Sid Meier, the designer behind the incredibly popular and influential Civilization series, once described games as “a series of interesting decisions”. In fact, it is the ability to make choices that is the core of what separates a game from a less interactive form of media, such as a book or a film. Whether it is the choice of whether to shield or grab, or the decision about which set of armor to wear, the choices you make help define the games and the gaming experience.
While this doesn’t necessarily hold true for all types of games – many rhythm games, for example, are simply about executing a pre-determined set of actions without requiring players to make interesting choices – it is a good mindset to have when designing a wide variety of games. The choices you make in a real-time strategy game are going to be very different from those in a turn-based RPG, but it is still important to make sure those decisions are interesting.
Today I want to take a look at what makes a decision “interesting”, and how you can design interesting decisions into your games.
When I think about interesting decisions in games, there are a few things that jump to mind. First, your decisions need to have consequences (or at least, you need to think they will). If you know that everything is going to turn out exactly the same no matter what, then the decision doesn’t really matter.
I believe this is what turned a lot of players off about the “Telltale” style of games. These games are very narrative-focused, and appear to give players control over the narrative. However, due to the episodic nature of the games they couldn’t actually allow players to veer away from the plotline that they were trying to tell. In my personal experience, I initially believed that my decisions would have an effect on the plot going forward. Once I realized that nothing I did really mattered, I began to lose interest in the games entirely.
Second, the player needs to be able to predict what the consequences will be, at least to some extent. It isn’t enough to know that your decision will have an effect – you need to have some inkling of what that effect will be.
If you’ve ever read an old “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, then you know how unpredictable they can be. You might be presented with a fork in the road, and asked whether you want to go right or left. If you go right, you get eaten by alligators. If you go left, you marry a princess! You really have no idea what will happen at any turn.
With these books the unpredictability was part of the appeal, because the stories are relatively short and it was very simple to go back and make the opposite decision if you accidentally kill yourself. However, this doesn’t hold true for games. Unless unpredictability is designed as one of the core appeals of your game, making choices where the player has no ability to predict the outcome can be very frustrating, and can feel like a waste of time.
I think this is a problem with a lot of games that provide dialogue trees. Sometimes the game will present you with a series of simple dialogue choices that tell you very little about how your character will actually respond – the options might be “Aggressive”, “Sarcastic” and “Agreement”, which don’t give you enough information to really predict what the results of your choice will be.
Finally, in order to really be an interesting decision, your choice should not be obvious. Suppose, for example, that you were playing a turn-based RPG and had two attack options. One option – we’ll call it “Big Burn” – costs 2 magic and does 10 fire damage. The other attack – we’ll call it “Bad Burn” – costs 3 magic and does 5 fire damage. Your choice definitely matters – depending on which one you pick you will do different amounts of damage, and spend different amounts of magic. You can also easily predict the outcome of each choice. However, this is not an interesting decision because you will always choose “Big Burn” – it’s cheaper, and it does twice as much damage. In this scenario “Bad Burn” is an obviously sub-optimal and obsolete option.
Another aspect of designing interesting choices is knowing when and where to provide your player with choices. Even if all three criteria above are met, more choices are not necessarily better. Providing too many choices, or having the outcome of the choices be too complicated, can result in a situation known as analysis paralysis.
Analysis paralysis is a situation where one player spends far too much time trying to make a decision, and grinds the entire game to a halt. Players, especially competitive gamers, want to make the best decision possible, and will use whatever information they have at their disposal to make this decision. If there are too many options, or too much information to process, this can prolong the decision making process and slow down the entire game. While this may not be as big of an issue in single player games, it can be a huge problem for multiplayer games. The lesson here is that, even if your decisions are interesting, if they get in the way of enjoying the game they should be simplified or removed.
Another problem that can occur with too many choices is the “paradox of choice”. This is an idea originally proposed by psychologist Barry Schwartz that claims that when presented with more choices, people can actually end up less satisfied with the outcome.
There are several reasons for this. The first reason is the idea of opportunity costs – that is, the regret of what you could have chosen instead. When you have too many options, no matter what outcome occurs it is easy to believe that you could have chosen another option that would have been even better. This can cause you to be less satisfied with your choice than if you had fewer or no options at all.
