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Players don't want to choose, they want to pick - and only sometimes
by Adam Rebika on 08/26/12 03:15:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


So, I have finally gotten around buying myself a 3DS! God, playing Zelda: Ocarina Of Time again sure brings back a lot of memories. And I was lucky enough to find a copy of Fire Emblem - Shadow Dragon (remake of the first fire Emblem).

Now, even though it is my favorite Nintendo IP, Fire Emblem games are not very popular in France, and finding copies more than three months after the release of the game is pretty much impossible.

But when I happily told the few of my friends about my purchase, most of them answered me that they hated this game. Why? Because the only way to get some characters or bonus levels was to kill some of your party members.

Canas from Fire Emblem Blazing Swords

For those of you unfamiliar with these games, there are a few things that you should know before I move on with this article. During each game, you get to recruit 40 - 50 units for your army. Each of these units is unique, with its own and unique personnality (Each new Fire Emblem game brings a whole new load of charismatic, appealing and unforgettable characters (Canas, you remain my all-time favorite). Most of these characters have to be hired through very specific actions, that require the player to pay attention to a lot of small details - for example, if you know one of your characters is looking for his / her long time lost brother / sister, and you run into an ennemy unit that looks a bit like this character, then you have to send him there to unlock a dialog allowing you to hire said brother / sister. Out of these units, you'll only really use 15 - 20 of them during each playthrough, and the other ones will be unused. BUT most Fire Emblem players are very serious about hiring every bonus unit AND making sure they all survive (if one of your units dies, then it's over, you never see it again). Actually, they won't reckon having finished the game if they don't have every unit and every bonus level.

Now, you see where the problem is when the game requires that his players choose between having all the characters OR having all the bonus levels. You can't have both, you must give up one of these to get the other.
And I have to say, this has to be the most meaningful choice a videogame has ever faced me with. I cared enough about the outcome of this choice that it actually took me 5 - 10 minutes to decide myself. And I have to admit, for a little while, I hated this game for imposing me this choice.
Then I started thinking: I, like most gamers, would like to see videogames evolve towards more freedom for the player, especially through branching storylines. I have always wished for choices with real consequences, with less obvious outcomes... Choices that mattered. Then, why was I upset about having to choose this time?

Usually, choices in video games fall into two categories:

  • Gameplay choices, where you choose how you play the game. Even the most linear games offer a form of gameplay choice (do I snipe this guy or do I throw a grenade at him?), but some do try to make them more developped, especially RPGs where you get to pick your class, your skills etc. Some games offer very different gameplays depending on your choices, but for most of them, it's just a different animation when you smash the hit button and a different skin for your character.
  • Story choices, where your actions determine the story... In theory. Indeed, most of the time, either the choices are very manichean and have little to no influence on the game itself (Fallout 3 and Fable, I'm looking at you) OR are limited to a simple choice right before the final boss, with, in the worst cases, only one of these options considered as canon. 

He was the best option, anyway

Most gamers consider that the little quality of choices offered are a consequence of the lazyness of game developpers. But even when a game tries to offer a more elaborate choice, such as Fallout: New Vegas and its four factions, I realized that I did not care so much about that choice. No matter which faction I side with, it will win and I will win. Of course, story-wise, each ending is very different, and we can even think that the fate of the whole country (or what's left of it, anyway) is at stake but at the end of the day, I will always be the clear winner of that war. I have seen very vivid debates about which faction was the best for the Wastelands, but they were only coming from a small minority of Fallout fans, while most other players just sided with this guy because he looked cool, or that guy because he was the first one they stumbled upon.

Now, what about a game where not all choices are good? A game where siding with one faction would lead to to defeat while the other faction would lead you to victory? A game where your choices are not always good? Wouldn't it be awesome? No.
Real life is filled with this kind of choices. People have to choose all day, every day. And none of these choices are clear or manichean. Do I go for the low paying but exciting job or the boring but high paying one? With which friend do I side with in this fight? Should I be honnest or protect her / him from the hurtful truth? These are Fire Emblem like choices: you never get everything, you never really win. If you want something, you must sacrifice something else. And your whole life is devoted to finding a right balance between all these choices.
People mostly play video games to rest from how tiring and stressful life is. When playing, you don't want to choose, you want to pick your favorite option. And if games are so relaxing, it's because you know that every choice will lead you to success, and failure comes immediately after a mistake, not ten hours later. Of course, you have some games with bad and good endings, but they only are different kinds of success (the success being the fact that you finished the game, played through every level and got pretty much everything that was to be gotten), and the bad endings are rarely that bad.

