（要注意还有许多“外粗内秀”的理论，特别是Marc LeBlanc所提出的；还有很多来自于纽约大学游戏中心的书籍，特别是 Eric Zimmerman和Katie Salen共同编著的《Rules of Play》是我现在正在阅读并且非常喜欢的一本书。）
与玩其它游戏一样，我也很着迷于《吉他英雄》：一直努力地去闯关，尝试着去完成关卡，如果失败了我也会再次挑战直到最后取得成功，而这时我便会开始挑战下一个关卡。我发现这与我在玩《Advance Wars: Dual Strike》时所体验的游戏模式相同。尽管这两款游戏存在很明显的差别，但是也同样存在着一些基本上的相似点。《Advance Wars》（一款回合制战略游戏）很明显是一款关于制定有趣策略的游戏。但是《吉他英雄》却不是。对吧？
关于我在《吉他英雄》中的短短几毫秒里决定手指要如何变化，以及在《Advance Wars》中的决定坦克要如何转向这两种选择是否存在着不同点？这是当然的：在《Advance Wars》中，我的意识心态将着重考虑战场这个大环境，并相对地做出明智的决策；但是在《吉他英雄》中，我却不需要意识心态，反而需要的是身体本能，肌肉记忆以及直觉性，以此决定我的手指应该落在哪里以及如何移动。
举个例子来说吧，《Dice Wars》和《Risk》都是关于征服领土的游戏，但却给出了不同的答案。在这两款游戏中，玩家通过掷骰子攻击彼此，胜者将在下一回合的开始获得额外军队作为奖励。在《Risk》中，玩家需要决定在哪里放置这些军队，基于当下的情境看来这将是有意义的选择。而在《Dice Wars》中，军队则是由游戏随机放置的，并因此加快了游戏速度。
答案取决于用户（游戏邦注：《Dice Wars》是一款休闲Flash游戏，而《Risk》则是一款传统的桌面游戏），但是设计师应该理解他们决定的分叉。有时候，在《Risk》中的军队设置可能是一种生硬的决定，有时候在《Dice Wars》中对意外的管理做出回应会引起一种全新且更多元化的乐趣。最终，《Risk》必须向用户证明他们延长游戏时间的做法是合理的。
的确，RTS作为一种游戏类型正遭受着来自更受欢迎的新兴游戏类型MOBA的攻击，这种游戏的主要代表有《英雄联盟》和《Dota 2》。MOBA是源自《魔兽争霸3》的mod：Defense of the Ancients，其游戏方法与RTS类似，除了玩家只能控制一个英雄而非整个军队之外。
而MOBA的成功证实了，尽管玩家喜欢RTS游戏中大规模实时战斗的刺激与壮观，但是他们却并不喜欢游戏要求自己去控制每一个元素。设计师Cliff Harris讨论了有关自己成功的RTS游戏《Gratuitous Space Battles》中一个类似的点，即允许玩家在战斗过程中控制任何单位：“《GSB》并不会要求你在一个复杂的战斗中控制300艘星舰。它容许你做不到这点，因此并不会将其作为一个选择。有些人讨厌它。但是有超过10万的人喜欢它并愿意购买它，所以我并不是唯一带有这一想法的人。”
例如在《Atom Zombie Smasher》中，玩家将使用3种特殊的武器（如狙击枪，混凝土或锁）将平民从僵尸所带来的城市灾难中拯救出来。但是玩家需要在每次任务中，从8种武器里随机选择3种武器，即意味着玩家对于当前武器所做出的反应与城市布局或僵尸行为是同等的。比起基于一个特定且喜欢的组合，玩家必须学着创造不同寻常的组合，这便意味着游戏玩法将会不断变化。
同样地在《FTL》中，队员，武器和升级也会在不同游戏间发生改变，这主要是取决于随机生成商店所提供的内容。因此，游戏并不是关于发现并完善一个单一的策略，而是基于可用道具找到最佳方向。简单地来说，《Atom Zombie Smasher》和《FTL》的游戏玩法多样性是源自设计师限制玩家选择的决定。
而在另一头，带有巨大定制系统的游戏通常会退化为一些不切实际的选择，从而剥夺了其关联性的灵活系统。在《Alpha Centauri》中，玩家使用Unit Workshop去创造带有不同单位和能力的单位。但是最有影响力的组合很快便显现出来，并排斥了这一功能。
篇目1，GDC 2012: Sid Meier on how to see games as sets of interesting decisions
by Leigh Alexander
“Games are a series of interesting decisions,” says Firaxis’ Sid Meier. It’s a statement he’s made in the past – and he’s noticed (by Googling himself) that viewpoint of his has been a source of some debate. But it’s one of his favorite ways of thinking about game design, so in his packed GDC 2012 lecture, he explained the idea in depth – what makes decisions in gameplay interesting for players, and what do designers need to know?
“It’s easier to look at it as what is not an interesting decision,” says the legendary creator of Civilization. If a player always chooses the first from among a set of three choices, it’s probably not an interesting choice; nor is a random selection. While there are some types of games where the idea of interesting decisions isn’t the best way to look at things – say rhythm games or puzzle games based on different sorts of inputs — he generally believes the idea is a helpful way to look at the medium.
“It’s a useful concept during the design phase. One of the things I see often is that designs are kind of about putting together pieces of other games,” says Meier. There’s the idea that if some games are fun, then combinations of their elements will also be fun.
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work out,” he says. “And I think it’s a more useful way to look at a new game design in terms of, what are the decisions I’m presenting the player, and are they interesting?… Put yourself in the player’s chair.”
What Makes An Interesting Decision?
One common characteristic of interesting decisions is that they involve some kind of tradeoff – say, the opportunity to get a big sword costs 500 gold, or in a racing game the fastest car may have poorer handling. In Meier’s Civilization, the act of building a defensive unit has complex resource costs in exchange for protection.
“Good decisions are situational. There’s a very key idea that when the decision is presented to the player, ideally it acts in an interesting way with the game situation,” Meier explains. Civ contains complex systems that provide a number of situational choices, where the options presented to players and the factors therein depend heavily on what’s happening in the game world.
Some of these decisions are personal and tied to the player’s gaming style. A cautious player would choose to build a very secure base from which to expand; an aggressive player invests in its offensive units. “This interesting decision would allow you to express your personal play style,” he says.
Interesting decisions are persistent and affect the game for a certain amount of time, as long as the player has enough information to make the decision – when early choices can ruin the game experience down the road, developers need to present them in a fashion appropriate to that. “
One classic decision type is a risk-versus-reward scenario that asks the player to weigh potential penalties against the possibilities of rewards. “In almost any kind of game you’ll find opportunities for these decisions,” he says. Another decision category is short versus long-term decisions – like building a wonder in Civilization, which takes a long time but has a significant long-term impact – versus building a chariot, which is finished much more quickly but has much less effect on the overall landscape of the game.
