Design Illuminated: The Drivers behind Player Choice

This article is part of a series called Design Illuminated, where I plan to explore and challenge what really makes certain games great (or not!) The point of this series is to provide deeper insight into games but to do it in a concise, understandable manner that isn’t bogged down with technical jargon. I hope you enjoy this entry!


 

The idea of “choice” in video games has befuddled me. I understand that we as people like to have choices, but I’ve simply struggled to share the same enthusiasm others have for large, sandbox-style games with large amounts of content but loose goals. These days, I find myself less drawn to the “tycoon” games of the world and more towards the snappy platformer games reminiscent of a simpler childhood. Time is precious; why would I want to waste my time waiting for a simulation to slowly accumulate money?

But of course its not that simple. Player choice is often a key selling point for games. Lately I’ve been pondering my own killjoy predicament and what really drives choice in video games. Its become apparent that games, in catering to different playstyles, also cater to different decision-making processes. Even the simplest of games can have risk and reward, and analyzing how said games play with your ability to make decisions has turned out to be a fascinating thing.

The Right Choice : Puzzle Mechanics

In its simplest form, decision-making can come down to a simple lock and key situation. You have a problem, and you need to find a solution. The fundamentals of such a system can easily be understood by looking at the base mechanic of rock-paper-scissors: if rock is your problem, than paper is your solution. If paper is your problem, than scissors is your solution, and so on and so forth.

In this instance, there is no variance: if you want to achieve victory, you either make the right choice or the wrong choice. Anything short of that won’t work, be it a loss or a draw. Even though rock-paper-scissors is a game of luck, the fact still stands.

Traditional puzzle games use this sort of decision-making, where choices are largely influenced by the environment or context as opposed to the personal desires of the player. Here, the player moves to “discover” the right decision, and its that intellectual pursuit and investigation that drives value. Minesweeper is a great example of this, where each grid space either has a mine or doesn’t. The decision you make in avoiding or clearing a space is either right or wrong, even if (particularly at the beginning of the game) you don’t have sufficient information to make those decisions.

But these kinds of mechanics are seen in more than puzzle-only games. Another great example of puzzle mechanics done well is the Kirby series. Kirby’s signature ability to copy enemy powers is used to great effect not only in its basic gameplay but in generating puzzles. What’s more, the game further amplifies the discovery process by providing you with a wide swathe of powers to explore: by providing you with a larger selection of problem “keys,” finding the answer to a particular puzzle can require some experimentation.

To light a cannon fuse, utilize one of Kirby’s fire-based powers.

One major complaint with this kind of system is that it can feel too restrictive. Some puzzles can result in a lot of flailing as players try to find the “exact fit” that the game demands of them. If a puzzle gets too complicated and has multiple steps, it may not be apparent which steps are right or wrong in lieu of total victory. Nonetheless, the strength of these mechanics is a clear end-goal that won’t bend and twist from unpredictable forces. These predictable, “scientific” elements give a sense of comfort that, eventually, the solution can be deduced!

The Optimal Choice : Strategy Mechanics

There is one more interesting quirk to note about Kirby games: sometimes the solution to a problem will inconvenience you temporarily. A puzzle at the end of the level may require you to hold on to a power that you don’t personally want. Anyone remember that level in Kirby 64? You know, that one where you needed the dynamite (stone+bomb combo) power for a late level secret? When several potential obstacles are at play, we can start talking about making optimal choices. Is it worth putting up with an unorthodox power for that one hidden collectible? Maybe you play Kirby strictly for the laid-back platforming, and that’s fine.

But let’s move beyond puzzle mechanics where there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong choice; sometimes you have to make decisions that involve some give-or-take. Let’s look at another platformer: MegaMan X. As is standard for the MegaMan series, you are often presented with a level selection that can be done in any order. However, especially starting with MegaMan X, your choice in level order can have profound effects on how things play out.

Take the bosses Chill Penguin and Flame Mammoth. Chill Penguin is weak to Flame Mammoth’s weapon, so it would make sense to fight Flame Mammoth first, right? Ah, but hold on! If you beat Chill Penguin first, then Flame Mammoth’s factory stage will freeze over and become significantly easier to traverse. You also should take into account all the secondary upgrades you can get from both stages, and which ones you want to get first. With so many different interactions, finding the “optimal” strategy isn’t always so simple!

Lava ain’t so threatening when its frozen.

Of course, MegaMan X has very concrete and predictable outcomes; things are a lot different when you start looking at games in the strategy genre. When playing something like an RTS, the number of tools and abilities available to you can be borderline overwhelming. Just take the classic Age of Empires II for instance: swordsmen, archers, knights, scouts, siege weapons… oh my! Then you have all the secondary upgrades for each unit and all the structures you need to facilitate production and research. Whew!