To conclude on this point, I would say that obviously, when it comes to storyline choices, you should always make sure that every option leads to success. The player should not give up something to get something else, since it's what they do all day long. The player only wants to pick his favorite way to victory, as nothing is more frustrating than failure. Of course, you can and should make the different options less manichean and the environment more reactive... Only if, of course, this serves the point of the game.
Still my favorite Ganondorf There are many games that would gain next to nothing from branching storylines. Whenever I play Zelda, I want to beat the crap out of Ganon(dorf), not to have the option to side with him. There are many advantages to having a linear story with no choices, such as better character development, more controlled rythm etc. And let's not forget that making a branching storyline can be very expensive.
Halo ReachNow what would be interesting would be a linear game where the main character loses in the end. This time, the player still feels he has succeeded, since he has finished the game, and you can try to create a moving story about how he indeed fails. But then again, you should make sure the game follows a more traditional scheme, with a climactic ending, a final boss or a final fight that the player wins. One good example is Halo: Reach, which is centered around the desperate struggle to defend Reach from the Covenants. From the beginning of the game, you know you will lose in the end. And indeed, the main character dies in the last level, after an heroic fact. But here, the exception is that he still succeeded somehow, by allowing Cortana to escape from the hands (?) of the Covenants.
One chance Can a game explore failure? Well, only one example comes to my mind, and I wouldn't really tell it's a game. It is called : One Chance. Basically, you have six days left to live, and you get to choose how you send them. Of course this is an interactive digital experience, but it isn't fun nor challenging. I would still recommend that you try it, as it is pretty moving and well realized (here's the link if you want, it only takes five minutes and is completely free:
Now could a real, fun video game be centered about choices and failure? I doubt it, but it is still worth trying.

Same goes for gameplay choices.  While allowing your player to specialize his character can be a selling point in many games, it is not always the case, especially since you will have to devote a lot of resources creating balanced options and levels that make all of them viable and fun to play. Thief games would be much less fun if you just had the option to storm through the castle and kill every guard inside.

So, my conclusion would be that, even though offering various options to your player can do your game some good, it's not always the case, especially when you consider the fact that gamers usually don't want to care too much about said choices.

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Eric Schwarz
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Good points. Some gamers want to be faced with tough and interesting choices to make, either in gameplay or story. Others don't want to and just want to kick back and relax. And no matter what us aficionados think, most gamers do not really care about games as much as we do or even care to appreciate the "finer points."

What is more important is, I think, to identify markets where different types of games are wanted and to develop accordingly. RPG fans love games with lots of choice and consequences, both good and bad (many like the fact that RPGs like Fallout and Arcanum let you make bad characters, for instance, or break the storyline if you do stupid things), but that is not appropriate for a game targeted towards a mass audience - hence why Bethesda changed Fallout 3 to a big open world where choices are plentiful but negative consequences are almost non-existent. When you are making a game with a huge budget that needs to sell millions, there is no room for faffing about with features that only appeal to a relatively small subset of players, unless it doesn't harm their own experience.

It sounds crazy, but I've met many, many players who absolutely hate it when games make them choose. They don't want to pick who lives or who dies. They don't want to figure out how a game's ruleset works and decide how best to level up their characters. They don't want difficult puzzles or gameplay that deviates from the core mechanics. They don't want to be able to fail, at all. It sounds very strange to someone like me, but if you are in the business of making games for those people, I think ignoring that is foolish.