When it comes to accommodating the player’s play style, “it’s very tempting as a designer to imagine that everybody plays a game the same way that you do, and it’s very tempting as a design and development group to feel that you represent all players,” he says. That’s why he finds it essential to good design to allow for as many choices and play styles as possible.
One of the strengths of Civilization in Meier’s own view, is that it has things happening on multiple levels at once in terms of short-, medium- and long-term events. The player’s task is to prioritize and to manage strategies for both near-term and long-term goals, and evolve the short-term goals to make the long-term goal more accessible.
Customization functions also create interesting decisions, even if it’s as simple as choosing a name for your city or a color for your vehicle. “It makes [the player] more connected to the game that they’re playing,” Meier says. “Think about ways of investing the player in your game by inviting them to make decisions that let them to express their personality or their gaming style.
Key to making decision meaningful is to ensure players understand the full scope of their choices; it’s not fun for the player to be in a situation where they have to pick something, and then marinate in that gnawing feeling of wondering what might happen as a result of their choice or how severe the impact might be. “It’s almost worth erring on the side of providing the player with too much information, or at least enough that they’re comfortable with understanding the choices,” Meier advises.
When it comes to making players comfortable and happy as they make decisions, genre conventions help – the fact that most shooters have something of a standard interface help players feel assured. When a player presses a button that in every other game in its genre does a certain thing and receives an unfamiliar result, “there’s nothing more disconcerting,” he warns.
One reason that many of Firaxis’ games involve historical topics is that the player can come to the experience with a lot of information that they already know. “It’s important to reinforce that information for the player – if you run into Genghis Khan in a Civilization game, you’re going to expect him to be kinda angry and aggressive… if you’re building a game about railroads or pirates, there’s a lot that the player can bring to a topic like that that they already know.”
Zombies are popular because they’re very clear – their motivation is basic and their nature is obvious and well understood. “It’s an example of a decision where you don’t have to add a lot of information for the player; they pretty much know what to do.”
On the other hand, once the player makes a decision the response from the game is enormously important: “The worst thing you can do is just move on. There’s nothing more paranoia-inducing than having made a decision and the game just kind of goes on. At least have a sound effect that says, ‘I’ve heard what you said and I’m going to do it.’” In Civilization Revolution, players were so pleased to get feedback on some of their unit moves when they negotiated with leaders from other areas, for example.
Feedback helps players feel responsible and meaningful within the game world. “It’s really important to let the player know that you know that they’re there, that you’re a partner with them, that you’re right there next to them all the way,” Meier explains. “That yes, ‘you are the leader of a great civilization’, or ‘you are a great race car driver’. Whether it’s a sound or text, a visual or graphic… really reinforce the fantasy the player is creating in their mind and really allow them to enjoy that.”
The Player Types
In order to create lots of interesting decisions for players, it’s important for designers to understand the many types of players there are. There’s the player that cares mainly about winning, who can offer feedback on tuning the game’s higher levels. There’s the genre fan, who is a fan of the specific genre and loves anything that resembles things they love already – and resents deviations. This player’s feedback is useful for understanding how to use the genre conventions, but hopefully doesn’t constrain new developments.
There’s the player the one who wants to understand all of the game’s algorithm and calculate the best possible scenarios. This player can help with game balance – within reason, as the player really just wants to unravel and own the systems. Then, there’s the paranoid player, who feels that everything is stacked against him or her, assuming that dice rolls are rigged or unfair. The history buff will criticize elements of the setting and complain about loyalty to source material or accuracy of a historical setting.
The player who Meier calls “Mr. Bubble Boy” is the one who dwells on the one unfortunate game experience he or she had. “You need to prevent setbacks in a very sensitive way, where the player understands why it’s happening and what they can do next time… one incident colors their entire experience.” And there’ll always be that armchair designer who focuses on every detail of why a given game isn’t like the one he or she creates.
It’s useful to understand all of these player types and to benefit from their feedback, but all of them can cause consequences if their views are too highly prized.
More Interesting Decisions
Once a game implements interesting decisions, what makes them more interesting? A strong balance of risk-reward choices; adjusting how impactful choices are, giving the player more or less information, providing time frame within which to make decisions, or adjusting how many choices there are in the game can all completely define and refine a design. There’s a flavor slider, too: “This is really a presentation issue,” he says. “Take advantage of those artists, those writers that are working on your game to really add flavor.”
“Be careful to manage that balance,” he says. “If you’re playing a game with complicated decisions that come at you one after the other the player is going to feel out of control. On the other hand, if you give your player some very simple decisions at a very slow place, they’re kind of bored.”
The last way to make a game more interesting through decisions? Get rid of ones that are not working. “You’ve tried all these things and they don’t work. Maybe the decision is just one you should take out of your game.,” says Meier. “Be ruthless in terms of cutting things out… probably a third of the things that we try, if not more, end up getting taken out of the game because they’re not fun and interesting enough.”
“You don’t want to forget that your game is more than just decisions,” he emphasizes. The detailed minutiae of developing interesting decisions ought not to take away from the production of a rich, vivid world that feels real and fun for the player. A strong fantasy environment coupled with empowering and interesting decisions is a key coupling that creates a long-term relationship between a player and a game, he believes.
“It’s the combination of this wonderful fantasy world that you create and the interesting decisions that the player gets to make in that world that really is the sum total of the quality of your game,” Meier concludes.
篇目2，All Games Are About Choices
by Shay Pierce
Today I read a very thoughtful blog post by a game designer who I greatly admire, but with whom I absolutely disagree: Chris DeLeon wrote a scathing dismissal of the argument that games like Galaga are based on interesting decisions. (That argument was itself presented in response to Chris’ previous blog post, titled “Many Games Are Not About Choices.”)
I’d like to respond with an assertion: that Galaga really is a game based on interesting decisions; and that, in any game which includes anything that could possibly described as “challenge” (in other words, virtually all games), the gameplay is in fact entirely based around interesting decisions. My argument is that we should take Sid Meier’s definition that “a good game is a series of interesting decisions” (which Chris dismisses as only applicable to certain types of games) and apply it in a deeper and more holistic way than it’s typically applied; and that doing so will show how it is possibly the most important, fundamental law in the field of game design. Recognizing this may involve rethinking one’s definition of the term “decision”; but I believe that thinking this way reveals certain fundamental truths about game design which seem to elude even many experienced game designers.
Mario’s resume, like mine, is varied – though none of my jobs’ descriptions have been “killing baby monkeys.” Yet.
Learning the Ropes
I should provide a little background before I continue. My formal education isn’t in game design, it’s in software engineering; however, I’ve always had a great passion for game design, and several years ago I set about methodically self-educating myself in it that discipline. But for the most part, I was disappointed in the lack of rigorous academic material available – coming from a highly analytical and well-defined field like computer science, I kept feeling that there must be some hidden cache of “Game Design 101″ educational materials that really explained what game design was about, but eluded me. To make a long story short, my education in game design has almost literally been a self-education – I was basically unable to ever find a “universal theory of good game design” which I found satisfactory… so I set about defining my own.
