There was a time when the main choice you had to make in a game was whether to insert another coin to continue. These days many games are full of more interesting choices – moral choices, character customisation choices, upgrade choices, the list goes on. But are more choices always better?
Are there certain kinds of choices that developers should be focussing on and others that aren’t worth the effort? In this post I’ll discuss a few choices I’ve encountered in Bioware games and the impact they had on me. I hope no one takes this as being too negative on the quality of their work, which I think is routinely first class.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – light side/dark side
Initial impressions on this one are pretty favourable. Rather than forcing the player to fit into a pre-determined character, they are free to choose whether they will follow the light or dark side of the force, and this is done by presenting the player with situations where they can resolve a situation in a peaceful or violent way, by aligning themselves with good or evil characters or other similar scenarios.
On the surface, this is a winner. The gamer is free to choose the way they want to play the game rather than having it laid out for them. But all is not as it seems. At some point while playing the game, you may feel that the choices being offered to you are something of a hassle.
The reason for this is that, in all likelihood, you actually made the choice of whether you were going to be a good guy or a bad guy at the beginning of the game and responded to every choice throughout the game based on that decision. Rather than being individual choices, they just get the player to repeat their original choice a few dozen times as they progress through the story.
Ultimately, if they were to offer the player a choice at the beginning of the game to pick their alignment and make all the subsequent choices for the player, this would probably play out very similar to most people’s experience with the game. Obviously that would make the game seem linear and much less interactive, but if that’s exactly the way most players are playing anyway, then you’re also saving them the annoyance of having to constantly repeat themselves.
I do think there is a place for moral choices in games, but I think it has to be done with a lot more shades of grey than the primarily black and white implementations we’ve seen thus far. Ideally, whichever way you chose to play, the game could present situations where you have to sacrifice to continue down that path. If there’s never a downside to upholding your ideals, there are no tough choices, right?
Mass Effect – choose ally to save.
Mass Effect provides a large numbers of choices, but one of them in particular stands out. Without going into too much spoiler detail, late in the first Mass Effect you’re presented with a unique situation: two of your party members are in different locations and both are under fire, and you can only help one.
The criteria by which you choose which one to save is entirely up to you: you might consider one of them more deserving or more in need of your help or more valuable to your team or just the one you like more. The important point is this: it’s an important choice, and there is no objectively good choice.
This last point is critical. A scenario where one option is clearly better is an easy choice. A scenario where all options are beneficial can seem arbitrary. But a scenario where both options involve losing something important, that requires some deep thought, because it has a meaningful and predictable impact on the future.
Mass Effect 2 – character classes
According to stats released by Bioware, more people chose to play ME2 as a soldier than all other classes put together, and 80% of players chose to play as a male character. While it might be possible to interpret that information as being representative of the ME2 demographic, I would suggest a different explanation – a male soldier is the default character.
Now you might think that if gamers are going to spend over 20 hours playing a character, they could at least afford to spend a few minutes deciding what kind of character to play, but therein lies the problem: you’re asked to make those decisions before playing, and hence before you really know what impact those decisions will have. Why should anyone choose to play an engineer over a soldier based purely on an intro movie and a one-line description in the manual?
I think the root of this problem is that character classes come from a distant ancestor, the pen and paper RPG, where it would probably be assumed that there are a number of players (hence the game includes many classes working together) and/or that an individual player will play multiple times, and hence experience many classes. Neither of these should be assumed to be true in a videogame.
Upgrade choices (no specific game)
This is a pet peeve of mine. Somewhere along the line, developers became convinced that any choice they offer the player increases the interactivity of the game and is therefore better. But having a choice is only beneficial if it can be an educated choice, otherwise it may as well be chosen at random.
In many cases though, often in the choice of upgrades, there’s barely even the pretence of an educated choice. The developers will often provide a brief description of what your choices are, but the important stuff - which will make the game easier or more fun or is more in line with the way you want to play the game – is often impossible to determine from this info.
To an indecisive person like me, it presents quite a challenge: try and develop some rationale for making a choice where none is apparent. But even this often isn’t possible: in most of these cases the designer has actually made it so that the choices are equivalent. ‘Balanced’ is usually the stated goal.
But we’re not always trying to create weapon load-outs for a multiplayer shooter, where having balanced options is something of a requirement. More often we’re trying to provide new abilities for a player as they progress through a single player game.
Simply having a designer choose exactly which upgrades the player receives at what points sounds less exciting, less interactive, but it has its benefits. The most obvious is that it enables level designers to create worlds based around what upgrades the player will have at a certain point. If the player is choosing their own upgrades, this option might not be available
Another option is to automatically provide upgrades based on how the player chooses to play the game. This is the route the Tony Hawk series eventually went down. After a few games of awarding players ‘stat points’ that they could assign at will, they instead made it so that doing grinds slowly levelled up the grind skill, doing manuals built up the manual skill, etc.
This scenario removes the player’s ability to level up skills they haven't been using, but it presents them with a levelling scenario that both makes more sense in context (as the avatar is getting better at the things they practice) and manages itself transparently.
When designing scenarios where a player is to be given a choice, here’s a quick checklist to run through. I’ll use the example of choosing between two weapons to equip.
Firstly, and [maybe] most importantly, does the player have the information they’d need to make the decision? If, in our example, the player hasn’t used the weapons before and doesn’t know how they’ll fare in the situations they’ll encounter, how do you expect them to choose?
Secondly, are the choices meaningfully differentiated? Choice for the sake of choice doesn’t necessarily serve anyone, and just creates more work for your team. If both weapons are functionally equivalent, who cares? Why did you make two so similar weapons to begin with?
Lastly, have you considered how giving the player the choice might restrict the game design or level design? Could the story or the game world be made more interesting if we could make the choice for them? If one of the two weapons can, for example, destroy barricaded doors, and the other can’t, we can’t design our levels around destroying those doors if we give them a choice between the two.
Only when all of these have been taken into account can we be sure the choice benefits the game, is interesting and can be made intelligently. If these cannot be achieved, consider the alternatives: removing the choice, differentiating the choices, making the choices automatic based on player behaviour up to that point, etc. Most games are interactive enough without having to offer players pointless or uninteresting choices.