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Interesting Choices: Interesting Gameplay pt.6

You've come so far with Fictive RPG I assume you want some kind of closure. First, a bit of a recap. Causing interesting choices to emerge in gameplay is a matter of making a game complex (rules/properties) and interconnected (dynamics/interplay) enough so that the gameplay (mechanics/choices) is balanced and varied. With such a game, any choice that you make is deemed "interesting" because there are many ways to reach the goal and it takes more than one interesting choice to get there for "good" games (according to Sid Meier). When this happens the choices reflect the individual player's personal preferences. The choices become interesting because they reflect interesting players.

So Fictive RPG needs some combination of additional properties/variables, dynamics, and interplay. Right now, it's too obvious how shallow and straightforward the RPG combat is. The reason it's obvious is because we can mentally run through all of the possible outcomes or emergent permutations to determine the best possible strategy. Assuming that whatever we add Fictive RPG remains balanced, we can get a good idea when interesting choices will emerge by calculating the permutations from the starting battle conditions. The idea is, once the number of permutation gets far too high to where a player can't figure out how their first decision will come close to reaching the goal even with perfect knowledge of the game rules and plenty of time, then the game is of a sufficient level of complexity.  


To be clear here's a short list of the relationship between various elements of design:

  • Variables (V) and Properties (P) define the gameplay interactions. Properties are binary variables. Variables have 3+ degrees of variation. I'll simply refer to this category as variables for simplicity. 
  • Mechanics (M) give the player control and choice.
  • Dynamics (D) connect various properties, variables, and mechanics to complicate the emergent web of interactions.
  • Interplay (I) allows for changes in the direction of gameplay. With interplay entire functional strategies (lines of motion) can be stopped redirecting gameplay into another direction.


Basically, more variables create a greater potential variety and combinations for the rest of the design elements to work with. You must have more than one mechanic to give the player choices. The more mechanics there are, the more spaced out design space wise they should be. This is because unique or spaced out mechanics tend to exhibit different variables. The more dynamics in the game system, the more these mechanics and other interactions will push-pull the direction of gameplay.

This is the level many quality games reach, but this is not enough for interesting choices to emerge. Up until this point, gameplay will still boil down to a limited set of optimized strategies designed around a simple idea (like doing as much damage as quickly as possible). This is why interplay is so important. I started the Critical-Gaming blog by analyzing interplay, and it has proved to be one of the most important design concepts. The best way to keep gameplay from boiling down to exercises in optimization is interplay. Think about it. You do all this work maximizing your ROCK, but all I have to do is throw a PAPER to ruin your efforts. For games far more complex than RPS, there can be many different strategies to optimize. The threat of a hard counter (interplay) to your chosen plan of attack can influence you to devise strategies that aren't completely focused on one strategy. This is how interplay can elegantly force opponents out of what would be dominant strategies while encouraging an exploration of other emergent avenues. With interplay in your game system, interesting choices are much more likely to emerge. 


How many complexities are needed so that interesting choices emerge? Well, the choices (dynamic or otherwise) must be difficult enough to compare (according to the value scale of the game) that we fail to simplify the gameplay through dominant strategies. Knowing that our short term or working memory can only handle about 7+/- 2 bits of information, it's easy to see how a combat system of about 5 complexities to consider are not challenging. Even 10-20 complexities is a breeze because we being simplifying the various complexities in terms of what will reach the goal most efficiently. But when a game system has 30, 60, or 100+ different complexities to consider we're easily overwhelm. It'll take hours of playtime to sort through all of it. And if there isn't a dominant strategy because of the interplay options, you'll never simplify it all. Thus, you're left to make interesting choices to win as big of advantages as you can given the current battle conditions.


Let's Wrap-UP Fictive RPG!

