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Make a better game: Limit the player
Make a better game: Limit the player
April 6, 2012 | By Jon Shafer

April 6, 2012 | By Jon Shafer
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design

[In this piece reprinted with permission from Stardock producer Jon Shafer's blog, the former Civilization lead designer explains the benefits of keeping limits in your game, pulling examples from his own design decisions with Firaxis' strategy series.]

Okay, okay, I know what you're saying.

"Limiting the player makes a better game? Are you crazy? Games should have fewer limits, not more!"

Players should always feel like they have options -- but having limitless options is definitely not a good thing. To kick things off, let's start with a little story completely unrelated to games.

You go to the grocery store because a friend asked you to pick up some flour for a recipe. Now, this happens to be a very unique grocery store with forty varieties of flour to pick from. You find yourself rattled standing before this Great Wall of Ground Wheat Product… What should I pick? Does it even matter? My friend wants to bake some cookies, is there a special kind of flour for that? Before fully succumbing to a panic attack, you race for the nearest emergency exit and make your escape.

Your next destination is a much more typical grocery store, and this time around you find but three different kinds of flour: all-purpose, bread and cake. You think about your options for a few seconds, but it's pretty clear that cookies are neither bread nor cake, so you quickly settle on the all-purpose flour and return from your shopping trip flush with victory.

While this story is a bit silly, the obvious lesson is that contrary to what you'd expect, presenting someone with a huge number of options does not give them more 'freedom' -- in fact all it does is overwhelm them. This has long been a tenet of good interface design.

There's a bit of a 'rule' which states that a user's attention should be split between no more than seven items. The human brain is equipped to weigh only a handful of possibilities simultaneously.

I'm sure at some point all of you have opened up some random website that had waaaay too much going on. And you probably weren't thinking, "Oh boy, I can't wait to dig into all of this, where should I start!" Once someone passes that invisible threshold, the end result is nearly always frustration.

That said, there are definitely a few individuals who do love being "overwhelmed." The reason why open-world RPGs have become so popular is because they offer players so many things to do.

It is possible to provide an immense amount of depth without catering to only the hardcore -- the key is proper pacing. Throwing a list of 40 possible quests at a new player within the first minute of gameplay is bad. Starting them with three quests, which then branch into nine, which then branch into 27 and so on is much more inviting.

With regards to the strategy genre in particular, restrictions on unit movement is one of the best examples of how limitations can make a game better. The inability of land units to enter water is why ships are so valuable -- and just plain cool. Gaining access to new units with unique "powers" is a major motivation for many players. Just like in economics, scarcity is what drives value -- the fact that most units are unable to perform certain actions is what makes the few that can so much fun.

Movement restrictions also show that there's a place for even permanent limits. An example from the Civ series is how mountains became impassable for the first time in Civ 4. It's a subtle change that very few players would point to as a major innovation, but even something small like this helps breathe life into the map. Instead of mountain ranges being just another part of the map with a slight movement penalty, they suddenly transformed into true barriers that now require serious consideration.

A dilemma I faced while designing Civ 5 was what to do with strategic resources. I knew that I wanted the game to have a "quantified" resource model where you can have a lot of something or a little bit (in earlier Civ games you either had a resource or you didn't), but I was unsure exactly how to proceed from there.

One idea I played around with was having resources increase the production rate of certain units -- say, iron for swordsmen -- but still allow players without access to iron the ability to train swordsmen, mainly for balance reasons. After some playtesting, I came to the realization that something was off… I eventually figured out that the lack of limits on what you could build made both the units and the resources less interesting.

"Soft" limits that hinder the player but don't completely block him also have a subtle but still very important role to play. In 4X games, a randomized map is nearly always the main source of soft limits. In one game, you might start with iron next to your capital, while in another there might be none within 15 tiles. The lack of convenient iron is a type of limitation which helps direct a player toward the best strategies and away from the non-ideal ones, but this doesn't preclude him from committing to get it one way or another.

I'm a big fan of nudging the player towards and away from strategies with the map. When there's a web of trade-offs to consider, limits of this sort help crystallize what the player's options are. Let's say you're playing a 4X game and want to specialize a city for the production of money. If this can be done equally well in any city then there's really no special considerations to make -- after all, if every city is just as viable you might as well just flip some coins to decide. Which, for the record, isn't terribly interesting or fun.

If instead an ideal money city is built next to a gold deposit, this provides the player with a basic set of expectations. He knows that if there's a lot of gold around then a strategy built around generating tons of money is worth considering. He knows that a neighbor with cashflow problems is going to have his eye on that gold right next to his border, so maybe it's a good idea to build a city there sooner rather than later. But maybe there's an iron deposit he really needs -- our player now has a tough choice to make. It's obvious that this kind of soft limit makes for a much better game than giving the player complete "freedom" in deciding which city does what.

The last benefit of limits that I'll talk about is their ability to help ease new players into a game. Developers nearly always get too close to their games and forget how intimidating it is to learn as someone picking it up for the first time.

