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by E McNeill on 07/07/14 02:40:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.

In college, I regularly played D&D with my closest friends. As you’d expect of a nascent game designer, some of my favorite sessions were the ones that I ran as the Dungeon Master. I created the world, guided the story, and acted out all the NPC characters, and it was a blast.
In my early DM sessions, I would put the players in carefully-bound scenarios where I could anticipate and react to all of their potential choices. If they tried to deviate, I’d find some way to bring them back into my grand plan. I made sure that I had all the answers all the time. You can imagine what it was like: every prison had a single valid escape route, every character was a shallow archetype, every potential battle was perfectly balanced for the party’s current strength. This allowed for a clear linear story, but it inevitably felt limited and heavy-handed. It was the “insurmountable waist-high fence” strategy of tabletop game design.
One day, I was too busy to prepare a proper scenario before it was time to play. I decided that I’d just try to wing it and let the story go wherever the players led it. In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that this turned out to be the most fun session in the entire campaign. The players came up with wild ideas and actually got to try them out (it involved a grain silo explosion and a daring hostage rescue mission). They got themselves into trouble and had to find a creative way out of it, and I was able to improvise well enough to maintain a coherent story. 
That left an impression on me. I hadn’t told the players ahead of time that the session would be different, but I think they could sense it right away; instead of subtly suggesting a set of options to choose from, I dumped a messy problem at their feet and left them to figure it out. My presence as the game designer wasn’t looming over them, and I wasn’t limiting their choices or weighing them down like I usually did. The game world was indifferent to their special status as players. I had created a problem without knowing the solution.
In short: my game was most fun when I didn’t have all the answers.
I think this is a large part of the fun behind games based on randomization, like Dwarf Fortress or the roguelike genre. You don’t feel constrained by the intent of the designer because, hey, not even the designer knows the “right” thing to do! The world didn’t exist before you started playing; it’s new and unexplored, and nobody knows the best path. Heck, it might even be impossible to win, and that uncertainty helps generate a more genuine feeling of adventure and danger and discovery.
Also, I think that this is one reason why I dislike the behaviourist view of game design. When designers talk about “rewarding” players, they’re talking about a “reward” as something that they create and dole out at will. But doling out rewards requires that the rewards are known and anticipated ahead of time, which blunts their impact. I think the more powerful rewards are the ones that are created within the player, born of genuine accomplishment and internal pride. The impact of a reward is limited if it's based on meeting someone else’s expectations. If the game has no expectations, if the game is just an engine for creating interesting problems, then winning becomes more meaningful.
To play devil’s advocate: there are obviously all sorts of problems with this design philosophy. For one, sometimes the meaning of victory comes directly from external benchmarks; see, for example, almost any sort of ranking system. For another, most randomly generated challenges are carefully balanced to create a satisfying and fair level of difficulty, and failure to do so could ruin the player's experience. For example, in another D&D game, a party made a single mistake (trying to swim to an island without checking the water for danger), and almost all of them got eaten by sharks as a result. It was a great example of an indifferent world full of danger, and I admire the principle of it, but few of the players found this to be a satisfying outcome. Somehow, a balance must be struck.
In Darknet, almost all of the challenge is randomly-generated, and I can state with confidence that the designer does not know all the answers. But, in an attempt to maintain some level of fairness, I generate everything around some intended level of difficulty. I make this difficulty visible to the player, and I simultaneously track the proven skill level of the player to give clear feedback. I worry that this removes some of the appeal of random generation; the game is essentially telling the player “you should be able to beat this” or “this should be too hard for you” etc. 
However, I’ve also tried to include systems that incentivize the player to take on challenges beyond their proven skill level. There’s always a divide between what the player could do and what the player can do, and I hope to drive the player into the realm of uncertainty and self-improvement. My intent is to signal “here is what you’ve accomplished in the past; how much further can you go now?” In the end, the game is still asking the player a question that I don’t know the answer to.

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Freek Hoekstra
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this is one of my biggest frustrations with games,
there are generally multiple ways to solve any problem, except in videogames.
you ahve to find junctionbox x and cut wire a to open gate B, while I can see 5 other ways,
I might see one or two other ways before I find the "right" designer approved answer and get frustrated by the game as it won;t let me execute this perfectly logical solution

in a game that does tons of platforming like say uncharted jumping over the fence for example...
something you feel you should easily be able to do but suddenly can't.

this is why I like Valve's AI director approach with Left 4 Dead so much, the game adapts to the players, sure there is much more to be done but I think it's the correct route to go. and offcourse there might be set moments where you want the player to experience something or tell something, but I do feel this is the way forward.

Sam Stephens
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"this is one of my biggest frustrations with games,
there are generally multiple ways to solve any problem, except in videogames.
you ahve to find junctionbox x and cut wire a to open gate B, while I can see 5 other ways,
I might see one or two other ways before I find the "right" designer approved answer and get frustrated by the game as it won;t let me execute this perfectly logical solution"

There are certainly cases of straightforward challenges done poorly. A good example of this would be Call of Duty: Black Ops where certain setpieces must be played out in very specific ways, but the game doesn't do a decent job of directing the player towards what should be done (
?qid=250476). The solutions don't always make sense compared to other conceivable and logical options.

That being said, I see nothing inherently wrong with gameplay challenges that necessitate a single action or decision. The spectrum of real-time challenges that the digital medium offers games allows for more skills to be tested than just strategic thinking. Video games can test our hand-eye coordination, timing, muscle memory, and quick reactions. There's only one way to perfect a song in Guitar Hero or Rhythm Heaven. Being able to actually conform to those constraints is both challenging and rewarding.

Likewise, having too many viable options can both confound the player and greatly reduce the challenge of the situations. Part of what make games challenging is that there are more wrong choices or actions than right ones. If the opposite were true, players wouldn't have to go beyond their "normal" mental functioning to be successful. With challenge comes learning; learning the controls, the rules, the mechanics, and so on. Players can pick these things up on their own either through experience or the most basic problem solving heuristic there is: trial and error. However, it's also the slowest, most difficult, and least efficient form of learning. Teaching and guidance goes a long way to building a competent player.

In this sense, designers are like teachers. They get players to the point where they are able to actually confront the challenges of the game. That is the problem with the "design of indifference." It's essentially an indifferent teacher. I personally believe that any kind of design or art should acknowledge the presence of the people who will interact with, watch, listen to, or read it. Music that doesn't appeal to the human ear doesn't sound very good. A painting that doesn't lead the human eye isn't aesthetically pleasant in relation to the subjects (unless it's an abstract painting). A string trimmer with a poor grip is uncomfortable to hold. Artists and designers are pretty knowledgable people about their creations and how people interact with them, so why not trust them to have all the answers?