If you haven't realized it yet, interesting choices is a topic of emergent gameplay. This is why I couldn't tackle or even understand the concept until I wrote about mechanics, variation, design space, dynamics, and interplay. After years of work, we have all the clear language we need. Because interesting choices are an emergent matter, there isn't a formula that we can derive. Despite being made of the four design elements listed above, it'll be too difficult to even create a set of soft rules that express the relationship of values between any two categories in terms of increasing the amount of interesting choices in a game. 

Instead of bombarding you with a long list of various design features, I'll simply express the grow of Fictive RPG with a series of graphics. 




The dominant strategy in version 1 is simply to use MAGIC on the BOSS until you win. This is represented by the line from start to BOSS = 0 HP. Version 2 is the same strategy with an arrow to indicate the loop of attacking and healing. Version 3 shows a diversion in the main strategy that happens when you run out of MP for MAGIC spells. Notice how the end goal is still the same: get the BOSS's HP to 0. Notice how this notation system focuses on dominant strategies and the dynamics and counters that bend the strategies and possibly stop them all together. This model is very similar to the model I devised for graphing the evolution of a metagame


Excluding the MP decay feature and the GUESS mechanic, Fictive RPG v.3 has the following:

  • V = 5. HERO HP (current/max), BOSS HP (current/max), Time (measured in turns)
  • D = 3. both ATTACK and MAGIC do damage. ITEM restores HP.
  • I = 0. Both the HERO and the BOSS work each other's HP down without the ability to stop each other from landing hits or prevent each other from using any mechanics. 
  • Total = 11


So far the dominant strategy is obvious and the gameplay is a stalemate. With so little to work with, I can't even imagine what kind of interplay we could add that wouldn't severely limit this already limited game. If we add a move that prevents ITEM from being used, the rest of the gameplay becomes one note (as opposed to 2). If we make a move that blocks either ATTACK or MAGIC not much changes. We simply need more of any and possibly every category from this point. We need to define the design space and fill it with enough mechanics and dynamic effects so that when interplay blocks one plan/path there are other areas to stress and explore.

From here I'll represent the additions to Fictive RPG somewhat abstractly like in the model above. With each addition or set of additions I'll note the version and the number of total complexities (V+M+D+I). Below the image, I briefly explain the additions to give you a sense of how the game would play. You should be able to see how the dynamics, mechanics, and counters all weave the system together. At some point, you should lose sight of the dominant strategy and get utterly lost in the emergent possibilities. That is where interesting choices should emerge for you for you. 



  • v.4 SWITCH changes the HERO/BOSS into a MAGIC resisting (1/2 damage rounded down) mode. Can only use ATTACK2 and SWITCH in this mode. ATTACK2 does 1 damage plus 1 HP of damage for every turn ATTACK 2 is used consecutively (up to 5 damage).  
  • v.5 POISON weakens the healing strength of ITEM for 10 turns. To gain the maximum 10HP you must be at or below 15% of your max HP. WEATHER changes the field effect which affects the strength of other mechanics in different ways. Specific modes can only change the weather to specific states. Weather can be changed by another weather change. 
  • v.6 TRAP allows the HERO or BOSS to create a trap object. This object can be attacked by any character (introducing the function of selecting targets). A type of trap object is set at its creation by the user (e.g. attack-type or magic-type). The object absorbs the damage from attacks not of its type. When hit with its type of attack, it explodes dealing double the damage it absorbed to either the HERO side or the BOSS side (introducing the function of sides = quantified space). It switches sides back and forth based on a simple timer. Also introducing multi-targeting mechanics (magic, attack, item, switch). 
  • v.7 more modes, attacks, traps, weather types, items, spells, with different combinations for their dynamic effects. 
  • v.8 more.


Notice how they dynamics between the elements increases the total complexity count at an alarming rate between v.6-8. At some point when a game is designed with many parts that interact with each other in numerous ways (dynamics) the emergence will bloom like this. 

