Interesting choices. I introduced this subject and Sir Meier coined phrase here. It's a feature of gameplay that I tend to greatly enjoy in the games that I play as I have stated here. It's a simple idea that opens the door to a game design discussion that covers a wide range of game design topics. Fortunately for us, we have a critical-language robust enough to examine the topic clearly.
According to Sid Meier, a [good] game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice. (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38.)
Mario's got an interesting choice before him. Image by Glen Brogan.
The follow is a break down of the quote presented above:
- series = connected in some way
- choices/options = multiple (2+) mechanics or uses for a mechanic that lead into different results in which the player cannot experience all possibilities
- clearly = obvious and evident to the player in a bold, effective, predictable way
- better = implies a value scale of some kind typically shaped by the conditions necessary for reaching the goal
- not equally attractive = there are some properties or consequences that differentiate the options
- informed = the player understands the rules that govern the scenario and possibly all emergent consequences of the game.
There is a lot to unpack here. The following walks through each element translating it into game design.
SERIES. Though the term "series" isn't a part of the definition of interesting choices, it's part of the quote nonetheless. To say that a good game is a series of choices is to say that winning and losing, the discrete end states of gameplay, isn't determined from the initial decision. Recall the article I wrote titled One Hit Wonders. It's rare to find a game where the difference between winning and losing is the result of a single choice or a single action. Like I explained in the article, we generally demand more interactivity or gameplay from our games. Furthermore, even for games of many choices, if we don't feel like we get a fair shot from a single game, we often agree to play best-of sets. From Rock Paper Scissors to Super Smash Brothers Brawl to professional Basketball we create series out of games.
"Series" implies a through line of consequences. In a simple best-of-3 set the only element that carries over between each game is the win count. If you get enough wins, you win it all. But there's a more cohesive, variable, and organic type of series a game can utilize: gameplay consequences. Instead of resetting a game, the results of the player choices continue to affect the game state creating more opportunities for choices. After all, the whole concept of deep gameplay requires back and forth actions where each side attempts to regain the advantage.
CHOICES. Choices or options seem like a no brainer. So, I'll just add that the most linear games do not feature options. In these games challenges consist of one right choice (or series of choices) and one or more wrong choice. Since the purpose of playing games is to pursue goals, we cannot count making the wrong choice as a option; at least, not an interesting one.
We also have to distinguish between emergent possibilities of gameplay mechanics and legitimate choices/options. Simply having analog control over your character movement doesn't necessarily increase the number of legitimate options available for the challenge at hand. Let's say in a game you can either move out of the way of a train or get hit by it. This challenge is linear. To dodge the train you have to start moving out of the way right away. If you don't, you'll surely get hit. Just because there are many different ways you can move around (slowly, starts-stops, etc.), there are still only 2 outcomes and 1 legitimate choice.
CLEARLY. "Clearly" is a very subjective term. I don't think determining whether or not a game has interesting choices needs to hinge on whether or not an individual player can "clearly" identify a dominant strategy. As you'll see in the rest of this article series, "clearly" will be expressed in more objective, mathematical terms. Also, in my article series Design-Space-Time Continuum I explain in detail how players commonly simplify variables that change in very small increments. This act of simplification shows that the smaller the variable range the easier it is to discern the changes clearly. Obviously, binary properties are the most clear to us. Like the lights in my living room, they're either on or off.
BETTER. Better implies that there is some kind of ranking system or value scale with which we can measure all choices along. In my article Mulling Over Multiple Goals, I explain that having a single goal allows us to evaluate all actions according to how they will bring us closer to achieving the goal. Because the goal must be measurable and quantified (otherwise how would the digital game system be able to recognize it) often times there's a simple point system we can use. As you might realize now, games with multiple goals have severely complex value scales. So, for the purposes of this article series, I'll focus entirely on games with singular goals.
NOT EQUALLY ATTRACTIVE. Not having an option be "clearly better" than the others goes hand in hand with not having "equally attractive" options. There are many ways to achieve this type of design. Risk-reward dynamics are common across many genres. With the right balance of risk and reward even powerful options might be comparable to weaker options if they have some considerable drawbacks. Another way to vary the attractiveness of options is for them to appeal to different types of skill, playstyles, or corners of the design space.
INFORMED. Finally, the player must know and understand the rules. If the player doesn't know enough, his/her choices will largely be guesses. Without knowing all the rules of a gameplay challenge, it would be difficult to impossible for a player to consider their choices, the consequences, how they connect, and how to evaluate the possibilities. Knowing the rules and the current state of the challenge is the first step to making an interesting choice.
Advance Wars Chess Map by Yoyo.
After breaking everything down, it should be glaringly obvious which kinds of gameplay challenges best facilitate interesting choices. Strategy games, games that greatly stress knowledge skills, and games that feature a significant amount of complexity are more likely to sustain interesting choices than other types. Though it's possible for real-time games that stress a varied skill spectrum to have interesting choices, it's very easy for the action and execution to minimize how knowledge skills are stressed. After all, if you've ever played a strategy game under a time limit (Chess/Advance Wars) or made a decision under time pressure you know that your ability to think straight can be compromised easily. And since making an interesting choice requires the player to understand the game state/condition, the more you minimize knowledge, the less interesting the choices become. I'll return to this subject later in this series.
Interesting choices are very similar but not identical with balanced gameplay. Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) is a perfectly balanced game. But one can argue that all the choices are equally attractive. At least in theory, all the choices are equivalent. A game needs more complexities (dynamics, variables, or properties) to differentiate choices and make them unequally attractive. If a game of sufficient complexity is balanced, then that only satisfies 2 of the 3 conditions necessary for interesting choices to emerge.
Interesting choices go hand in hand with strategy, or specific plans of action (typically to gain an advantage). When you know all of the options and rules involved, you can surely make some pretty effective strategies. But must a player know all of the options, rules, and the conditions of the game state to make an interesting choice? What exactly constitutes an "informed choice?"
I'll investigate these questions and more in the parts to come. Should you choose to continue, it'll be one of the most interesting choices you'll make all day.