(Note that there are diamonds in the rough… in particular: virtually everything ever written by Marc LeBlanc; and most of the teaching coming from NYU’s Game Center, especially the book Rules of Play by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, which I’m currently reading and loving.)
Scientists spent years trying to decipher Einstein’s coded Unified Theory documents before realizing they were actually chords for Rolling Stone songs.
Guitar Heroes and Unified Theories
My personal “unified theory of fun gameplay” didn’t begin to crystallize until a couple of years ago. Until then, my definitions of “fun gameplay” and “good game design” were rather fuzzy and non-rigorous: various theories and definitions floated about in my head, but it was unclear how they related to one another. (I now recognize that this is pretty much the current state of game design theory in general.) One of these definitions was Sid Meier’s “interesting decisions” quote, which I intuitively felt to be extremely important, though it was hard to explain why.
Then I read a blog post by Chris Bateman which directly challenged the Meier quote, holding up Guitar Hero as the ultimate proof against it:
“…these rhythm action games do not rely upon a series of interesting decisions, for the most part they have no decisions of any kind!”
I realized this was an important question: was the idea of Interesting Decisions fundamental to good game design, or was it optional and disposable?
I thought about it extensively and realized that it was the former: all good gameplay is comprised of interesting decisions … but only if one expands one’s definition (and understanding) of what a “decision” is. And once I expanded this definition, I finally found the “uniform theory of good game design” that I had sought all along.
Does decision-making break down somewhere between these genres? Also, what would happen if Princess Peach fought Kerrigan? That would be so sweet. Sorry, what was I talking about?
Who Turned Off the Choices?
I played Guitar Hero obsessively, and much like I played any other game: I’d go to a level that I hadn’t completed yet, attempt to complete it, and fail. I would then try again and again until I succeeded, at which point I would move on to the next challenge. I noted that this was exactly the same pattern that I applied to a game like Advance Wars: Dual Strike. And though those two games clearly had huge differences, it was clear that there was some kind of fundamental similarity between them as well. Advance Wars (a turn-based strategy game) was clearly about making interesting decisions. But Guitar Hero wasn’t… right?
But consider the following genres of game, and tell me when they stop being about “interesting decisions”:
Turn-based strategy [Advance Wars]
Slow-moving real-time strategy [Kohan, Neptune's Pride]
Fast-moving real-time strategy [Starcraft]
Tactical “action” games [Defense of the Ancients]
Pure action games [Super Mario Bros, Galaga]
Rhythm action games [Guitar Hero]
At what point in this spectrum does the gameplay stop being about “interesting decisions”?
My answer: they don’t stop being about interesting decisions. Each genre is fundamentally about making decisions during every moment of gameplay. There are decisions being made in every one of these games; they’re just extremely different decisions, which occur in different layers of the brain.
At the bottom of the spectrum, the decisions are so minute that they’re no longer what we would call “decisions” in a normal definition. In other words: the exact way you configure your fingers across the buttons to prepare for the next set of notes coming towards you in Guitar Hero is a decision that you make.
Again, this is not what we’d typically call a “decision” in day-to-day language – we might normally call it a “choice” or even just an “action.” But fundamentally, they’re all the same thing.
These games each use different parts of your brain. They’re also both so hard that they make you want to lobotomize yourself… but each in a different part of your brain.
Fretting Over Tanks
Is there a difference between choosing what configuration my fingers are going to be in during a given millisecond-long period of Guitar Hero, and choosing what configuration my tanks are going to be in during a given turn of Advance Wars? Of course there are differences: in Advance Wars, my conscious mind is rationally considering the battlefield and making an intellectual decision; in Guitar Hero, my unconscious mind, my physical instinct, my muscle memory, and my intuition are deciding where my fingers need to be this instant, and moving them there as best they can.
But though they’re happening on different levels of consciousness, they are still fundamentally the same thing. Now that we’ve acknowledged the differences, consider the commonalities:
Each are actions defined solely by my own initiative. What actions I take, and what exactly the action is comprised of, are defined entirely by myself. I never move my hand on a Guitar Hero controller without it being my decision to move it; and no one but me is deciding where my fingers are going and how they’re getting there.
Both are always decisions which may be either “better” or “worse” than other decisions I might have made. My line of tanks could be more or less optimal for defense; the arrangement of my fingers could be more or less optimal for allowing me to hit the notes currently moving down the screen.
My decision-making improves as I learn. I don’t just get better at Guitar Hero because I’m memorizing the level: my hand is also constantly learning better ways to move and arrange my fingers on the keys. With time, my skill increases and allows me to take on new and greater challenges.
I admit that there’s a big difference between decisions that a player must make under time pressure, and decisions that the player has infinite time to make. Playing my puzzle game Connectrode (which has no time pressure) is very different from playing Dr. Mario (which does), though the games have mechanical similarities. But both types of decisions are still decisions: just because a decision has to be made within a time limit doesn’t mean that it stops being a decision. They’re just different flavors of decisions.
Boom, headshot. No more decisions for you.
Essentially I’m expanding the definition of “decision” here to encompass something that happens on all levels of human consciousness. Consider a game like Counter-Strike, where within one round the player must make “strategic” decisions (what configuration he and his squad should take and what points of the level to assault with what strength); “tactical” decisions (what vectors to approach from, what hiding places to choose); and minute “action” decisions (whether to use gross-movement muscles of the arm, or fine-movement muscles of the wrist, in order to maneuver the mouse so as to place the crosshair over an enemy player’s head onscreen). I think it’s best to holistically view all of these as “decisions” which are made during gameplay, but which simply exist in different layers of the operations of the human brain. (For a more detailed analysis of the varied decision-making in a Counter-Strike game, read Tynan Sylvester’s excellent Gamasutra feature Decision-Based Gameplay Design.)
Now, I’ll admit that calling these things “decisions” does seem silly (or at least inaccurate) once we start talking about minute movements of fingers on the buttons on a plastic guitar! In regular language, no one calls what you’re doing in Guitar Hero “decision-making.” I would probably be better understood if I said instead: Guitar Hero tests a skill, and so does Advance Wars; and though these are very different skills, they’re still both clearly skills, testing different areas of human mental (and physical) performance. But I believe that all “skills” have, fundamentally, the same “structure” – they’re composed of actions.
In the end, all games that are based on an element of challenge are by definition based on testing and challenging one or more skill. (If you think that your challenge-based game isn’t based on testing any player skills, then either you’re wrong and you’re not looking hard enough for the skill… or else you’re right and your game is neither challenging nor fun.) And all skill levels are essentially defined by what decisions you’re making and the quality of those decisions. As you play the game, you learn more, thereby improving your decision-making capacity – which is the same thing as saying “improving your skills”.
Letting your ship get captured: The classic risk vs. reward decision. Thing is, it represents about 1% of the decisions you make in this game.