Imagine you are at an ice cream shop. If that shop has 5 different flavors of ice cream it would probably be pretty easy for you to choose the one you want – perhaps Vanilla – and you would be pretty satisfied with that choice. On the other hand, suppose it had 20 flavors instead – not just chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, but many other flavors of ice-cream as well. It might take you a while to finally settle on Mint Chocolate Chip, but you still might not be satisfied because as you are eating you are thinking about whether you should have chosen cookie dough instead. Even if your overall experience is better, because you were able to find a better flavor with 20 options rather than 5, you might still be less satisfied because of what might have been.
Another reason for the paradox of choice is the idea of blame. If you make a decision and it turns out poorly, it can feel like you have nobody to blame but yourself. This can often occur when there is too much “open information” for a player to truly process it all. When you make a bad move because you forgot some little piece of information it can be easy to blame yourself, but if these sorts of misplays occur very frequently in a particular game it is probably due to the designer presenting too much information at once, and creating an overly complicated game state.
For an example of this situation, lets look at Magic: The Gathering. Magic can be a very complicated game, and one of the most complicated parts is the combat system. When you get into a situation where each player has a bunch different creatures on their boards, choosing how you would like to attack can be quite tricky. You have to take into account all the different ways that your opponent might choose to block, and pay attention to what sorts of cards they might have in hand to stop you. When making these sorts of calculations, you might forget about a particular ability on one of your opponent’s creatures that totally changes how the combat plays out. This can lead to “feel bad” moments where the player feels dumb for not paying attention to that ability, and Magic R&D specifically tries to keep an eye out to prevent these sorts of situations from happening too frequently.
The final reason for this “paradox of choice” is a raise in expectations. When you are presented with more options, you naturally have higher expectations for the outcome of your decisions. The more options that are available for a specific choice, the more likely it is that there is an option that will perfectly meet your needs, and the less likely you are to accept anything less than perfection. This can lead to dissatisfaction when, after picking from a wide range of available options the one that you pick still isn’t absolutely perfect.
200 years ago, if your shoes were around the right size and roughly foot-shaped, you would probably be perfectly happy. These days, however, there are so many options that finding the right pair of shoes can seem impossible. With so many options, you want a shoe that is stylish but comfortable, lightweight but supportive, solid yet flexible, that keeps your feet warm without making them too sweaty. With more choices comes drastically higher expectations, and when you cannot find a shoe that perfectly meets your needs it is only natural to feel dissatisfied.
Keep in mind, I am not saying that choices are bad. Far from it – I am only trying to say that more choices isn’t always better. These negative consequences – analysis paralysis and the paradox of choice – only occur when the player is overwhelmed by too many choices. Interesting choices are one of the best things about games, but it can be taken too far. Choosing between three starter Pokemon at the beginning of the game is a fun and interesting choice – having to choose between 50 different options would be an absolute nightmare.
There is, however, one last situation where adding choices might actually detract from your game, and that is when the choice rarely, if ever, matters, or one option is chosen an overwhelming majority of the time. An example of this can also be found in Magic: The Gathering – specifically, in digital versions of the game. In digital Magic whenever a player needs to make a decision it requires them to click an option, and it can become annoying if the player is overwhelmed with too many clicks.
Suppose there is a card that says “When you play this card you may have target player draw 3 cards”. Because this card includes the word “may”, the player is given a choice of whether they even want to use this ability or not. However, while there may be rare situations where they would not want to use the ability (such as if they are almost out of cards in their deck), they will almost always choose to use the ability, which makes this extra click unnecessary.
This card also says “any player”, which means that the player will also have an additional click to choose which player should draw. While this is a bit more controversial, because there are definitely reasons why you might occasionally want your opponent to draw, these reasons are also quite rare and the vast majority of players will choose themselves to draw. While the way the card is written provides players with more choices, the card would probably have a better user experience if it simply said “You draw 3 cards”, without giving the players unnecessary options.
As you can see, designing interesting choices is not as simple as it may sound. However, by following these simple rules, and paying attention to the potential pitfalls, we can all add interesting decisions to our games that help bring them to the next level.
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 Twitter, Youtube, 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 time for a look at level design in Super Mario Maker 2!