In conclusion, because the 4 supporting design elements of interesting choices are so flexible and the exact point interesting choices emerge is somewhat subjective, I can't give you an exact number for the amount of complexities it takes for interesting choices to emerge. All I can leave you with is the idea that designing games with interesting choices is like a jump rope. The two people holding the ends are the anchors representing variables and interplay. Without enough properties/variables the game won't have enough design space to work with. Without effective interplay, dominant strategies are far more likely to exist. After these anchors are fixed the rest of the design is fairly free to sustain many different mechanics and dynamics like a jump rope swinging in wide circles. Tighten up on either end/anchor and the circles will constrict.

In part 7 we'll discuss various design features that help sustain interesting gameplay without having to rely on such complex and interconnected designs. 

« Interesting Choices: Interesting Gameplay pt.7 | Main | Interesting Choices: Interesting Gameplay pt.5 »

Reader Comments (3)

Cool breakdown. I'm a little confused by the diagrams, but I get and agree with the core idea.

Reading this reminded me of Jenova Chen's thesis on Flow a bit and the importance of balancing games and difficulty based on different player types. It alluded to using "interesting" or "meaningful" choices applied across a wide spectrum of gameplay targeted at different player types with different challenge needs. I'm sure you've read it before:

The whole topic is interesting to think about. With Profit Motive, I'm planning to eventually use the player's choices and actions to adjust the challenge difficulty and provide more interplay opportunities inside and outside of battle.

From the battle side, the AI in the game currently has several "hidden" layers of mechanics and abilities that unlock based on what moves the player has acquired and what state they are in during the battle (if they are losing, winning, or holding their own). Many of these are still locked in the current version of the game, but once these are fleshed out and tuned, enemies should be more capable of adjusting their tactics based on the player's level and the battle circumstances. There are also additional layers to the battle system itself that will be unlocked sooner or later based on the player's progression

From the world side,the goal is to have players advance at their own pace after learning the basics (i.e. going through the first arc of 6 battles which sets all the foundation skills). In this way, players who feel they have enough skill can jump into challenging higher tier enemies from the start and unlock higher levels of the battle system from the outset, changing the whole experience (narrativewise and mechanically).

I'm curious to see if this will actually create more interesting choices for players or if the layers of complexity will simply overwhelm them (which is something I notice happens a lot with some RPGs. I enjoyed persona 4 quite a bit, but it completely overwhelmed my co-workers). I guess playtesting will tell :)


April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaz

@ Kaz

I think the diagram needs some more explanation. Let me know if this helps:

Anything line that's connect to the middle represents a strategy focused on reducing the BOSS's HP to 0. In the earliest versions this was as simple as using one's most powerful/dominant strategies.

Start with version 4, there are two dominant ways to accomplish the goal of 0 BOSS HP. The new strategy involves switching into another mode (you can think of this as transforming into another creature). V.4 has one new mode that's resistant to MAGIC making it a counter to the dominant strategy of v.3.

From here, new mechanics and variables are added. The floating dot labeled "weather" is not a strategy that works the BOSS's HP down. That's why it's disconnected. However, as you can see from the gray lines, it has all kinds of dynamic effects on the other mechanics. Whether or not "weather" can be used as a counter is more complex and situation to say. But it's clear that things are getting quite complex and interconnected.

From here, more mechanics with more dynamics are added and the whole diagram explodes in dynamic connections. It seems that every strategy (represented by the lines that touch the center) can be bent, pushed, pulled, or countered by other mechanics, thus interplay.

You're right. I've read the flow in games article. I think it applies more to player variable difficulty in non-interesting choice games. These tend to be action/real-time games.

I'm glad you mentioned Profit Motive. After I started playing it, I knew I wanted to get through this article series before we discuss the game in detail. You're plans/ideas are interesting. They give me a lot to think about.

Stay tuned.

That helps clarify it a bit. Thanks!

I look forward to speaking with you about PM this weekend. Your perspectives are insightful and well thought through.


April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaz

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