Galaga and Garrison Keillor
While playing Galaga, I definitely make decisions, at a rate of about 60 per second: I’m either pointing my ship in a direction or not, hitting the Fire button or not… every moment of action (or inaction) is my own decision. But a large number of those minute choices are made by my “lizard brain”… or my “muscle memory”, or my “instincts”, whatever you prefer to call it. For some reason we don’t usually call such choices “decisions”; but I believe that classifying them holistically with other types of decisions clarifies their role, and their importance, in game design, and allows us to better understand and compare game designs.
And what of the decision in Galaga to allow my ship to be taken away, so that I might recover it later as a power-up? Clearly this is a higher-level, “strategic decision”, and it’s actually unusual and is used to break up the constant low-level “action decisions” that the gameplay is mostly comprised of. Many great games have multiple layers of decision-making, often taking place at the same time – this is an example of that.
Ultimately, that one decision in Galaga is the one that’s easier to talk about (and recognize) than the many tiny “wrist decisions”, because it’s the one occurring at the higher level of our
consciousness. But a truly far-seeing game designer is willing to acknowledge the importance of all types of decisions, which may compose all types of mental and physical skills. Garrison Keillor said “Nothing human is beneath a writer’s attention.” Similarly, no human capability for decision-making should be beneath a game designer’s attention… from leading a civilization, to moving a finger over the correct button – and remember, the former is never possible without the latter.
篇目3，How much choice do players really want?
by Jim Cummings
In his last post Matt discussed how players may modify different UI components so as to deal with the slew of motivationally relevant elements they encounter during complex and dynamic gameplay.
This personalization of one’s interface allows the player to attend to and process information in a manner that is maximally engaging by allowing a closer match between one’s pool of cognitive resources and the cognitive demands of one’s gameplay experience.
One might also note that this act of customization is likely in itself a motivating aspect of gameplay. Indeed, literature on gratification, learning, and user interfaces all find that individuals tend to prefer and become more engaged in exercises in which they are permitted at least some degree of control, customization, or personalization. And research specifically focusing on MMO gameplay like that discussed by Matt has found that players who are allowed to customize their avatar are actually more physiologically aroused by and cognitively in tune with their avatar’s onscreen actions.
One explanation for these sorts of findings stems from self-determination theory. SDT, which itself is comprised of multiple sub-theories, essentially suggests that we all have an innate, adaptive desire to exert control over the circumstances in our lives and that in being able to make choices for ourselves we exercise and validate a sense of autonomy. Further, (and key to our discussion) SDT reasons that because we are driven by a need for autonomy, we are more likely to be intrinsically motivated by conditions in which we can determine our own outcomes. In other words, we enjoy having a say in what happens to us, and therefore we enjoy having the option to choose.
Such a predisposition naturally explains the enjoyment one might find in the diversion of games, particularly those types of games in which players are permitted to define themselves and their conditions through customization and deciding between alternatives. Role-playing games, for example, do exactly this, as they typically allow players to name characters, assemble self-selected teams, customize character appearances and equipment, decide both depth and breadth of character skill specialization, discover multiple winning strategies, and explore both narratives and environments in a non-linear fashion.
And indeed, in the last few years other game types have become increasingly infused with such elements. First person shooters such as Modern Warfare and Borderlands are including progressively more intricate systems of skill specialization and equipment customization. Sports titles across the board have picked up “franchise mode” systems in which players not only enact the sporting events themselves, but get to make decisions regarding line-ups, draft picks, and athlete contracts. Even fairly simplistic puzzle games like Bejeweled now regularly include the player selection of alternate gameplay bonuses for each round. It would seem that titles found in all sorts of traditional “genres” are catering to a player desire for determining the circumstances of one’s own gameplay experience by including more choice decisions and more alternatives from which to select. And such commercial trends have been corroborated by academic research which has found that subjects report higher levels of enjoyment for and tend to spend more time playing games that offer relatively greater amounts of choice to their players.
However, can there be such a thing as offering players too much choice? A number of studies in real world environments have found that despite being driven by and showing a preference for an increased number of options and alternatives, people placed in scenarios that cater to this drive may experience certain negative consequences (a phenomenon termed the “paradox of choice”). For example, having an extended amount of choice options has been found to be demotivating, resulting in inaction or decreases in performance quality. In addition to such behavioral effects, “too much choice” has also been said to lead to specific cognitive detriments. These include delay or paralysis when faced with making a decision, negative affect or frustration in light of making a decision, and potential regret with one’s choice after a decision is finally made. Such negative consequences stem from the fact that having a large number of choices increases the amount of information an individual must process in order to make an informed/wise/rational decision.. This can become quite a demanding, challenging, and frustrating deliberative task as options are made more extensive. Yet, despite these negatives, people tend to nonetheless show preference for having an extended number of choices available.
Is there reason to believe that the problem of “too much choice” may carry over to virtual game environments? Well, to the extent that the choices they present are informationally sparse, have short-lived consequences, and allow for switching a decision at a low-cost, then games can likely avoid decision-paralysis, frustration, and regret on the part of players. However, this is increasingly not the case. In-game choices are not only becoming more numerous and extensive, but also – particularly in the case of large-scale virtual worlds and online networked gaming – more permanent and more costly to undo. Further, player customization options are increasingly non-trivial, as many decisions have real consequences for in-game success, in terms of both overcoming the hard-coded challenges and garnering social capital within a community of players.
Take for instance World of Warcraft, in which players currently face an environment filled with 19,363 types of armor, 718 trade good items, between 150-250 different abilities per player class, another 150-250 different talents per class, 263 different animal mounts, and 1,999 types of consumable (finite use) items (http://www.wowhead.com). Moreover, many of these different options are compared on a large number of attribute ratings – bonuses to one’s armor rating and stamina, for instance. Such attributes, both in their number and in their often incomparable effects, only exasperate the process of deliberating over and selecting from alternatives.
For many players facing these choices it is important to make the right decisions, as they often have implications not only for a character’s ability to complete new missions or explore new zones, but also for the social desirability of the player in the context of team-based group play. (Indeed, whether achievers, explorers or socializers, all types of players are often best served by making the “correct” decisions.) But again, to make an informed decision in such an information rich choice environment requires some cognitive heavy-lifting. It takes time and effort to identify relevant information, to weight and compare options, and to then make a decision. And while a given number of players may get their kicks from this process of testing out the relative superiority of alternative “specs” and gear sets, we may anecdotally assume that many players do not particularly enjoy such an exercise. Such players (likely more casual and less hardcore in their gameplay style) surely still take pleasure in the freedom to choose, but may find it frustrating to do the work necessary for ascertaining the “right” choice.
Ultimately, the issue of “too much choice” may pose a relatively larger problem for game environments than real world scenarios. Unlike the real world, games are constructed with the express intention of being enjoyable. However, if players who find it frustrating or paralyzing to deal with extensive options are required to do so in order to progress, frustration may increase and enjoyment may suffer.
Therefore, as player choices become more numerous, complex, and consequential (and thus more taxing and demanding), how might designers reduce the potential for players to grow frustrated or paralyzed when deliberating over what decisions to make?
