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Improving Player Choices

March 10, 2004 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next


Another format for structuring interesting choices in your games is by incorporating puzzles. Puzzles are solvable systems. They can contextualize the choices that players make by valuing them as moving towards or away from the solution. Suddenly, the act of rifling through a treasure chest takes on new meaning if you are searching for the key to open the door to maze, rather than just looting the castle.

Puzzles are also a key element in creating conflict in almost all single-player games. There's an innate tension in solving a puzzle. If you tie this into a system of rewards for solving the puzzle and punishments for failure, the puzzle transforms into a dramatic element. For example, take Myst, the best-selling adventure game of all time. It's essentially comprised of puzzles. It incorporates story and exploration as well, but at its core, it's really a glorified collection of interlocking puzzles.

The popular genre of first-person shooters is also puzzle-based, especially in single- player mode. Take Medal of Honor. You have to plant bombs, unlock doors, find medical kits in a labyrinth of rooms, and figure out how to use weapons and explosives in just the right way. The game is one giant action puzzle. The same holds true for many other single-player games.

You'll notice that we keep using the qualification "single-player." This is because in multiplayer mode you don't need puzzles to provide conflict. The conflict comes from the competition with other players, whether they are human or computer-controlled. But in single-player mode, especially when you are sent on a quest or mission, puzzles play an increasingly important role. That's why every game designer should also consider herself a puzzle designer. The better your puzzle design skills, the better your game will be.

One consideration when designing puzzles in your games is to make sure that the elements of the puzzle are woven into the fabric of the game. By this we mean that it advances the player towards his overall goal. If a puzzle doesn't enable progress, it's a mere distraction and should be redone or removed. A puzzle may also advance the storyline. You can use the puzzle to tell the player something about the unfolding plot.

If you can integrate your puzzles into the gameplay and the story, they won't feel at all like "puzzles," but rather like integral, interesting choices a player must make to progress in the game as a whole.

Rewards and punishments

The most direct consequences for player choices are rewards and punishments. Obviously, players enjoy being rewarded and dread punishments. Nothing is more natural. So when designing a game, a designer often emphasizes the rewards, while limiting the punishments. This makes sense; players aren't playing games to suffer the hardships of life. And in reality, you don't want to punish players so much that they stop playing your game. But often, the threat of punishment, if not the actual punishment itself, carries a dramatic tension that can add layers of meaning to even the most trivial choices a player makes.

Think of a game that forces the player to be stealthy, like Thief or Deus Ex. The tension, when you are trying to accomplish a task without being caught is tremendous. Getting caught and attacked, and let's face it, killed, is not fun. But that moment when you oh, so quietly pick a lock and sneak past the security bots without incurring any harm is made much more effective by the threat that the anvil of punishment was hanging over your head all the time (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Being stealthy: Thief

Coming up with a balanced system of rewards and punishments is a way of making the choices in your games much more interesting for players. The type of rewards you offer can vary, but the best rewards are those that have utility or value in the game. When you develop your rewards system, use the following guidelines:

  1. Rewards that are useful in obtaining victory carry greater weight
  2. Rewards that have a romantic association, like magic weapons or gold, appear more valuable
  3. Rewards that are tied into the storyline of the game have an added impact.
    Make each reward count, and if it can both push the player closer to victory and advance the storyline, that's even better.

The timing and quantity of rewards is also critical. If you give a steady stream of small rewards, it can become meaningless. Players know the rewards are coming, no matter what they do and they stop caring.

Psychologist Nick Yee has studied the reward/punishment structure of an extremely addictive game system--EverQuest--and believes its addictive power lies in a behavior theory advanced by B.F. Skinner called "operant conditioning." Operant conditioning claims that the frequency of performing a given behavior is directly linked to whether it is rewarded or punished. If a behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. If it is punished, it becomes suppressed. It is usually explained by using the example of a "Skinner Box," a glass cage equipped with levers, food pellets, and drinking tubes. Rats are placed in the cage and rewarded with a food pellet for pressing the lever, using reinforcement to shape their behavior.

