The following are 3 examples of design features that can support interesting choices or help create similar interesting gameplay by diminishing dominant strategies and promoting variety.
Up until this point we've kept the discussion of interesting choices separate from games that feature real-time gameplay. By doing this we focused on choices (player mechanics/actions), the relative value of these choices according to a goal oriented value scale, and the player's understanding of the game rules. Most of these concepts fall within the cognitive domain which we can express thoroughly using the knowledge facet of the DKART skills. But with real-time games the entire skill spectrum can be stressed. Gameplay consists of more than the choices you make (interesting or not); it becomes about what you choose and your execution.
RTS. Now you must strategize and execute in real-time.
So the question is how can real-time gameplay affect interesting choices? At the very least real-time gameplay can affect the "attractiveness" of options. To illustrate this idea, I've created a game called Real-RPS. Let's say, strategy-wise, you have the option to use rock, paper, or scissors. In theory these options are all equally balanced against each other in a perfect and elegant interplay loop. What makes Real-RPS unique is instead of molding one's hand into different shapes, one has to literally pick up a rock, a slice of paper, or put their fingers into a pair of scissors to make a choice (The scissors are dull. Safety first!) Now let's say this rock is very heavy (40 lbs). Obviously, the dexterity required to pick up the paper is the least taxing. You'd probably have no problem picking up paper in time (you have only a second to present your choice). Though the scissors aren't heavy, maneuvering the finger holes can be tricky under pressure. And if you can't lift the rock or lift it fast enough, that option is useless to you. So, this comical version of RPS has more drawbacks to consider because of the uneven dexterity execution requirements. More drawbacks affect the attractiveness of options.
It's easy to see that real-time gameplay that stresses the full skill spectrum can affect a small part of interesting choices (attractiveness), but they have a greater effect on execution than strategy. Furthermore, it should be obvious and intuitive to you that strategy and execution are largely independent qualities. What's not obvious is how execution affects gameplay of interesting choices without affecting how interesting the choices are.
In my article series Appraising the Art of Combat, I explain that some mechanics or techniques are so powerful that they can completely counter other moves, techniques, characters, or playstyles. I called these interplay barriers. Only by learning the barrier, how the counter to it, or adapting to use a different approach can one stand a chance of winning. What's commonly called "execution barriers" are actually very similar; until you reach a certain dexterity-timing skill level you will be unable to compete against opponents of a certain (presumably decent) skill level.
Along the same lines, execution barriers can prevent players from being able to make interesting choices even though a game has the potential for it. Aside from stressing many different facets, sub-facets, and combinations of skill, real-time gameplay can run the gamut between the interesting-execution scale. On one end of the scale, you may have all the skills necessary to make any (interesting) choice. And on the other end no choices are available to you because either mentally or physically cannot execute a choice. Real-time gameplay often moves back and forth between these these extremes.
The more skills a game features the more the player is stressed. Because there's more to think about, like the position of your fingers, your stamina, and the timing of moves, the player's mind devotes resources to these others facets and their coordination. The more one coordinates the more analyze, code/decode, and STM abilities drop. We all understand being overwhelmed from first hand experience. Just mentally keeping up with actions can be highly engaging even if we're passive participants. After all, movies overwhelm us all the time. As different facets of skill are stressed our skills can falter. Even for the briefest moments of time, we can experience mental hitches that make us more susceptible to oncoming threats.
Getting overwhelming and coming back to one's senses while time marches on is a key part of what makes real-time games unique. While your opponent is overwhelmed you can get away with moves and strategies that you would never be successful otherwise. This potential gives real-time games an exciting "anything is possible" quality.