1) Reduce choice. One solution would be to simply reduce the amount of choices players are permitted in games. But such an approach would throw the baby out with the bath water: a reduction in the number of options and decisions presented to a player would indeed dispel the negative consequences of choice, but would also junk the intrinsic rewards SDT tells us are conferred by the freedom to choose.
2) Reduce information. Another approach would be to continue the current trend of increased availability of choices, but to simplify the informational load of these choices. For example, this could be achieved by decreasing the number of component attributes players need to compare when deciding between multiple alternatives. However, such a tactic would have to be conducted in moderation, otherwise it may merely result in a multitude of choices that feel obvious, hollow, or insignificant
3) Reduce processing. An alternate solution may be the inclusion of decision-aiding tools that help streamline the information load placed on the player while still placing the actual decision in the hands of the player. Returning again to Matt’s post, UI mods already permit this to some extent. Other tools would include player-accessible data aggregators and the ability to crowd-source.
Though these devices may have their own drawbacks (for example, decreasing the player’s immersion into a virtual world’s fiction), they may still be less detrimental to player engagement than flat reductions of choice or choice attributes.
Developers have thus far been able to keep up with the increasing preference amongst players for more choice in their gameplay experiences. Yet, if current trends continue, players in all sorts of games may soon find themselves with more choice-related information than they can handle. At that point designers will need to find means by which to stave off the detriments of “too much choice” while still catering to a player desire for freedom. However it’s done, it will clearly require a careful balance of alleviating the cognitive demands placed on players with promoting the feeling of autonomy that makes our choices meaningful.
篇目4，Depth versus Variety: a Fundamental Change in Game Playing in the Past 30-40 Years
Recently I was discussing via blog posts what depth is in games (http://gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20111219/9125/What_is_Depth_in_Games.php and elsewhere), and then ran across a discussion of how role-playing games have changed since D&D was first published . I’ve realized that there is a connection between the two, that what gamers are looking for in games has changed in a fundamental way in the past 30-40 years.
That fundamental change is that 30-40 years ago many hobby game players looked for gameplay depth (and occasionally narrative depth) in their games. Now most game players don’t look for gameplay depth but look instead for variety, which is quite a different thing. Many more people now also look for narrative in their games, but I’m not sure whether they’re looking for narrative depth or narrative variety. Game playing has become much more passive where long-term decision-making is concerned, and that’s incompatible with gameplay depth. Yes, there’s lots of activity in many kinds of video games, and short-term decision making, but the decisions and choices often don’t really matter in the long run.
Variety tends to lead to replayability, but game depth also leads to replayability. So they are two paths to the same objective, getting people to play the game over and over again.
Is variety “bad?” Certainly not. Is gameplay depth “good?” Not in and of itself, though it’s what I have tended to look for in over 50 years of game playing. Regardless of my preference, this discussion is a recognition of reality, what IS, not a criticism of the change.
(At this point I hope it’s obvious that I’m talking about trends and tendencies, about majorities, not about every hobby game player. Of course there are many, many exceptions in a group as large as ours.)
I’m talking here about hobby gamers, about people who play games frequently as a hobby. Family gamers are a very different group, and have never been people who looked for depth in a game. Nor did they look for variety, 30-40 years ago, their purpose in playing games was and is to socialize with their families and friends.
What do I mean by depth and variety? I’m working on a very long piece discussing gameplay depth and other kinds of depth in games. For our purposes here I’ll say that deep gameplay requires players to make many significant decisions, decisions that make a difference in the outcome of the game, and those decisions have multiple viable choices so the player can pick a better choice rather than a worse one, but more than one choice has a good chance to be successful. (A “viable” choice is one that, at least a reasonable part of the time, can lead to success, as opposed to “plausible” but not viable choices that look like they might work out well but rarely if ever will.) There is often an element of emergence in such games, choices (and sometimes decisions) that players don’t even recognize when they first play the game. This is often associated with decision trees, decisions that lead to others that lead to others and so on in a sort of tree shape, that give a good chance of success in the game. Yet perhaps paradoxically, if a game has *too many* decisions and *too many viable choices*, then it loses depth as each individual decision and choice becomes insignificant to the outcome of the whole.
Variety, on the other hand, is doing lots more of the same kinds of actions and related activity without providing additional significant decisions and viable choices. Variety occasionally replace one decision with a different one, or more often replaces a choice or choices with different ones, but the volume of significant decisions and viable choices, and the depth of the decision trees, remains the same. Variety can be added by additional scenarios or levels, variable maps, different character classes, and random events (among others).
How things have changed
So much for brief definition. How (and why) have things changed? 40 years ago we didn’t have video games, nor did we have CCGs, we had board and card games and we had RPGs just about to emerge.
The development of RPGs reflects the 30-40 year fundamental change. Many of the players of original, first, and second edition D&D wanted gameplay depth. In third edition D&D the emphasis changed to ways of optimizing characters using a stupendous variety of published classes and skills and feats, a striving to make the perfect one man army for tactical combat. D&D became fantasy Squad Leader. It was much harder to die and in fact the “fear of death” was slowly being removed from the game.
In computer RPGs this was happening much more strongly. If you died then at worst you just loaded your saved game and continued. In many computer MMO (massively multiplayer online) RPGs you don’t even need to save your game, you just respawn and continue. After all, the makers of the MMOs do not have gameplay depth as an objective, their objective is to keep you playing the game as long as possible so that they can collect the monthly fees. (Now monthly fees are much less common because we’ve gone to free to play games, but the objective is still to have people play as long as possible so that they will spend money on virtual goods and other advantages.) In order to retain players, many online video games reward players constantly rather than make them responsible for earning their advancement and advantages. If there’s no responsibility for earning advancement, decisions become much less significant, and choices matter much less. Social networking games have taken this to the extreme. Engagement has replaced gameplay. (See http://whatgamesare.com/2011/04/how-engagement-killed-gameplay-language.html for more.)
Not only responsibility for your actions but the fear of death has been removed from electronic RPGs, and with it most of the gameplay depth has been removed. If it doesn’t really matter whether you die, if you can try again when you fail, then your decisions no longer make a difference to what happens in the long run, so they are no longer significant in the gameplay depth sense. World of Warcraft is a game with so little gameplay depth to it that professional “pharmers” can, in an economically feasible period of time, play characters up to high levels and sell them to other people who don’t want to *bother* to play the game to get to the maximum level. “The grind” characterizes play, and for many people playing the game is “like work.” (See http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/ .) I’ve said that variety has been substituted for depth in games but in WoW there doesn’t seem to be much interest from the players in variety until after you’ve reached maximum level. As characters work their way up there’s little interest in the journey, only in the destination of maximum level. For those at max level, variety is essential to maintain interest in the game.
Even at maximum level, big raids amount to characters doing the same thing, their “role” (DPS, healer, etc.), for extended periods of time. By all accounts it’s regimented and repetitively automatic, and does not involve making significant decisions with multiple viable choices.
In some video games we have the phenomenon of “mini-games”, completely different games that have been inserted into the main game for players to play when they get bored of the main game. Again it’s variety that is the attraction, not depth.