If the player knows his first goal is to find and harvest a particular type of resource, or that he needs to capture a certain part of the map, it helps focus his attention and keep him from becoming intimidated by a vast array of options. The alternative is abandoning him in front of the dreaded Wall of Wheat Product, leaving him to sink or swim on his own.

Just don't go overboard and eliminate all of the player's control. This is the mistake many tutorials make. You want to teach players, but you also want them engaged and having fun while learning the rules. A bad tutorial is often worse than no tutorial at all, because the wasted development time could have been spent on improving other aspects of the game.

If you're going to bother, do it right! Ultimately, every good game should have multiple ways to complete any one goal. If there's not, then focusing the player's attention on a single feature will only bring to light other issues with the design.

Now then, go forth and limit thy players!

For more thoughts from Jon Shafer, you can follow him on Twitter at @_jon_shafer_.

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Dwayne Wright
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This is a design philosophy that I have thought about for quite some time now, and completely agree. Great article. Many developers could take note from the thoughts of this post! I intended to write about this at some point, so will save some of my extended thoughts, but it's good to see it being recognised!

Daniel Favela
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts on choice and limitations in video games. The first third of this article reminded me of the TED talk, by Sheena Iyengar, about freedom/choice/limitations in general.

It's nice to see direct design implementations that correspond to that perspective for games.

Luis Guimaraes
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I instantly thought of this one:

Todd Boyd
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I'm not so sure... recent gaming experiments like "A Sad Tale" give some serious credence to the idea of "limitless options":

Glen Cooney
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I definitely agree that it is better to limit player choices in most cases, and that those choices should be made both interesting and feel appropriately weighty.

I got into a discussion over one of my other blog posts talking about how, in my opinion, Deus Ex: Human Revolution did a much better job at giving the player open-ended choices than something like Skyrim by virtue of the fact that encounters were balanced around having both hard and soft limitations (as you describe), which gives the player clear incentives to diversify their character's abilities.

Say you were going into a heavily guarded area. The easiest way would be to use stealth and go around them, but you can also try to gun them all down, it just wouldn't be as easy. By contrast, Skyrim pretty much makes every possible choice of character viable, which in turn diminishes incentives for a player to diversify, and thus makes them hit the level/power limit of their chosen playstyle long before experiencing all of the game's content.

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William Volk
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"Draw Something" vs the multitude of "Pictionary-like" iPhone games that preceded it, games with far far more options and features.


Dan Felder
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Very true. I would like to add that I don't think open-world games are an exception to this principle. Open world games tend not to ask you, "Which of 100 things do you want to do?" They ask you, "Which of these ten things that you currently have available do you want to do FIRST?"

It's a lot easier to make a choice if the player doesn't feel like they're giving something up. A person at a restaurant might bite his lip for twenty minutes trying to decide between the dishes, but put him at a buffet and things tend to speed up.

Majed Al-Aleeli
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True what you point out, but if your not giving up something, doesnt that diminish the value of your choices.
Out of the 100 things you can do in an open world game, if say thier is a time limit to certain quests, for example you have 2 quests with a time limit, you can either chase of some bandits at location A or do an escort quest, if you choose to do the escort quest, the bandits raid a village and grow stronger and are now attacking location B as well. you can ignore them both of course and go fishing its an open world game, but the old quests now change, the bandits have a bigger bounty on thier heads, some of the quests in the village that got raided have been put on hold.
It doesnt have to always be big impacts, but soft limitations to the 100 choices, will make each person experience more unique.

Joe McGinn
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Another benefit of limits: either/or limits (you can gave A or B but not both) are interesting decisions, and also engender player attachment to their choice.

nicholas ralabate
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Nice article, reminded me of Barry Shwartz's "Paradox of Choice". You should have attributed the source of the magic number seven (plus or minus two) though!

Thomas Nocera
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I suggest Jon Shafer's ideas are quite helpful and well presented, so I think what he's posted is significantly better than "nice". That said, thank you for bringing up the "Paradox of Choice" - and also for suggesting the need to provide at least a cursory explanation of the magic number of seven.
I wonder if anybody know whose hypothesis that is? (The notion of 7 being the maximum number of direct reports that an effective manager should lead - to maximize effective control - a squad is well documented. Being able to see 7 moves ahead for a chess player would put him way beyond mastery of the game.
However, determining the choice-related processing powers of an individual gamer is a much more thought-provoking subject. Thank you, Nick.

David Miler
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How do sandbox games like Minecraft, where the guiding principle is "do whatever you want", cope with this idea of restricting player options?

Harlan Sumgui
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The lesson is 'one size does not fit all' in gaming. Some people want to play checkers where the biggest decision is Red or Black; and other people want to play complex pen and paper role playing games or nearly limitless choice games like minecraft.

