potential outcomes into account. I would refer to this situation as Partial Output Randomness.
An example of this type of randomness would be any game that has a player make “skill checks”, in which a random value is compared with one of the player’s stats. This can be frequently found in RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, the Fallout Games, Persona, or Betrayal at the House on the Hill.
If, on the other hand, the player does not have this information or is otherwise unable to prepare for the potential outcomes, this would be considered total output randomness. The casino games mentioned earlier would fit into this category. In this situation the player is essentially unable to make a meaningful decision, as there is no way of predicting or preparing for the outcome.
* Avoid Excessive Hidden Information
Hidden information is present in nearly every game, and it has a wide variety of positive uses. It can add variety to the game, create interaction between players, and test their ability to deal with uncertainty. However, it is possible to take this too far. Even if the point of the game is to discover hidden information, the game should still provide enough feedback and information that the players can make informed and meaningful choices.
Let’s look at an extreme example. Poker, specifically Texas Hold’em, is a game that contains both randomness and hidden information. However, the randomness in Poker is input randomness – it always occurs between rounds, before players act. Any time a player must act the information has already been determined, and is available. However, the players do not have access to it, and must make decisions based on what they know.
The amount of hidden information present in Texas Hold’em is necessary to make the game work – it allows experienced players to roughly determine their own likelyhood of winning by examining the available information (their own hand and the public cards) as well as the behavior of the other players at the table. This balance of public and hidden information makes the game both exciting and very skill intensive.
Suppose, however, that we made a single small change to the game. In this new version of the game players are only allowed to look at one card in their hand, and don’t see the other card until the end. This small change would nearly eliminate a player’s ability to make informed betting decisions and would severely hamper the game.
Hidden information is different from randomness because the information already exists and is available. However, if the player does not have access to this information then for all practical purposes it might as well be random. The exception to this rule is when the game allows you to learn or guess this information based on your opponent’s behavior, but in extreme cases there may not even be enough info for the other players to telegraph effectively.
* Too Much of a Good Thing
The tricky thing about these two components of morale is that they are somewhat at odds with one another, and maintaining a balance between the two can be tricky. On the one hand, if the only thing that matters in a game is player actions then the more skilled player will win 100% of the time, and morale for the less skilled player will be extremely low. On the other hand, if every player has an equal chance of winning at any point in the game it can feel like the player’s own skills don’t matter.
Taking any of the strategies suggested in these two articles too far can end up having a detrimental effect on the game overall, which is why caution must always be taken with these sorts of decisions. If your catch-up mechanism is too strong it can end up devaluing or even punishing player skill, and if your decisions later on in the game are too impactful it can make the actions taken earlier feel completely meaningless.
On the other hand, if all information is publicly available this could lead to issues such as analysis paralysis, where players are overwhelmed by the amount of information and end up making slow and often sub-optimal decisions. Similarly, if the game shies away from randomness entirely it can lead to a game with low replayability, that gets stale after you have played it a few times.
The key is to find the right balance between these two components, and this balance will differ depending on what type of game you are making. For a game that is intended for serious competition you might put a lower emphasis on players being able to come back from defeat because you want the higher skilled player to always win. On the other hand, some more casual games put a lower emphasis on strategic player decisions. Every game is different, and it is up to the designer to determine what their game needs.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I look at the design of some popular fictional games and sports!