The recent fourth edition (4e) of D&D reflects this change of emphasis. Some responsibility is still there, but the fear of death has been almost entirely removed through lots of beginning hit points, healing surges, easy ways to come back into the action when you’ve been incapacitated, cheap healing potions, and so forth. Characters no longer have much capability to gather strategic (or tactical) information through spells. In the past D&D players had to speak in character to gather information, or figure out how to use spells to gather information: now they roll dice. Some of this may derive from video games where the referee–the computer–is nowhere close to smart enough to deal with a wide variety of dialogue and a wide variety of player intentions, so everything is reduced to dialog trees and numbers and dice rolls. 4e is now, in its “natural” form, almost entirely tactical battles without much long-range planning and consequently with very little strategy.
The blog commenters I mentioned above talked about players complaining about secret doors in 4e D&D. This appeared to be regarded as a “nasty DM trick”. As a counter-comment a 4e DM said he didn’t use secret doors because he knew where he wanted his players to go and what he wanted them to do and there was no point in hiding the path. In other words, in a game where variety and linear narrative is the objective then secret doors only get in the way. In a game where gameplay depth is the objective then secret doors can be a differentiator, and the choice to look for secret doors or not look for them can be significant.
RPGs are now arranged much more for players to experience variety, rewards, and winning rather than to experience gameplay depth and the possibility of losing. They are becoming more entertainments (something like movies) than games, if by games we mean something where there’s a significant opposition that requires thoughtful reaction.
I also think it’s much more common in RPGs nowadays that the referee devises a story and makes the players conform to that story. As Monte Cook observed several years ago at Origins, the published tabletop adventures tend to be much more story-based than in the past. The old-style alternative was to set up a situation and let the players make a story rather than forcing them to follow a linear path. In video RPGs, the Japanese/console style has been to force the players to follow along a particular linear story. (The American/PC style is more like WoW.) In fact some people have characterized the famous Final Fantasy series as stories punctuated with repetitive episodes of exploration and combat that make virtually no difference to what actually happens in the stories.
30-40 years ago most game players had one or a few favorite games, ones that they wanted to play over and over again. This is far less common now. Ask younger gamers, especially video gamers, what their favorite game is and most will be unable to tell you or will simply name the game they’re currently playing. Some are even surprised at the idea of having a favorite game. They want to name a dozen or more as their favorites, if they can narrow it down that far. The very idea of playing a game a hundred times or 500 times (I know people who have played my 4 to 5 hour tabletop game Britannia more than 500 times), or the video game equivalent, playing the same game for many hundreds of hours, is foreign to most contemporary gamers. Many of the younger people who do have a favorite game that they play over and over have settled on Magic:the Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh. Yet the very nature of CCGs is to change the game over time (providing immense variety) in order to persuade players to buy new cards; sometimes the game rules are changed as well.
Many AAA video games involve a puzzle or a story, and once you solve the puzzle or experience the story there is no reason to continue. Some of the games will give you several different characters to play so that variety is added to the game. But there is little gameplay depth. A game with deep gameplay can be played again and again while revealing new aspects and possibilities. Puzzles tend to be solved, and once solved hold little interest.
This fundamental change may reflect all forms of leisure activity these days. There are many more distractions and many more opportunities for entertainment than 30-40 years ago. Now we have the World Wide Web, we have hundreds of TV networks, we have movies and TV programs on recordable media and available through instant download, we have smart phones and texting and free long distance and iPads and MP3 players and so forth, none of which was available 30 or 40 years ago. People just don’t seem to stick to one thing the way they used to and that applies to games as well as everything else.
Playing a game with deep gameplay usually requires patience and a commitment to planning. These characteristics are in short supply nowadays as people rely on their cell phones to provide both distractions (time killing) and a way to compensate for poor planning or lack of interest in planning.
We have become “entertainment bathers.” Sound/music bathers like to have 1000 or 10,000 songs on their MP3 players but likely don’t listen to any one of the songs very much. (Clearly of an older generation, I can listen to the same song over and over for an hour sometimes, if it’s a really good song; how many young people would even dream of doing that?) Game bathers like to have lots and lots of games to play but don’t play any one of them very much. Variety is the goal. We’ve become a jaded society.
This is not the only fundamental change over that period. Even among many who want to fully use their brains when playing games, puzzle-solving (which rarely involves gameplay depth, it is a different kind of skill) has displaced gameplay depth. And in the video game world, engagement has tended to replace gameplay as the objective of designers. But those are topics for another time .
篇目5，Discussing Positive False Choices in Game Design
by Josh Bycer
The last time I looked at false choices in game design, I talked about options that were across the board weaker than your other available options rendering the choice meaningless. For today’s post I want to expand on that discussion with a talk about the same problem but from the opposite end of the spectrum when a choice is too good.
Positive False Choices:
The idea that a choice could be too good sounds like a weird complaint as you want the player to have options that are great. The problem is when the choice is so good that it becomes required due to how useful it is. Similar to our talk last time, these false choices punish the player for not choosing them while the previous post talked about options that punish you for choosing them.
To help designate the two types of wrong choices, we’ll refer to the positive examples as positive false choices and the negative ones as negative false choices for this post. A positive false choice can typically be seen in strategy guides or min-max suggestions where the person says that one choice should always be used or one set of instructions that work the best every time.
That last line is very important as that is what separates having the player decide between good options and having something as a positive false choice — If the choice is always the superior option then it can be considered a positive false choice as you always want to take it.
Here’s an example of this from Payday 2, before the skill overhaul each of the classes had bonuses that unlocked for putting X amount of points into respective skill trees.
The technician class had a bonus where you could get 25% more headshot damage for going up it. Obviously this was very useful on the higher difficulties and became the go-to tree for players just for this one option.
As you can see, this choice was superior because it was useful no matter what build you were, what weapons you used or how you played the game. And because this was always good, it became a positive false choice. What the developers did to fix that was to move it to the newly created perk system and now any player can easily get access to the bonus no matter what their play style is.
Since positive false choices are complete opposites of negative false choices, so is the best way to spot them while play testing your title. Unlike a negative false choice where every player will avoid it, a positive false choice is when every player will choose the same option every time no matter what. If you’re trying to make the player decide between choices, one shouldn’t always be the superior option. But figuring out a positive false choice can be difficult as there is more than one kind of choice in games based on how the games are played.
Required vs. Optional Choices:
The problem with trying to determine if a choice is a positive false choice is that depending on how your game is designed, some choices may be required simply by the nature of the mechanics. For instance in Payday 2, because the game has both stealth and loud levels there are some skills that are just plain required for effective stealth such as increase crouch speed and quieter enemy take downs.
In this case the stealth skills appear to be positive false choices because you need them in order to stealth effectively. However because they are a foundation of the stealth gameplay, you’re going to have to take them in order to make use of that specific mechanic. When something is specialized like that, then it’s not a positive false choice as the player is limiting themselves in some other aspect in order to make use of it. As a stealth player in Payday 2, I can’t repair drills as quickly or get the best armor due to my choices with build selection.