It's interesting you bring up Zelda, actually, because it's one of those games that makes you feel, mechanically, like you have choices - you have a big open world to explore, you have tons of items and magical powers you can use, and rarely if ever are you obviously railroaded in a way that feels forced and unnatural. Yet there is very little "real" choice to make in a Zelda game, because ultimately the story is linear, the outcomes are fixed and there is only one solution to every puzzle. In its case, the illusion of choice is so cleverly erected by interesting play mechanics that nobody ever really cares there is so little of it. The same applies to a game like Half-Life - linear levels, linear story, linear weapon progression, but we never "feel" it.

Adam Rebika
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Thanks for the feedback.

I know about these people who don't want to choose. I remember making a friend of mine play "One Chance", he got angry at the game because he could not clearly see what was the option that made him "win".

We can also bless the fast development of the indie community, which allows smaller games that aim at very specific audiences, giving them exactly what they want.

Darren Tomlyn
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As usual, my reply is based upon the contents of my blog - (though I'm re-writing the first two posts):

What you are talking about here, is probably a little more fundamental that you realise.

The problem, is that the word choice simply isn't suitable to describe what games are about in the first place. But, because that is how people perceive such behaviour, that is what guides their hand in making and designing them.

What you are realising, here, is that choice, even a single choice, in itself, is not a game.

An equivalent activity for which the word choice IS a suitable description, however, (though it can still depend on its application), is a PUZZLE.

Unfortunately, by using the wrong words and language to describe either, or both, especially in relation to each other, the differences between them, and how they are applied, has been lost - especially in relation to the use of computers.

Games are not about choice.

Games are either about POWER - the ability to something, (anything), that does not already exist, (and compete by doing so in a structured environment), for games of skill, or INFLUENCE, for games of chance.

How such power and influence is applied, can be perceived as involving choice, but only ever on behalf of the player(s) and what they do for themselves, not what the game does to or for them, and which is completely subjective on behalf of the player(s), and not their creator(s).

Basing an entire definition and application of games on something that is so subjective, is always going to present problems.

A choice between things that happen to the player(s), is not truly consistent with games at all, but with a puzzle.

But since people do not understand and recognise the difference at this time...

Adam Rebika
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Thanks for the feedback.

I have to admit I am not that much into trying to define what games are and what they aren't. If the developpers are thinking they're making a game, and if the users are thinking they're playing, then it's a game - I don't think one can come up with a more subjective definition!
But I'll make sure to read your blog posts to get a better grasp on your opinion before giving you a complete answer.

See you around,

Darren Tomlyn
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If language was that general and subjective, it wouldn't be able to function, (and therefore exist) - which is why we've got a problem.

There is no such thing as an individually subjective (which is what the word subjective really tends to mean in this context) definition for a language - because it's not a language - (it cannot be used to communicate if no-one else knows, or has a consistent (enough) understanding, of what a word means) - it's just a means to represent information (to store it etc.), that MAY be able to be used to communicate, (and therefore become a language), but cannot do so until more than one person knows and understands it in a consistent (enough) manner.

The problem we have with the words game, art, puzzle and competition, (and even work and play it seems), is that their definitions have been allowed to become so subjective.

We understand why there's a difference between a bed and a chair - the different functions of each define their label.

The problem with the words game, art, puzzle etc., is that the functions, (even the basic nature of the functions), they are defined as and by are not recognised, either in isolation, or in relation to each other and the rest of the language. Becoming subjective was therefore inevitable. (Imagine if we tried to define bed or chair without understanding what furniture was used for, and meant - the basic functionality by which beds and chairs are related to and by.)

If the word chair (or it's equivalent in other languages) is used by humanity (for millennia) to represent something fairly specific, with a specific function, would you then accept SOME people calling beds 'chairs' just because SOME people who made and designed them didn't know any different? Or even calling something a bed if it was made out of wood, and not if it was made out of metal? Or something else a bed just because it 'looks right' even though it has a different function?

After all that had happened, would you understand why people would have trouble understanding what the words chair and bed represent and mean, or even have trouble understanding furniture itself? Even if such objects and functionality had existed for millennia, and the differences between them could be easily figured out, understood, defined and taught to people in a consistent manner?

But because the people who design and make such things don't quite understand and recognise such functionality, (mainly (it seems) because they get confused between the process of designing and creating them, and the function they are designed to fulfil) - this is what has happened to the words game, art, puzzle and competition etc. - (though they are not all affected the same way, which is actually a big sign as to what it going wrong).

