3 stages of decisions
It seems that, in general, there are 3 stages of decision-making.
The analysis stage is about gathering information. This doesn’t have to be done at the exact moment of the decision – it’s based on all information gathered to that point. Once the information has been gathered, it has to be analyzed, to turn it into a series of likely outcomes, dependent on what your opponent does.
At the beginning of an RTS game, if you assume the “classic” 3 choices of defend/expand/rush, the analysis stage would result in how much you’d gain or lose based on each option, for each choice that your opponent could take.
Once you’ve analyzed the information available, you have to make a decision. Obviously bad choices are simply thrown away – choices which may be better or worse dependent on what your opponent reacts are considered. This is where a lot of the “mental game” occurs in any game – figuring out what your opponent is going to do, or leading him into thinking you’re going to do one thing when you actually do another.
Once you’ve decided what to do, you have to actually do it. This is the area where pure skill comes into play.
Emphasis on differing stages by game
Different games place different emphasis on stages of the process. The execution phase is essentially non-existent in chess, while it’s always a large factor in bowling.
Even variants of the same game can place different emphasis on various stages. For instance, 7-card stud poker places a great deal of emphasis on the analysis stage, while Texas Hold’Em streamlines the analysis stage and places a greater emphasis on the opponent stage. And neither of them are particular based on skill, in the “pure physical” sense.
Emphasis on differing stages by player ability
Players also seem to emphasize different aspects of the decision making process, even within the same game. For a game which includes all three stages of decision-making, the order in which players emphasize them (lowest skill to highest skill) seems to be:
This makes sense. At low levels of skill, the ability to effectively perform a technique will be more important than choosing the right action to take. If both players have little skill, a successful execution will be somewhat rare, and so the cost of choosing a poor action is not immediately apparent, while the results of performing the technique well are. Games played by players at this ability level are often characterized by an extreme focus on offense, and of attempting any “scoring” opportunity, no matter how improbable.
Once basic skills have been mastered, good decision-making becomes the next most important aspect. A player at this level will start to see the consequences of his decisions, as his opponent becomes more able to effectively take advantage of his mistakes. Analysis of the situation then becomes more and more important, as weaknesses in the opponent’s play can then be taken advantage of. While skill, and increased skill, still are valuable and provide an advantage, bad decisions can nullify them, allowing a lesser-skilled (but still competent) opponent to win. Games played at this level become characterized by an increasingly well-organized and tighter game, relying upon their opponent to make a mistake.
Once both players are able to analyze the situation effectively, the game becomes, primarily, a mind game. At this point, you are considering what is the likely outcome based upon what your opponent will do. Simply making the “best” play is no longer enough, as your opponent will expect it, and be aware of how to counter it (assuming that the game isn’t horribly broken, that is). This is also the aspect of decision-making that game theory primarily covers, as it assumes both players are capable of executing decisions, and have the ability to analyze the outcomes accurately.
This is the highest level of gameplay. At this level, the general rules discovered in the previous stage become a starting point, rather than an absolute. At this stage of the game, the players become more actively involved in influencing the play of their opponent.
Computer and video games, and the three stages
Generally, computer games have AI that is very predictable – in a given situation, it will always make the same choice. In some games, the opponent is a system that is designed to be entirely predictable. Because of this, solo computer games typically emphasize the analysis and execution stages of decision-making.
This is somewhat interesting, then, because if your opponent is predictable, then any given scenario will always result in exactly one best decision, for any set of circumstances. The game becomes learning how to analyze the best decision to make, and improving the ability to execute it. As players become better at the game, the only way to increase the interest level is to either require higher levels of skill, or introduce more factors into the decision-making process.
Both of these options have the unfortunate side effect of making the games less accessible to new players. At the early stages of this process, new players will have a more difficult time getting into the game. However, as this continues over the course of years, eventually the games will become so complex that new players will be all but unable to learn how to play the game.
Complexity and depth
We hear these terms a lot when dealing with games. I’m going to try to define these:
Complexity refers to the difficulty of analyzing the available choices.
Depth refers to the number of choices available that are not dominated strategies.
BTW, “dominated strategy” refers to a choice that, no matter what your opponent does, is inferior to a specific other choice. In rock paper scissors, there are no dominated choices. If you add in the “bomb” (blows up rock and paper, fuse is cut by scissors), then the choice of paper is dominated by the bomb. No matter what the opponent chooses, “bomb” always does at least as well as paper if not better, so there is no reason to ever choose “paper” if “bomb” is available.
If we assume a predictable AI that will always choose the same option in a given situation, then that game can only increase in complexity or skill, not depth. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of my goals in this blog is to not make judgements about what is good or bad in games or game design, but to rather help devise a framework that can explain observations. Increasing in complexity is fine, so long as you’re doing it deliberately, and for a specific reason. But, be aware of the side effects of increased complexity, especially the increasing difficulty to attract new players to the game/genre.(source:Game Design the Wrong Way)