By doing this, it means that my skills range from being okay to great depending on the situation, which is what you want your choices to do. For an example of what not to do, we turn to Civilization Beyond Earth.
In the retail version of the game, you could set up trade depots with nearby cities or stations for bonuses. The research was pretty cheap and the units didn’t take that long to build. Once a supply chain was established, you’d receive constant bonuses from it with the only thing to do was restart it after a certain amount of turns. Here, the option to set up trade depots is always good no matter what the situation is and the onetime cost to research and produce is outweighed by the benefits they provide.
With the trade depots, I’m not limiting myself in some area by taking it, so they’re a win-win with no downsides and therefore the use of trade depots is a positive false choice.
Another sure sign that you have a positive false choice is if your player base says that they will not use certain items or choices to make the game harder. If a choice in your game is one that is so instrumental to play that people avoid it for a handicap, then you have a problem.
Good game design is not about giving the player positive false choices but having them decide on what they feel is the best course of action. A good set of choices is about challenging the player to adapt to the gamescape and situations, not reading a guide and following a check list.
Usually the ways to fix a positive false choice are the same as a negative — either tweak the choice or tweak the other choices in the game. But you need to be careful as weakening a choice too much may make it too situational. If something is only good 1 out of 10 times and the rest of the time worthless, then you’re just creating another negative false choice.
Variety may be the spice of life, but you can have a case where there are just too many choices without any real value to them. If all your choices are based on incremental or not noticeable effects like +2 attack or +1 health, then the game will lack depth. It’s like being asked to choose between a high jump and a tall leap.
Good choice design is presenting the player a balanced number of options, so that there is variety while making them viable as well . No one choice should be superior/the worse and if you can nail the balance right, you’ll have one very interesting game.
篇目6，GD Column 25: When Choice is Bad
by Soren Johnson
Nothing defines video games more than the importance of player choice. Interactivity is what separates games from static arts like film and literature, and when critics accuse a digital experience like Dear Esther of being “not really a game,” it is usually from a lack of meaningful player choice.
However, because choice is held up as such an ideal among game designers – armed with phrases like “enabling player agency” and “abdicating authorship” – the downside of choice is often ignored during development, hiding in a designer’s blind spot. In fact, every time a designer adds more choice to a game, a tradeoff is being made.
The game gains a degree of player engagement as a result of the new option but at the cost of something else. These costs can commonly be group together as either too much time, too much complexity, or too much repetition – all of which can far outweigh the positive qualities of the extra choice.
Too Much Time
If games can be reduced to a simple equation, a possible equivalence would be (total fun) = (meaningful decisions) / (time played). In other words, for two games with similar levels of player choice, the one which takes less actual time to play will be more fun. Of course, usually the comparison will not be so obvious; a new feature will add a meaningful decision, but is it worth the extra time added to the play session?
As an example, Dice Wars and Risk are similar games of territorial conquest which answer this question differently. In both games, players attack each other by rolling dice, and the victors are rewarded with extra armies at the start of their next turn. In Risk, the player decides where to place these armies, which can be a meaningful decision depending on the current situation. In Dice Wars, however, the armies are placed randomly by the game, and the result is a much faster game.
Which design is right? While the answer is subjective, the relevant question to ask is whether the combat decisions become more meaningful if the player takes the time arrange her new armies – or, as is likely, how much more meaningful they become. After all, the player can pursue a more intentional strategy in Risk, but is that aspect worth the not insignificant extra time taken by the army placement phase?
The answer may depend on the audience (Dice Wars is a casual Flash game while Risk is a traditional board game), but the designers should understand the ramifications of their decisions. Sometimes, army placement in Risk can be a rote decision, and sometimes, reacting to an unexpected arrangement in Dice Wars can lead to a new, more dynamic type of fun. Ultimately, the aspects of Risk which lengthen the play session must justify the time they cost to the audience.
Too Much Complexity
Besides its cost in time, each choice presented to the player also carries a cognitive load in added complexity that must be weighed in the balance. More options mean more indecision; deciding between researching five different technologies feels much different than choosing between fifty. Players worry not just about what they are choosing but also about what they are not choosing, and the more options they decline, the more reason there is to worry.
Each type of game has a sweet spot for the number of options that keep play manageable, enough to be an interesting decision but not too many to overwhelm the player. Blizzard RTS’s have maintained a constant number of units per race for decades; StarCraft, Warcraft 3, and StarCraft 2 all averaged 12 units per faction. For the third game, the designers explicitly stated that they removed old units to make room for new ones.
Indeed, RTS games as a genre are under assault from their more popular upstart progeny, the MOBA genre, best exemplified by League of Legends and Dota 2. The original MOBA was a Warcraft 3 mod entitled Defense of the Ancients, which played out like an RTS except that the player only controlled a single hero instead of an entire army.
This twist broadened the potential audience by radically reducing the complexity and, thus, the cognitive demands placed on the player. Instead of needing to manage a vast collection of mines and barracks and peons and soldiers, as in a typical RTS, the player only needed to worry about a single character. Consider the UI simplifications made possible by allowing the camera to lock onto the player’s hero instead of roaming freely across the map, which forced the player to make stressful decisions about managing his attention.
Of course, this change did take away many of the meaningful choices found in an RTS. Players no longer decide where to place buildings or what technologies to research or what units to train or even where to send them; all these choices were either abstracted away or managed by the game instead. Again, the relevant question is whether these lost decisions were worth the massive amount of complexity they added to a typical RTS.
The success of MOBA’s demonstrate that although players enjoy the thrill and spectacle of the large-scale real-time battles pioneered by RTS games, they do not necessarily enjoy the intense demands of trying to control every aspect of the game. Designer Cliff Harris discussed a similar point for his successful alt-RTS Gratuitous Space Battles, which does not allow the player any control of units during combat: “GSB does not pretend you can control 300 starships in a complex battle. It admits you can’t, and thus doesn’t make it an option. Some people hate it. Over 100,000 enjoyed it enough to buy it, so I can’t be the only person with this point of view.“
Too Much Repetition
The final way that too much player choice can negatively affect the game experience is perhaps a bit surprising, but games with too much freedom can suffer from becoming repetitive. A typical example is when a game presents the player with an extensive but ultimately static menu of choices session after session; players often develop a set of favorite choices and get stuck in that small corner of the game space.
Sometimes, a fixed set of options can work if the player needs to react to a variety of environments; the random maps in a Civilization game can prod the player down different parts of the technology tree. However, almost all games could probably benefit from reducing some player choice to increase overall variety.
Consider Atom Zombie Smasher, a game in which players use up to three special weapons (such as snipers or mortars or blockades) to help rescue civilians from a city overrun by zombies. However, these three weapons are randomly chosen before each mission from a set of eight, which means the player reacts as much to the current selection of weapons as to the city layout or zombie behavior. Instead of relying on a particular favorite combination, the player must learn to make unusual combinations work, which means the gameplay is constantly shifting.