The word game represents, and is defined by (a specific application of) the behaviour of the player(s) taking part. Just like a chair is defined by the act of the person using it, (sitting on it) - most (all?) things we create are defined by their function.

Simple, yes? Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.

Joshua Darlington
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I think the observation that some game choices are not satisfying has more to do way certain choices are designed.

Choices in chess are very engaging. When you play chess, your choices both work toward your own long term goal, but also shape the choices and game state of another competing human in real time. And there is also an easy way to track the sequential consequence of you choices.

The structure of AAA RPG Game choices can be more like static mazes and often game narrative mazes are not that interesting due to the directionality of top down design.

If one is trying to work within resource constraints, obvious choices like making the game social and adding more humans to the mix might not be an option. Adding AI opponents that make dynamic counter moves and change the maze structure might not be an option. But there are other ways to appeal to common game play entertainment modes. The question becomes: How to make a simple maze engaging for an explorer, or griefer, or achiever etc? Perhaps the branches of the maze advertise choices of entertainment content.

Adam Rebika
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Thanks for the feedback.

Well, there are two differences I found between chess and video games that make comparisons when it comes to choices pretty hard to make:
1) In chess, the rules are set in stone. Of course there are variants, but the point is that, before the game starts, both players agree about the rules and no player can change them. On the other hands, in video games, at least in solo games, the rules definer and your adversary are the very same entity: the game. It would be like playing chess against someone who can change the rules according to his will (what? you killed my queen? this means my pawns can now kill any unit in a 3 tiles radius!). You can make choices in chess because the outcome is, if not predictable, stuck in a range of possible moves for your adversary, while in video games nothing is predictable as pretty much anything can happen.
2) In chess, unlike games, there is no emotional attachement. Your pawns are well... Pawns in your great scheme of things that will lead you to victory. You can compare between a game like Advance wars where units can be built almost at will thus easily sacrified and a game like Fire Emblem where each unit has its unique personnality, thus making the choice of sacrificing someone much harder.

Regarding constraints, making easier development tools is a way to go, since each possibility will be implemented much faster, maybe by the game designers / writers themselves. But ultimately, you will need to stop somewhere instead of losing yourself in a huge number of possibilities, some that will not even be seen by most players.
And when it comes to making a game engaging for many different types of people, maybe we shouldn't? Why not aiming for specific kinds of players, with lower budget games?

John Flush
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Sorry, took me a minute to realize that you were referring to the Gaiden Chapters as 'bonus levels'. As I viewed them the chapters are little more than a chance for you to level up more with your characters, seeming you don't have many left anyhow and honestly, despite how much I have played the game I have never gone after these levels for that reasoning alone.

My problem with these choices is they require so much time investment to even make the choice again, then the result is so minor it doesn't even add that much to the game. It is easier to just wikipedia it and move on than spend another 20 hours digging up 30 minutes of different. That is a lot of time wasted in my mind. I actually dislike choices in games these days because of this - very minor different in the end / at all, lots of replay. It is like story grinding to see it all.

Adam Rebika
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You have a point. If you take, for example, Fallout New Vegas, the four factions you have all have missions similar to each other (kill / help this or that faction), so basically you're only reporting to a different personn each time.

Now when it comes to the Gaiden Chapters in Fire Emblem, I know many players who don't care playing the game many times if it is what is needed to get a specific bonus. Some bonus characters in Sacred Stones where only unlocked after beating the game 5, 10 or IIRC 15 times in a row.

Nathan McKenzie
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I think there's a really strong parallel here to movie watchers. There is a surprisingly large audience for movies that demands that they watch things that have happy endings. You might be inclined to say that the amount of amazing films that this audience will never watch is pretty staggering, and you would be right. Fortunately, film has developed enough segmentation in its audiences that if you want to make a movie that doesn't hit purely formulaic beats, you will find a certain amount of people on board to give it a watch (assuming it's good otherwise).

