Because it is simply one of the most powerful aspects of fun in
gameplay, we need to look more closely at choice as an aspect of
fun. What makes a choice interesting versus uninteresting? How can
you design choices that are more interesting than not?
One of the most important aspects of choice is consequence. For
a game to engage a player's mind, each choice must alter the course
of the game. This means the decision has to have both an upside
and a downside; the upside being that it advances the player one
step closer to victory; and the downside being that it hurts the
player's chances of winning. This concept seems simple, but you'd
be surprised at how many games force the players to make choices
that have no impact upon whether they win or lose.
Remember, the player wants one thing more than anything else, and
that is to win. Anything you do that is outside this scope runs
the risk of alienating your audience. So when Sid Meier says "interesting
choices," what he means is that the game must present a stream
of critical decisions that either directly or indirectly impacts
the player's ability to win. No matter what you've been told in
the past, drama and suspense in games seldom come from the storyline.
It comes from the act of making decisions that have weight, and
the more weight each decision carries, the more dramatic the game
becomes.
As a designer, this is what you must strive for. But how do you
make the choices in your game have significance? To start with,
let's step back and analyze your game. What type of decisions are
your players making? Are those decisions truly meaningful, or are
they tangential to the main objective? To help analyze this, we
use a tool we call the decision scale, shown in Figure 1.
If there are decisions in your game that seem "inconsequential"
or "minor," you have a problem. Go back and rethink the
choices you are giving your players. Is there a way to make those
choices matter? And if there isn't, those choices need to be eliminated
because they aren't adding anything to the game and are probably
hurting the experience. Now take a look at the decisions higher
up on the diagram. Is there a way to make some of your players'
decisions fall into these categories? These are the types of decisions
your players want to make.
But, unless your game is an arcadestyle shooter, the decisions
you ask your players to make shouldn't all be life and death. Nonstop
action can get boring tooit's in the breather between waves of
enemies that we can appreciate our accomplishments, anticipate the
next wave, and steel ourselves for the battle ahead.
In order to create a truly engaging game, you want some peaks and
valleys. Let the decisions rise and fall, and as the game progresses,
ratchet up the tension by making the decisions gradually more important,
until by the climax of the game, everything hangs in the balance.
Types
of decisions
It's easy to say that games should have interesting choices, but
why is one choice more interesting than another? The answer lies
in the type of decision you ask to the player to make. If the player
has to choose between two weapons, and one weapon is only slightly
superior to the other, even though the player may be faced with
a life and death encounter, the decision itself does not reflect
this. To make this decision interesting, each weapon must have a
dramatically different impact on the player's chance of winning.
But if the decision itself is too easy, then it's not a decision
at all. If it's obvious that the player should use the golden arrow
to slay the dragon, there's no real choice. Why would the player
risk using anything else? This decision, although it appears to
be life and death, is meaningless. The player will invariably choose
the golden arrow, unless he doesn't know about its powers, and in
that case, it's an arbitrary choice, not a decision.
The key to making this decision interesting is for the player to
know that the golden arrow is the right choice, but also to know
that if he uses the golden arrow now, he won't be able to use it
later when he has to fight the evil mage. To make this decision
truly dramatic, the player must be put in a position where both
paths have consequences. If the player doesn't use the arrow now,
his faithful companion, who is not immune to dragon fire, may die
during the battle. However, if the player uses the arrow, it will
be much harder to destroy the evil mage later on. Suddenly the decision
has become more complex, with consequences on both sides of the
equation.
Decision types
 Hollow decision: no real consequences
 Obvious decision: no real decision
 Uninformed decision: an arbitrary choice
 Informed decision: where the player has ample information
 Dramatic decision: taps into a player's emotional state
 Weighted decision: a balanced decision with consequences
on both sides
 Immediate decision: has an immediate impact
 Longterm decision: whose impact will be felt down the
road
In the example of the golden arrow, the decision is a combination
of the previous decision types. It's an informed decision because
the player knows a lot about situation he is in, it's a dramatic
decision because the player has an emotional attachment to his faithful
companion, it's a weighted decision because there are consequences
balanced on both sides, it's an immediate decision because it impacts
the battle which is taking place with the Dragon, and it's a longterm
decision because it impacts the future battle with the evil mage.