Adding real-time to most or all of a gameplay experience inherently means diluting or sharing the emphasis between strategy and execution. By stressing the full skill spectrum, significant pressure is taken off of just knowledge skills. This also means that a game can be much easier to make "interesting." Think about it this way. When a game only stresses (or mostly stresses [90+%]) one type of skill there is naturally less engaging design elements to work with. As we now know, a knowledge based game of interesting choices requires a lot of complexities, dynamics, and interplay just to mix things up enough so that any dominant strategies are difficult to discover if they exist at all. In other words, a designer has to do a lot of work just to keep the fairness and variety in the gameplay.
Real-time games have natural ways to keep the variety and more options to tweak the fairness of the gameplay. As I explained above, stressing more skills and using more of one's brain and body under time pressure creates all kinds of holes and faults in our ability to execute. Because of this inescapable human limitation, our performance will naturally dip in various degrees and in various ways as we battle. Furthermore, if there is a dominant strategy it can be extremely difficult to execute. Add in the pressure of competition and even a dominant strategy may not be reliable and therefore popular.
In conclusion if you have a game of interesting choices or nearly so adding in real-time gameplay can give it interesting gameplay.
Everything is more fun with co-op. Well, this is an exaggeration rooted in some truth. Aside from sharing experiences with another person (presumably a friend), co-op gameplay generally makes games more engaging. In the same way that real-time gameplay expands the range of experiences and balance options for games of interesting choices, co-op gameplay can do the same by stressing team skills. I should note that co-op team skills are mostly brought out in real-time games. Turn based co-op games can easily suffer from one player playing for both. Either that or the team collaboration practically puts two minds together to solve the singular goal instead of stressing the cooperation of two minds simultaneously.
Incomplete Information (Blindness)
Interesting choices require players to be well informed. In general, "interesting" games feature lots of complexities to learn. In addition to knowing all the rules, mechanics, dynamics, etc. there's more information that one cannot learn ahead of time; this data includes the current match conditions. Basically, I refer to what the opponent does and anything that changes in the match or is customized (not by you) before the start of the match. For example, board and card games are often built around players not knowing the cards and pieces the opponents hold.
Your cards look good. What is your opponent thinking? What does he have?
Borrowing the language of game theory we have the following terms to describe the blindness or completeness of video game information.
- complete information: "Complete information refers to a state of knowledge about the structure of the game and the objective functions of the players" (wikipedia). Basically knowing all the rules/complexities of a game and knowing everything the opponent(s) can do potentially. Incomplete information is the opposite i.e. not knowing all the rules.
- perfect information: Perfectly observing the actions of other players and any other emergent, consequential actions (like computer AI changes). Basically, being informed of any change to the game state when it happens. Imperfect information is the opposite.
By designing a game with imperfect information the informed decision part of making interesting choices is hindered. The plus side is you gain several other kinds of gameplay. Games that feature any kind of blindness or imperfect information naturally open the emergent gameplay to support strategies of deception, scouting, calling bluffs, and the mind games associated with these moves. When knowledge is power (as it should always be) then every bit of hidden info you gain on your opponent is significant. Basically, combat becomes a battle of strategy, execution (for real-time games), and information.
Better yet, games that aren't quite balanced so that interesting choices can emerge (perhaps because of an obvious dominant strategy) benefit greatly from incorporating some kind of blindness feature. Instead of gameplay distilling down to just a few strategies, depending on how much information is limited, the dominant strategies may not be possible or practical. It goes without saying that there's a balance between how much you want players to fight over information and fight each other. The more you hide the more the emphasis on strategy drops.
Here's a shot list of games designed with different blindness features.
- Fog of War: Star Craft, Advance Wars.
- Hidden Hands/ Custom "Decks": Draglade (DS), Pokemon (DS and card game), Call of Duty perks, Section 8 loadouts.
- Hidden Acquired Powerups: Mario Kart (not NGC or DS versions), Tetris DS, DigiDrive, Halo secondary weapon.
- Individual Invisibility: Zelda Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks battle, Star Craft cloaking/burrowing, PixelJunk Shooter 2.
In part 8 we'll look at how random elements affect interesting choices and interesting gameplay.