Yee writes, "There are several schedules of reinforcement that can be used in Operant Conditioning. The most basic is a fixed interval schedule, and the rat in the Skinner Box is rewarded every five minutes regardless of whether it presses the lever. Unsurprisingly, this method is not particularly effective. Another kind of reinforcement schedule is the fixed ratio schedule, and the rat is rewarded every time it presses the lever five times. This schedule is more effective than the fixed interval schedule. The most effective method is a random ratio schedule, and the rat is rewarded after it presses the lever a random number of times. Because the rat cannot predict precisely when it will be rewarded even though it knows it has to press the lever to get food, the rat presses the lever more consistently than in the other schedules. A random ratio is also the one that EverQuest uses."2

While this might seem surprising, if you relate it to your own actions in games and in the real world it begins to make more sense. Have you ever sat down to play "five minutes" at a slot machine and looked up to realize you'd been there, determinedly pulling that lever for several hours? In many ways, Las Vegas is simply a giant Skinner Box.

We may all be just rats in a cage, but there is one type of reward that is very powerful and that can't be delivered like a pellet, and that is peer recognition. Humans crave acknowledgement for their achievements, and there's little that can motivate us more. Especially in multiplayer games, if there's a way for you to make the players, even the ones who aren't winning, feel recognized for their efforts when they do achieve a goal, then you will have a much stronger game.

Many games do this through the Internet, tracking scores or providing tournaments and ladders. There are more immediate ways to provide recognition, in the moment, as well. One is to track and broadcast the players' achievements during the game, highlighting and dramatizing each success for everyone to see. If it's an online strategy game where one team is pitted against another, make it clear when a player pulls off a brilliant maneuver. Let his comrades know exactly what happened and how it impacts the victory conditions. If it's an online RPG, allow the players to show off their conquests to the world, either in the form of legends, artifacts, or admirers who follow them about.

Exercise: Rewards

Analyze the rewards system in your original game prototype. Look at each reward and determine if it is useful, romantic, and/or tied to the storyline. How are rewards timed? Does the timing reinforce the player's desire to continue playing?


The Skinner Box example works well for game mechanics that are repetitive and apt to become rote. For larger, more complex choices, however, the more clearly you allow players to see, and anticipate, the consequences of their actions, the more meaningful their choices will be.

In chess, and other games with open information structures, the entire state of the game is visible to both players for evaluation. There's nothing hidden. If players are experienced, they can calculate out moves dozens of turns in advance and see exactly what will and will not happen. The anticipation that players feel in a situation like this is heightened by the knowledge of when they will be able to capture a piece or get in a particular position.

Can games with closed or mixed information structures create anticipation? Definitely. Real-time strategy games often use limited visibility to offer the player a glimpse of the opposition, but only while her units are posted in enemy territory. Since the game state is always changing, the view quickly becomes outdated, and the player winds up making decisions based on only partially accurate information (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Warcraft III: fog of war

In this example, players accept the lack of information as one of the conditions of the game and understand that their job is to maximize their position given the limited information they have available. In fact, the lack of visibility can increase a player's sense of tension. With the knowledge that the game state is in flux, players feel compelled to act swiftly to counter anticipated enemy moves. In many ways, the hiding of knowledge has added a new dramatic twist that is lacking in the completely open strategy games.


Surprise is one of the most electrifying tools at a designer's disposal. People love to be surprised, especially when they feel they should have anticipated the event. Too many surprises will alienate players, however, so, how do you know when to use surprise and when to telegraph an event?

A surprise outcome to a player's choice can re-invest them in the game--perhaps they thought they were going to find 20 gold pieces behind door number three, but it turns out to be a trusted friend ready to join their journey instead--a much greater reward.

Surprises may feel random to players, but in a good way. The trick is to find the right balance between the randomness of surprise and the importance of making player choices meaningful. Take the example of a real-time strategy game, where you might send a simple foot soldier up against an ogre because he's all you've got. The foot soldier has strength of one to five, while the ogre has strength of one to 20. Odds are that the ogre will win. But there's always that chance, no matter how small, that the foot soldier will prevail.

Randomness, and surprise, in this case adds a level of drama--the tension of not knowing exactly how a highly probable event will play out. Will this be a David and Goliath story or just another dead foot soldier? In most well- designed games, the element of choice remains dominant. If every choice a player makes results in random effects, they will feel like their choices have no meaning. But keep surprise in mind; used judiciously, it can create a wealth of fun and excitement.

Exercise 10.5: Surprise

Are there any surprises in your game? Try taking one type of choice and adding an element of surprise to the outcome. How does this affect the gameplay?


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