All these combine to make the decision of whether or not to use
the golden arrow a critical choice in the game, and this makes the
game interesting.

Exercise: Decision Types
Take your original game and categorize the types of decisions
you ask your players to make. Are there any hollow, obvious,
or uninformed decisions? If so, try to redesign these choices.





Not all decisions in a game need to be as complex as the one with
the golden arrow. Simple decisions are fine, just so long as they're
not hollow, obvious, or uninformed. As a rule, you want to remove
all nondecisions from you game, and a player should never be forced
to think about anything unless it has some impact, either direct
or indirect, on whether they win or lose.
Dilemmas
Dilemmas are the situations where players must weigh the consequences
of their choices carefully, and in many cases, where there is no
optimal answer. No matter what the player chooses, something will
be gained and something will be lost. Dilemmas are often paradoxical
or recursive. A wellplaced dilemma and trade off can resonate emotionally
with a player when encountered during the struggle to win your game.
Game theorist John Von Neumann used dilemmas as a framework for
studying how people make choices, and how conflicts are resolved
in both gamebased and real world dilemmas. Game designers can use
the same methodology to study the choices in their own and other
designer's games.
To understand dilemmas, von Neumann broke them down into very simple
structures, called moves. Each move was diagrammed on a matrix,
showing the potential outcomes of each strategy as they pertain
to each player. To understand this concept more clearly, let's next
look at a classic dilemma with a simple structure.
Cakecutting dilemma
A mother wants to divide a piece of cake between her two children.
In order to avoid arguments about how large a piece each child should
get, she makes one child the "cutter" and one child the
"chooser." The cutter gets to cut the cake, and the chooser
gets to choose which piece. If we assume that each child wants the
bigger piece (i.e., wants to "win" the game), we can diagram
this conflict to show the potential strategies for each player,
the dilemma they face, and the payoffs for each potential outcome.
As we can see, each child has two possible strategies. We know
that it's impossible to cut the cake exactly in half; there will
always be one crumb more or less on either side; but the cutter
can choose to cut the cake as evenly as possible, or she can choose
to cut one piece bigger than the other in an attempt to get the
larger slice. Since we've determined that one piece will always
be larger than the other, even if just by a crumb, the chooser also
has two strategies. He can choose the smaller piece or the larger
piece.
By looking at the payoff matrix created by combining these two
possible strategies for each player, we can see that in this simple
game, there is an optimal strategy for each player. Since we have
said that each child will try to get the bigger piece, the chooser's
optimal strategy is obvioushe will choose the larger piece. And,
since the cutter is also trying to get the largest piece possible,
she will try to cut the pieces as evenly as possible. The optimal
strategies for each player meet in payoff #1: the chooser gets a
slightly bigger piece.
The cakecutting dilemma is an example of a zerosum game. By this
we mean that the total amount won at the end of the game is exactly
equal to the amount lost. In this case, the chooser gains the crumb
lost by the cutter. Because of the nature of zerosum games, the
interests of the players are diametrically opposed. What one player
loses is gained by the other.
What von Neumann discovered in his study is that there is an optimal
strategy for each player in games of this nature that will produce
the best possible results in a given situation. He called this concept
"minimax theory."
Minimax theory states that there is a rational way for players
to make choices in a game, if we are talking about a twoplayer,
zerosum game. The optimal strategy for all players is to "maximize
their minimum potential result." So, in the case of the cakecutting
example, while the cutter cannot "win" the game, her optimal
strategy will still maximize the amount of cake she gets to eat.
Games that fall easily into optimal strategies may be interesting
for mathematicians, but as game designers, they are often the kiss
of death. If you present your players with a game as simple as the
cakecutting dilemma, they will always make the optimal choice and
the game will play out the same way every time. How can we create
dilemmas that are more complex, where the players must weigh the
potential outcomes of each move in terms of risks and rewards?