It will probably always be the case that there is a large army of players who never want to be confronted with non-reversible, unfair seeming, weighty, vexing choices in their games. The real trick is figuring out if there's a way to find or develop an audience that does find those sorts of choices aesthetically intriguing, if you're interested as a developer in making those sorts of games.

Framing is everything, though - I think it's imperative to make it clear to players that they're going to be making those kinds of choices, and they should be buying into that.

Adam Rebika
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Yeah, you really have to aim for a specific population, especially when you see how big the market has grown these last years.

But the difference between movies and games that make bad endings even harder to make is that, in movies, you just watch, while in games you act, so if the ending is bad players can take it as a personnal failure. Especially when a movie lasts 1.5 to 3 hours, while a game is more 15 to 60 hours, so the involvement is much higher.

Jacob Rider
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Right now, I think that non-choice based games are more appealing to a mass market because the choice based games haven't really reached a level of grace, sophistication and quality to challenge the feel good nature of just being the hero. I think there are number of substantial technical and economic challenges to making a great choice based game. Divergent choices with meaningful differences make a game bulky and expensive with the techniques available. I think procedural generation improvements like the radiant quest system in Skyrim will be key to future choice based games.

Imagine a RPG that generates a unique story with unique choices based on player choices that are entirely procedurally generated (PG) in a PG world. I think for that to work, the player must have a way to make choices proactively instead of the choices be fed or prompted, and the AI would have to be way more complex than anything done before. Maybe I am ignorant, but I don't know of a game that procedurally generates a story. Mush minecraft, eve online, skyrim, and the sims together.

Adam Rebika
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I am not a firm believer in procedurally generating the whole story, but a game where the AI of the NPCs is so developped that whole questlines come from their interactions between each other and their reactions to the player's acts is something to be tried someday.
Also, it's good that you bring out Eve online. The model of having a sandbox world and letting your users create the stories and all should be used more often. Hopefully their WoD MMO will be this good, if it ever gets released!

Matthew Downey
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I was hoping I'd get some interesting information on character customization and what I got was far more meaningful and interesting.

Tbh, I don't like tough choices either, unless they are not inevitable. If I had the choice of killing one player or the other (but you can override that decision by putting in another 50 hours of gameplay just to save them both), I wouldn't be annoyed, but making choices does suck when you happen to like both the characters.

In a lot of situations, when you have to side with one character or the other, they are polar opposites, so designers can easily predict that 90% of players will be content with choosing just one or the other, but choosing just one (again) can really suck.

Two examples:

Cave Story: I replayed this game three times just to get the good ending (but again it was possible, if I had to go with the bad ending I probably would have rage-quit).

Mass Effect: I didn't mind making the choice at the end, although it might have been interesting to opt both of the characters into the line of fire and you could (with a lot of luck/skill) save both. If players can gamble with the lowest odds to get a better outcome, I'm guessing they would gladly do so.

You could even delete all prior saves when the player chooses the gamble option and disable saving until the conclusion of the decision (not just to troll your user-base) but also to add to the lives-are-on-the-line mentality: it's do or die.

I've never seen a game that, after 50hours of gameplay, will disable saving and loading if you fail, so you can't just start over a couple of times and win. After all life doesn't always give you second chances and it definitely doesn't give you respawns.

It's an interesting concept, since most games, music, and movies are built around stark contrast; some object or feature is present and the next second it's gone.

It's not just prestiging in call of duty, where you can get the guns back; it's not just a tough level where you respawn 100 times until you get it right or get lucky. It's one chance and you have to start over from the beginning.

One moment you are comfortable in your chair knowing the save will be there when you fail, then you suddenly have to make the decision between the easy choice of killing one or the other, or the more complex choice of gambling on both or none.

I feel like that is the best of both worlds: hardcore players might play a game ten times just to see the game through, while the casual guys and girls will just look up the alternate ending on youtube if they really want to see it (but not feel it).

Adam Rebika
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Thanks a lot for the feedback.

Blocking the saving at specific moments canbe very frustrating to the player. Maybe you could have a game that automatically saves whenever you log off? Actually, some games like that exist, such as Animal Crossing or Mount and Blade (which also offers you a lot of choices, you should really try it out if you have the occasion).