Similarly, in FTL, the crew members and weapons and upgrades available change from game to game, depending on what the randomly generated shops provide. Thus, the game is not about discovering and perfecting a single strategy but about finding the best path based on the tools available. Put simply, the variety of gameplay in Atom Zombie Smasher and FTL emerges because the designers limited player choice.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, games with hefty customization systems usually devolve into a few ideal choices, robbing the flexible systems of their relevance. In Alpha Centauri, players used the Unit Workshop to create units with different values and abilities. However, the most effective combinations soon became obvious, marginalizing this feature.
Thus, giving the player too much control – with too many options and too much agency – can reduce a game’s replayability. Indeed, would Diablo be more or less fun if players couldn’t actually choose their skills? The game would certainly feel different as the loss of intentional progression would turn off many veterans, but the new variety might attract others looking for a more dynamic experience. Randomly distributed skills might force players to explore sections of the tree they would have never experienced otherwise. The important fact is that this loss of meaningful player choice would not necessarily hurt the game.
Ultimately, game design is a series of tradeoffs, and designers should recognize that choice itself is just one more factor that must be balanced with everything else. Even though player control is core to the power of games, it does not necessarily trump all the other factors, such as brevity, elegance, and variety.
篇目7，Constraining The Space of Possibility
by Mark Venturelli
In this week’s article I’m going to talk about the smart use of constraints for player choice. I’ll provide you with a quick view on space of possibility, the challenges involved, and some good and bad examples from other games.
Constraints Are Good For You
Game design is primarily choice design. The bulk of what we do as designers is to create an experience for the player that arises from providing them with a series of interesting choices – this is an easier concept to grasp in turn-based games such as Chess or Magic: The Gathering, where these moments of decision are discrete, but it also applies to real-time games. While playing Dungeonland, do I stop attacking to try and revive a nearby ally? Do I use my special Potion right now, or do I save it for later? Do I dodge roll to the right or do I keep attacking that enemy?
One of the fundamental things about design, then, is the “space of possibility”. I’ve wrote an article about that a few years ago so I won’t be going in-depth here, but generally it represents all the choices a player has at his disposal at a certain point in time. Fewer options, smaller space of possibility; lots of options, bigger space of possibility.
It’s easy to think that “the more, the merrier”, but this is hardly the case, as Civ IV designer Soren Johnson wrote about last year. If you swarm a player with too many choices, they will either pick randomly, or stick with what they have tried before. Both cases are usually not considered very interesting play.
I have always defended “laser-focused” game design that keeps only what is absolutely needed and cuts off any “unnecessary” parts – Dungeonland was mostly designed with this mentality. I still think this constraint-heavy approach is a valid way of designing games, but I’ve been exploring a more balanced approach.
Constraints Are Not Good For You
So what happens to your system when you constrain the space of possibility to the most important decisions and leave the rest in the cutting room floor?
There is constant tension between simplicity/complexity and shallowness/depth. While the world is filled with examples of simple games that are extremely deep and complex games that are extremely shallow, making a simple-but-deep game is a rare achievement. Everything comes down to how integrated your mechanics are: tightly-woven games will play very differently every time and make new situations emerge with very small changes in their configurations. So when I design a game my personal challenge always is “I want to design the deepest game that I can with the simplest possible system”.
This is very hard. Really hard. While I’m ultimately proud of what I achieved with Dungeonland’s combat, ultimately it wasn’t as deep as it should be. And that’s the question: you have extracted good depth from your very simple mechanics, but is your game deep enough? Dungeonland sure could have used a few extra feet of depth in there, and I have learned a lot from that experience.
Ultimately what we want is to have a lot of potential for emergence. We want our system to behave in unexpected ways, to surprise us, to be a generator of new gameplay stories every time we play. Sometimes you can inadvertently constrain your design into a single-note instrument.
Creating More Elegant Constraints
So I’m currently designing Chroma Squad, which features tactical turn-based combat. This a genre that, with multiple units, each usually with different abilities and attributes, different terrain types/obstacles and whatnot, especially benefits from a smart approach of constraining the space of possibility. We will look at two good examples of unit movement and positioning in this genre that share a common approach of constraining: XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Battle for Wesnoth.
Both games’ designers seem to have realised the same thing: you can use “soft” limits on player choice instead of limiting options altogether. Each unit is allowed to move pretty much anywhere the player wants, but that’s not how players “read” each turn.
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, each location has one of 3 “hard” attributes: No Cover, Half Cover or Full Cover. Leaving your units out in the open is usually a terrible idea, so players will almost always move their units towards Full Cover (or at the very least Half Cover) locations. With well-executed level design, what this creates is an elegant constraining of players’ space of possibility when moving units: you always have just a handful of “real” choices to make, even though you are free to stray off the safe path every once in a while if the situation calls for it. While there are many other considerations to make when moving, such as flanking, line of sight and range, ultimately you are first “filtering” these options through the Cover spots first.
In Battle for Wesnoth (a brilliant open-source tactical game which you should absolutely play if you haven’t already), they adopt a terrain system not unlike the one found in the Fire Emblem games – different terrain types have a “defense” percentage value that increases the chance for enemy attacks to miss. Different units also take advantage of terrains differently – Elven units gain extra bonuses from forests, while Dwarves are more protected at hills. It creates a similar effect to XCOM’s system – even though you can move units anywhere, you are usually filtering the possible moves through the best terrain positions first.
Removing the Constraints
So imagine if the new XCOM did not have these cover rules, or if they were not as important to keep your units alive as they are in the current design. Players would have to consider a LOT more options for range, line-of-sight and flanking, and suddenly looking two or three turns ahead would be an herculean task. The game would feel less “tight”, if I may use a looser term, with turns lasting longer.
Also, if all terrains in Battle for Wesnoth were flat, there would be a similar effect: enemy movement is suddenly near-unpredictable, and moving each unit effectively would require several minutes of analyzing the possible consequences – in other words, you would just not care and would move anywhere, hoping for the best. As predicting future states of the game becomes harder, the generally unwanted effect of analysis paralysis occurs – a real choice never occurs, and the player ends up choosing randomly.
Reinforcing the Constraints
But now picture it from a different angle: what if in XCOM you could ONLY move your units to cover spots? Much like in 5th Cell’s shooter Hybrid, all movement to points that are not in cover would not be permitted. In several cases, the experience of playing XCOM would be surprisingly intact, but you would lose a lot of emergent potential. I can remember several occasions when I had soldiers sprint out in the open and save the day, and these stories would not be possible if Firaxis had chosen to apply this constraint.
Would it be worth it? In my humble opinion, absolutely not. In many ways, this is what happened to their strategy layer: boiled down to only the most fundamental choices, the end result is stale. You hardly hear a story about XCOM in the strategy layer – the cool stuff only happens on the ground, which is a shame considering the rich heritage of emergence from the original game.
In many ways, this “too-constrained” approach was the one I used in Dungeonland, and in hindsight I can see several missed opportunities for letting players venture off the beaten path.