Simon Ludgate
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In Minecraft, although it feels like you can choose any objective, your choices for reaching that objective are limited. When you start, you might have a lofty goal, but the steps to get there are quite linear. For example, your choices of which blocks to gather is limited by your current set of tools: by accomplishing goals with limited choice sets (there are very few choices about how to get your first pickaxe) you progress through the materials of the game, slowly adding new options on. Furthermore, many of the new options overlap with old options: once you have a diamond pickaxe, you don't, in theory, need any other pickaxe, but there might still be reasons to use other pickaxes because of limited resources. At this point, the player doesn't HAVE to chose which pickaxe they use, but they CAN make that choice.

Bart Heijltjes
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I'd say that Minecraft is actually VERY good at limiting your choices.

You're forced to work with very large 'pixels' that can only be placed in a relatively limited configuration around you. Once you've placed a few, of course more options open up. But at any one point you're quite limited. Even in creative mode you only have a handful of textures to pick from when placing blocks.

Compare minecraft to 3D Studio Max... both are about making stuff in 3D, but few people regard the latter as a very succesful game.

Jacob Germany
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@Bart Minecraft poses some limits, but I would hardly call it "VERY good" at it.

It's like being given a paint program with only a handful of colors and a couple of brushes, compared to a more extensive one. There are limits, but you still can do so much that you can easily be overwhelmed.

Yes, the limits of how you can place down voxels and what they look like is nice for the reasons the article states, but you still have practically-infinite choice laid out before you, with no guide or limitations, as to how to place those voxels down in the world. You can argue this is a nice balance of limitations, or you could easily argue it's still far too unbounded for many to feel comfortable. Just depends.

Paul Laroquod
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The rather narrow interface horizons of this 'fewer choices are better' aesthetic become apparent when you try to think of it in non-mainstream contexts like writing text adventures. There is an art to writing a non-frustrating text adventure which speaks directly to this territory: how to prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed when you are dealing with an unbounded set of possible interface inputs. The key is in the narrative: you have to always be careful to make sure the player narratively has some idea of what to do or to try, even if the set of things the player can actually type is far, far greater than the set that is narratively cued.

Put another way, there is more than one way to 'limit inputs'. You can do it by force, which is what the article above is all about, or you can do it by narrative persuasion. When done well, I find the persuasive tack beats forced limits by a mile.

Perhaps counterintuitively, I think this limit-by-narrative-persuasion instead of by force is also at work in graphical sandbox/RPG games (optional narrative quests leading across an open world), which might *seem* at first blush the farthest things removed from a narrative text adventure. But they have a crucial element in common: they tend to be philosophically against putting handcuffs on the player's interface.

Andrew Tolver
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Limits are a difficult balance to strike. You want to give players the freedom to play as they wish, but its definitely overwhelming to just say "Welcome to Skyrim! Here's the world, go play!" As such, a well-executed game provides a tutorial with the progression to enter the world. For example, as you start Skyrim, you are taught the controls, then when you enter the world an NPC tells you where to go next. As players are exposed to more NPCs, and more quests, they make the decision to break off from the linear gameplay and explore, adventure, and 'de-limit' themselves.

So to the idea that limits are bad, I would say that limits are what let developers release a game. Higher limits means a longer progression to introduce the player to the heightened limits. Furthermore, heightened limits present more balance issues. For instance, why would I waste my time getting an iron sword when I get a diamond sword with the same (or minimally more) effort?

Andrew Wallace
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Thank you- I have been saying this for years! Engineers have a saying: You know when a system is perfect, not when you have nothing to add, but when you have nothing to take away.

This is why I've thought Assassin's Creed 1 was the best of the franchise- you only had basically two options for assassinations- try to use stealth and the hidden blade, or fight your way through all of your guards. In the 2 trilogy you have so many different weapons that they can't fit them all on the Dpad, and almost all of them can be used interchangeably.

Being limited forces players to be creative and think critically about their situation. On a Garry's Mod server where noclip is enabled, players will fly around to wherever they want to go. On one where it is disabled, they will build a car or a plane to do that, creating a more engaging, interesting, and challenging experience.

Yadong Wang
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I total agree with him! A game is fun because you’re limit! I do think game should have their philosophy because game is made for human. Too free could make people lost, every time I play adventure game, I hate too free in game, that makes me nervous and painful. Sometimes game need to be simple but not tedium.

Daye Williams
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"Every good game should have many ways to complete one goal"

A very necessary article. I am huge fan of dynamics & emerging linearity. They complete one another entirely & builds this sort of sandbox for the game designer to really play around in.

What i find awesome, is how you pointed out poking the player's mind by limiting their choices which creates this awesome thread of Player Sacrifice, introducing many Risk/Reward opportunity.

very awesome article indeed, had to take some notes.

Roger Tober
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I think of it as the McGyver vs Supermarket approach. If you can just buy anything you want, there's no challenge anymore. The challenge is taking the limited things at hand and using them for a solution.

Gil Salvado
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It's not a unexpected topic, but it's great read about some good examples of how to use this fundamental element. Thanks for the article.