In order to develop a useful understanding of a system,
one must know how the system works internally, at the lowest level.
Even an exhaustive memorization of every stimulus and response associated
with that system is weak compared to an understanding of the underlying
elements that cause a system to respond the way it does. One must
fully understand the smaller elements that make up the system and
how they interact before one can fully predict the overlying system.
This is why chemists try to understand how atoms interact, instead
of just listing what happens when you mix various chemicals. The
designer of videogames needs to understand gaming in the same way.
this article I'll attempt to break down and expose one of the key
elements that exists at the lowest level of most good videogame
experiences. It is useful to break down our understanding of videogame
fun to the most basic level because if we can achieve that, we gain
a simpler, more generalized understanding of video gaming that transcends
boundaries between genres or styles. Principles that apply at the
lowest level aren't confined to a genre. Thus, what made Half-Life
fun was the same thing that made Bejeweled fun, which was
also the same thing that made Starcraft fun. These games
may seem totally different in play style, complexity, and theme,
but all three were popular and very similar in one of the most fundamental
aspects of interactive games. That is, they all presented the player
with a continuous stream of difficult and interesting decisions.
are ultimately what make a game. The only thing that separates gaming
from books, movies, plays, and music is the element of decision-making.
None of these traditional entertainment forms afford the entertainee
any capacity to make a decision about anything. Books, plays and
movies are still unarguably superior to games in their ability to
tell complex, interesting stories. Few videogames could even be
reasonably argued to have come close to a good movie or book in
terms of character development, plot and thematic development. In
terms of visual eye candy, movies still blow videogames out of the
water because of the power of prerendering, hand-optimized shot-by-shot
composition, and custom-chosen viewing angles. The question becomes,
if games are so inferior in story, and visuals, then why does anyone
bother playing them?
are several answers to this question, but I'm going to focus on
one. The ace that gaming has up its sleeve is that it gives the
player opportunities to make decisions and then observe the results
of those choices in a consequence-free zone. This is why people
play videogames instead of watching movies. Almost all good games
do this very well.
people will mistakenly believe that the concept of decision only
includes big, branching storyline-type choices, like those that
appear at branching story paths. Not so. The important decision
making in videogames occurs extremely frequently and is concerned
with relatively small changes to the game world. Decisions like
whether to reload a weapon or instead wait another one second to
re-evaluate the situation are what should concern game designers.
of the best decision-making games reveals some interesting correlations
between game fun and the type of decisions presented to the player.
These correlations are:
More difficult decisions are more fun.
2. Decisions that have the most significant and tangible effects
are more fun.
look at these two in detail.
of Good Gameplay Decisions
should be obvious that decision-making isn't the only thing that
makes game fun. Games can and do still have stories or eye candy
that provide an element of entertainment. In order to analyze decision-making
gameplay free of intellectual interference from other sources of
fun, we'll look at a group of games which include the least amount
of these other factors. Multiplayer competitive games typically
have no story, and some of the most popular ones are ugly enough
to make a small child cry. These traits make them excellent subjects
for decision/fun analysis.
real time strategy games in particular are excellent examples. At
all times, the player must decide what his spending priorities are,
where to focus his attention, how many resources to put into scouting,
defense, offense, economic development, and so on. RTS games provide
the player with a constant stream of difficult and interesting decisions
by ensuring that the player must be constantly compromising. Each
decision always offers at least two strongly competing options,
which makes it difficult, and thus, interesting. Many decision points
present far more than two possible options, which make them even
common example of this type of excellent decision is one which all
RTS players make thousands of time per game: what should I look
at next? Common possible options include:
1. Any group of my resource gatherers
2. Any one of my defensive lines
3. Any one of the battles which is currently running
4. Any enemy base
5. Any part of my production line
frequently many of these options are vying strongly for attention,
which makes this a very difficult choice. A player may be micromanaging
a battle, but his economy will be dying from lack of attention.
If he leaves the battle, however, his troops will be at a disadvantage
and vulnerable, but then again, his better stewardship of his economy
may allow him to better reinforce his army, or to fight another
battle another day. The simple decisions as to whether to check
one's base is one that will be influenced by too many factors to
list here. At high levels of play, good attention management becomes
as much a skill as anything else. The richness and temporal density
of the stream of decisions presented to the player is what has made
RTS games so popular.
first-person shooter games like Counter-Strike are also excellent
examples of decision-making gameplay. Like RTS games, they offer
the player a continuous series of difficult decisions, and each
decision has many equally-weighted sides. Common decisions include
1. Should I reload now or later? What if the enemy comes around
the corner while I'm reloading? But what if I run out of ammo
while I'm fighting an enemy?
2. Should I move my position forwards, backwards, laterally, or not
at all now? What if I get shot while I'm in between cover? But
what if I lose because I don't make my objective? But what if
I get killed because I'm too far out front of my team? But what
if the team mates covering the other entrance are killed and I
get shot in the back?
3. Should I buy a weapon now? What if I run out of money when
I need it later? But what if I die this round because I'm unarmed?
specific circumstances of each individual match make every instance
of these decisions unique. This uniqueness of every decision is
what makes these games fun over the long term. Uniqueness is a sub-property
of difficult decisions. In order for a decision to be difficult,
it must be sufficiently unique. Each decision cannot have been made
before; otherwise it is no longer a decision. If you present the
player with exactly the same situation over and over, he will learn
what the best thing to do is and thus the choice becomes easy. Easy
choices are not really choices at all, any more than presenting
an FPS player with a cliff edge is a decision point. The decision
not to jump is a rather easy one, and thus not a decision at all.
must be unique to be difficult. The beauty of multiplayer games
is that they can present millions of possible situations because
there are so many possible interactions and situations between human
players, and because human begins have so many unique, individual
traits that make each opponent different. Interactions between multiple
players add exponentially more complexity to the situation.
in order for a decision to be fun, it must be difficult, and in
order to be difficult it must also be unique.
Tangible and Obvious Results
process of designing a decision opportunity is not all a designer
needs to do. The aftermath of a decision-making event is important
as well. A player's enjoyment of a game can be enhanced greatly
by the amount and type of feedback that they receive from the game
as a result of their decisions. This is why impressive explosion,
gunfire and blood effects are important in FPS games, or why good
puzzle games often include flashy effects to mark important events.
Seeing an enemy die spectacularly is a reward for a decision well
made, as is hearing the trumpet call at the end of a puzzle game
decision can thus be evaluated not only on its difficulty and uniqueness,
but by the power of the feedback that results from it. The same
difficult, unique choice can be gratifying and interesting, or rather
pedestrian based on the strength and tangibility of the feedback
are many ways of delivering feedback to the player: visual, auditory,
narrative, constructive, and so on. Some simple examples of feedback
are the flashy effects that appear in puzzle games when the player
makes points, the blood sprays in FPS games (though there is also
a strong element of role-playing here), the accumulation of wealth
or valuable items or character traits, the forward movement of a
story or formation of an alliance, and so on. Feedback design is
a well-developed and generally well-understood field of game design.
games, interestingly, have an inherent advantage when it comes to
rewarding a player's good decision. When someone else is on the
other end of the line, winning a conflict comes with automatic positive
feedback. Defeating a real live human being in any kind of contest,
even anonymously over the internet, is a reward in itself. Good
feelings associated with beating human opponents are a well-developed
part of human biology. This, in addition to the uniqueness of human
opponents, is one of the things that have made multiplayer gaming