The more elements you introduce, the harder it can become to attain efficiency. Unlike puzzle and action games that have “one-and-done” obstacles, the pursuit of a solution is more dynamic in strategy games. Combat units all fight, but their proficiency depends on the circumstances. Archers can take out swordsmen, but said archers usually need protection or space. Cavalry units can rush down archers, but might need some help from seige weapons to break down defenses. With more contingencies comes less predictability, which tends to put strategy games in a constant state of flux. “Optimal” can have an ever-changing definition.

Even against AI opponents, there are a lot of questions to keep asking throughout a game. What positions should I hold? How much money do I have left? What units should I produce more of? The micromanaging aspect of such a game can be incredibly intimidating to some. For many though, that is exactly the kind of mind-melting challenge they crave. Even then, information overload isn’t required for a good strategy game; its all about taking what’s available to you and outplaying whoever or whatever your opponent is.

The Personal Choice : Simulation Mechanics

But we’re all human, aren’t we? Many times, we actually make the “better” choice as opposed to the “best” choice. In fact, sometimes we try to subvert expectations and do something totally unexpected, even with an awareness that victory will be harder to attain. In strategy games, more choices can lead to varying types of self-expression. I do have a write-up on personal preference and multiplayer balance where this is explored, so if you want more detail on this particular topic you can check that out. The point is that even in situations with proven strategies for victory, sometimes we just want to carve out our own niche. We aren’t a bunch of robots, after all.

Perhaps the greatest example of self-expression in the strategy genre is the game series Pokemon. In fact, I’d argue this game took off not because of its complex tactics but because of its personality. I mean, most games start off with a very important choice among one of three “starter” Pokemon. Though there are tactical considerations, players can absolutely make decisions based on whom they “like” the most. This is even seen in the representation of AI opponents: bug catchers, birdkeepers, hikers, etc. What’s to stop you from establishing your own flavor? Your choices may make the single player campaign a bit easier or tougher, but usually its still doable.

I liked him before it was cool.

Although this personal choice is seen in strategy games, it is especially prevalent in simulation games. Why do games like Roller Coaster Tycoon and Planet Coaster become so insanely popular? Its not just about building theme parks, but about building your theme park. Want to focus on water rides? Or maybe you just want to make sick coasters? You may need to keep an eye on money and work towards some arbitrary “park rating” goal, but many simulation games are very relaxed in how you reach said goal. Competitiveness is turned down even farther in favor of creativity; its as simple as that. The game gives you the tools and gets out of the way.

This doesn’t work for everyone though. Some people like to have goals, and having to slog through a “four year” scenario in Roller Coaster Tycoon just to get one new unlock can be a drag. Some people can only build so many coasters before wanting something more significant to happen. Its the opposite problem of the “right choice” mechanics: people want to have a better sense of direction and purpose, and being presented with a blank canvas causes them to freeze up. But just as puzzle games have their fans, so do simulation games.

Conclusion

So what do we make of all this? At the end of the day–just like choice itself–its an incredibly subjective topic. However, as we consider all three types of choices together, we can see an interesting progression among them:

 

 

Binary “right-or-wrong” choices are largely driven by the game’s environment. There is only so much the player can do to subvert the game’s systems and, in many ways, this can be a great way to cut down on fluff or filler content. As you move across the spectrum, the player gets to have more and more control, though it may come at the expense of being “lost” or being entrenched into a more tedious way of playing.

But either way, player choice is irrelevant if it doesn’t expose the player to value. Choice (or the lack of it) does not a good game make; rather, it serves as a catalyst. Binary choices serve their purpose well in puzzle games, just like open-ended choices fit nicely with simulation games. When a game leaves out or tries to sell you on player choice, take a look at what it aspires to be. How should the lack or prevalence of choice affect the overall experience? Making this observation can be easier said than done: the mechanics mentioned above are often seen in combination, like we saw with MegaMan and Pokemon.

As a final example, look at the Harvest Moons and Stardew Valleys of the gaming world. Like a lot of simulation games, you can explore a lot of different pursuits throughout the game. You could become an agricultural guru, a master breeder, or even a social butterfly that all the NPC’s adore. Maybe you could become all of them! But each path that you take often has preconditions: you need income for supplies, you need to build a barn for shelter, or you may even need to stalk learn about your neighbors so that you know what gifts they like. These games still have plenty of freedom, but you still have to put the pieces together–solve a puzzle, if you will–to reach your goal. Remember, its all about value: are there any pursuits in the game worth chasing to you?

Choice… there are so many different ways it can be used! As games become more emergent and immersive, who knows what else we’ll see? But there are definitely some basic trends we can see in its usage. Whether its on-rails gameplay or 100,000 possibilities for customization, maybe your knowledge of these trends will help reveal whether or not something will strike your fancy.

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