A game that has a more complex payoff structure was created by
two RAND scientists in the 1950s. Called the "prisoner's dilemma,"
it's a simple, baffling game that shows how games that are not zerosum
can create situations where the optimal strategy for each player
can result in suboptimal results for both.
The prisoner's dilemma
Two criminals commit a crime together and are caught by the police.
For the purposes of our example, we'll call the two unlucky criminals
Mario and Luigi. Mario and Luigi are held in separate cells with
no means of communication. The DA offers each of them a deal and
discloses that the same deal was made to his partner in crime. The
deal works like this: if you rat on your partner, and he denies
it, you can go free and the he gets five years. If neither of you
rat on each other, the DA has enough circumstantial evidence to
put you both away for one year. If you both rat, you will each get
three years. Figure 3 shows the payoff matrix for each potential
strategy.
Using the same process we used to determine the optimal strategy
for the cakecutting dilemma, we can see that the optimal strategy
for Mario is to rat on Luigi. If he rats, he gets either three or
zero years. If he doesn't rat, he gets one or five years. The optimal
strategy for Luigi is also to rat on Mario for the same reasons.
If both players choose the optimal strategy, however, they will
both serve three yearsmore years total will be served in jail
than in any other resolution.
The hierarchy of payoffs in the prisoner's dilemma is as follows:
 Temptation for defection: zero years
 Reward for mutual cooperation: one year each
 Punishment for mutual defection: three years each
 Sucker's payoff for unreciprocated cooperation: five
years
The actual numbers in this hierarchy are not important. What is
important is that they ascend in this order: Temptation > Reward
> Punishment > Sucker. If this hierarchy exists, the optimal
strategy for each player will always result in a payoff that is
less than if they had acted cooperatively. Now, we are talking about
a true dilemmawhat will Mario and Luigi do?

Exercise: Dilemmas
Does your original game contain any dilemmas? If so, describe
these choices and how they function?





In a recent presentation at the Game Developers Conference, designer
Steve Bocska of Radical Entertainment applied the hierarchy of payoffs
in the prisoner's dilemma to a hypothetical game design in order
to show the usefulness of game theory concepts to designing compelling
dilemmas.^{1}
Bocska imagines an online game in which two players are building
and customizing spacecraft with a budget of $10,000. The game requires
bartering and trading of raw materials, but at a high transaction
cost: $8,000 of "shipping and handling" in a typical game
round. A technology can be purchased that allows materials to be
"transported" with no transaction costbut in order for
it to work, both players must purchase it. The cost of the technology
is $5000.
Bocska asks, "Under these conditions, what is a player likely
to do? If both players purchase the transporter equipment, they
will reduce their transaction costs for the game from the usual
$8,000 to a onetime cost of $5,000 for the transportera savings
of $3,000. If, on the other hand, neither player purchases a transporter,
the transaction costs throughout the game for each player will amount
to the usual $8,000. What if only one player purchases the machine?
With nobody else to connect the transporter to, their machine becomes
effectively useless, resulting in them receiving the "sucker's
payoff"the cost of the equipment plus the added cost of continuing
to barter using the traditional costly method ($5,000 + $8,000 =
$13,000)." The payoff matrix in Figure 4 shows the results
of the potential strategies.
Unlike the prisoner's dilemma, Bocska envisions a game in which
the players can communicatenegotiating with each other when and
if to purchase the technology. This complex payoff structure creates
a dilemma for the players that can make for compelling strategic
moments and potentially deceitful or cooperative decisions play
after play.
This is exactly the type of situation you should strive to create
in your games. If possible, give the players dilemmas as part of
the core gameplay. Make sure to tie the dilemma into the overall
objective of the game. If you can accomplish this, it will make
the choices much more interesting.
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Sucker Punch Productions —
Bellevue,
Washington,
United States
[05.07.21]
Combat Designer