"Games are a series of interesting decisions," says Firaxis' Sid Meier. It's a statement he's made in the past - and he's noticed (by Googling himself) that viewpoint of his has been a source of some debate. But it's one of his favorite ways of thinking about game design, so in his packed GDC 2012 lecture, he explained the idea in depth - what makes decisions in gameplay interesting for players, and what do designers need to know?
"It's easier to look at it as what is not an interesting decision," says the legendary creator of Civilization. If a player always chooses the first from among a set of three choices, it's probably not an interesting choice; nor is a random selection. While there are some types of games where the idea of interesting decisions isn't the best way to look at things - say rhythm games or puzzle games based on different sorts of inputs -- he generally believes the idea is a helpful way to look at the medium.
"It's a useful concept during the design phase. One of the things I see often is that designs are kind of about putting together pieces of other games," says Meier. There's the idea that if some games are fun, then combinations of their elements will also be fun.
"Unfortunately, that doesn't always work out," he says. "And I think it's a more useful way to look at a new game design in terms of, what are the decisions I'm presenting the player, and are they interesting?... Put yourself in the player's chair."
What Makes An Interesting Decision?
One common characteristic of interesting decisions is that they involve some kind of tradeoff - say, the opportunity to get a big sword costs 500 gold, or in a racing game the fastest car may have poorer handling. In Meier's Civilization, the act of building a defensive unit has complex resource costs in exchange for protection.
"Good decisions are situational. There's a very key idea that when the decision is presented to the player, ideally it acts in an interesting way with the game situation," Meier explains. Civ contains complex systems that provide a number of situational choices, where the options presented to players and the factors therein depend heavily on what's happening in the game world.
Some of these decisions are personal and tied to the player's gaming style. A cautious player would choose to build a very secure base from which to expand; an aggressive player invests in its offensive units. "This interesting decision would allow you to express your personal play style," he says.
Interesting decisions are persistent and affect the game for a certain amount of time, as long as the player has enough information to make the decision - when early choices can ruin the game experience down the road, developers need to present them in a fashion appropriate to that. "
One classic decision type is a risk-versus-reward scenario that asks the player to weigh potential penalties against the possibilities of rewards. "In almost any kind of game you'll find opportunities for these decisions," he says. Another decision category is short versus long-term decisions - like building a wonder in Civilization, which takes a long time but has a significant long-term impact - versus building a chariot, which is finished much more quickly but has much less effect on the overall landscape of the game.
When it comes to accommodating the player's play style, "it's very tempting as a designer to imagine that everybody plays a game the same way that you do, and it's very tempting as a design and development group to feel that you represent all players," he says. That's why he finds it essential to good design to allow for as many choices and play styles as possible.
One of the strengths of Civilization in Meier's own view, is that it has things happening on multiple levels at once in terms of short-, medium- and long-term events. The player's task is to prioritize and to manage strategies for both near-term and long-term goals, and evolve the short-term goals to make the long-term goal more accessible.
Customization functions also create interesting decisions, even if it's as simple as choosing a name for your city or a color for your vehicle. "It makes [the player] more connected to the game that they're playing," Meier says. "Think about ways of investing the player in your game by inviting them to make decisions that let them to express their personality or their gaming style.
Key to making decision meaningful is to ensure players understand the full scope of their choices; it's not fun for the player to be in a situation where they have to pick something, and then marinate in that gnawing feeling of wondering what might happen as a result of their choice or how severe the impact might be. "It's almost worth erring on the side of providing the player with too much information, or at least enough that they're comfortable with understanding the choices," Meier advises.
When it comes to making players comfortable and happy as they make decisions, genre conventions help - the fact that most shooters have something of a standard interface help players feel assured. When a player presses a button that in every other game in its genre does a certain thing and receives an unfamiliar result, "there's nothing more disconcerting," he warns.
One reason that many of Firaxis' games involve historical topics is that the player can come to the experience with a lot of information that they already know. "It's important to reinforce that information for the player - if you run into Genghis Khan in a Civilization game, you're going to expect him to be kinda angry and aggressive... if you're building a game about railroads or pirates, there's a lot that the player can bring to a topic like that that they already know."
Zombies are popular because they're very clear - their motivation is basic and their nature is obvious and well understood. "It's an example of a decision where you don't have to add a lot of information for the player; they pretty much know what to do."
On the other hand, once the player makes a decision the response from the game is enormously important: "The worst thing you can do is just move on. There's nothing more paranoia-inducing than having made a decision and the game just kind of goes on. At least have a sound effect that says, 'I've heard what you said and I'm going to do it.'" In Civilization Revolution, players were so pleased to get feedback on some of their unit moves when they negotiated with leaders from other areas, for example.
Feedback helps players feel responsible and meaningful within the game world. "It's really important to let the player know that you know that they're there, that you're a partner with them, that you're right there next to them all the way," Meier explains. "That yes, 'you are the leader of a great civilization', or 'you are a great race car driver'. Whether it's a sound or text, a visual or graphic... really reinforce the fantasy the player is creating in their mind and really allow them to enjoy that."
The Player Types
In order to create lots of interesting decisions for players, it's important for designers to understand the many types of players there are. There's the player that cares mainly about winning, who can offer feedback on tuning the game's higher levels. There's the genre fan, who is a fan of the specific genre and loves anything that resembles things they love already - and resents deviations. This player's feedback is useful for understanding how to use the genre conventions, but hopefully doesn't constrain new developments.
There's the player the one who wants to understand all of the game's algorithm and calculate the best possible scenarios. This player can help with game balance - within reason, as the player really just wants to unravel and own the systems. Then, there's the paranoid player, who feels that everything is stacked against him or her, assuming that dice rolls are rigged or unfair. The history buff will criticize elements of the setting and complain about loyalty to source material or accuracy of a historical setting.
The player who Meier calls "Mr. Bubble Boy" is the one who dwells on the one unfortunate game experience he or she had. "You need to prevent setbacks in a very sensitive way, where the player understands why it's happening and what they can do next time... one incident colors their entire experience." And there'll always be that armchair designer who focuses on every detail of why a given game isn't like the one he or she creates.
It's useful to understand all of these player types and to benefit from their feedback, but all of them can cause consequences if their views are too highly prized.
More Interesting Decisions
Once a game implements interesting decisions, what makes them more interesting? A strong balance of risk-reward choices; adjusting how impactful choices are, giving the player more or less information, providing time frame within which to make decisions, or adjusting how many choices there are in the game can all completely define and refine a design. There's a flavor slider, too: "This is really a presentation issue," he says. "Take advantage of those artists, those writers that are working on your game to really add flavor."
"Be careful to manage that balance," he says. "If you're playing a game with complicated decisions that come at you one after the other the player is going to feel out of control. On the other hand, if you give your player some very simple decisions at a very slow place, they're kind of bored."
The last way to make a game more interesting through decisions? Get rid of ones that are not working. "You've tried all these things and they don't work. Maybe the decision is just one you should take out of your game.," says Meier. "Be ruthless in terms of cutting things out... probably a third of the things that we try, if not more, end up getting taken out of the game because they're not fun and interesting enough."
"You don't want to forget that your game is more than just decisions," he emphasizes. The detailed minutiae of developing interesting decisions ought not to take away from the production of a rich, vivid world that feels real and fun for the player. A strong fantasy environment coupled with empowering and interesting decisions is a key coupling that creates a long-term relationship between a player and a game, he believes.
"It's the combination of this wonderful fantasy world that you create and the interesting decisions that the player gets to make in that world that really is the sum total of the quality of your game," Meier concludes.