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When choice is bad: finding the sweet spot for player agency

When choice is bad: finding the sweet spot for player agency Exclusive GDMag Exclusive

July 29, 2013 | By Soren Johnson

July 29, 2013 | By Soren Johnson
More: GD Mag, Programming, Design, GD Mag Exclusive

In this reprint from the May 2013 issue of Game Developer magazine, Soren Johnson contends that sometimes small yet elegant choices win out over giving your players the keys to the kingdom.

Nothing defines video games more than player choice. Interactivity is what separates games from static entertainment forms like film and literature, and when critics accuse a digital experience like Dear Esther of being "not really a game," it's usually due to its lack of meaningful player choice.

However, because game designers hold choice as such an idealâ€"with phrases like "enabling player agency" and "abdicating authorship" -- its downside is often ignored during development, hiding in a designer's blind spot. In fact, every time a designer adds more choices to a game, they make a tradeoff.

With every new option added, your game will gain a degree of player engagement, but at the cost of something else. These costs -- too much time, too much complexity, or too much repetition -- all can far outweigh the positive qualities of the extra choice.

Too Time-Consuming

If games can be reduced to a simple equation, a possible formula would be (total fun) = (meaningful decisions) / (time played). In other words, for two games with similar levels of player choice, the one that takes less time to play will be more fun. Of course, usually the comparison will not be so obvious; a new feature will add a meaningful decision, but is it worth the extra time added to the play session?

As an example, Dice Wars and Risk are similar games of territorial conquest that answer this question differently. In both games, players attack each other by rolling dice, and victors are rewarded with extra armies at the start of their next turn. In Risk, the player decides where to place these armies, which can be a meaningful decision depending on the situation. In Dice Wars, however, the armies are placed randomly by the game, and the result is a much faster game.

Which design is right? While the answer is subjective, the relevant question to ask is whether the combat decisions become more meaningful if the player takes the time to arrange their new armies -- or, as is likely, how much more meaningful they become. After all, the player can pursue a more intentional strategy in Risk, but is that aspect worth the not-insignificant extra time taken by the army-placement phase?

The answer may depend on the audience (Dice Wars is a casual Flash game, while Risk is a traditional board game), but designers should understand the ramifications of their decisions. Sometimes, army placement in Risk can be a rote decision, and sometimes, reacting to an unexpected arrangement in Dice Wars can lead to a new, more dynamic type of fun. Ultimately, the aspects of Risk that lengthen the play session must justify the time they cost to the audience.

Too Complicated

Besides its cost in time, each choice presented to the player also carries a cognitive load in added complexity that must be weighed. More options mean more indecision; deciding between researching five different technologies feels much different than choosing from 50. Players worry not just about what they are choosing but also about what they are not choosing, and the more options they decline, the more they have to worry about.

Each type of game has a sweet spot for the number of options that keep play manageableâ€"you need enough options to make each decision interesting, but not so many that they overwhelm the player. Blizzard RTS games have maintained a constant number of units per race for decades; StarCraft, WarCraft 3, and StarCraft II all average 12 units per faction. For the third game, the designers explicitly stated that they removed old units to make room for new ones.

Indeed, RTS games as a genre are under assault from their more popular upstart progeny, the MOBA genre, best exemplified by League of Legends and Dota 2. The original MOBA was a WarCraft 3 mod called 'Defense of the Ancients,' which played out like an RTS except that the player controlled a single hero instead of an entire army.

This twist broadened the potential audience by radically reducing the complexity and, thus, the cognitive demands placed on the player. Instead of needing to manage a vast collection of mines and barracks and peons and soldiers as in a typical RTS, the player needed to only worry about a single character. Consider the UI simplifications made possible by allowing the camera to lock onto the player's hero instead of roaming freely across the map, which forced the player to make stressful decisions about managing their attention.

Of course, this change did take away many of the meaningful choices found in an RTS. Players no longer decide where to place buildings or what technologies to research or what units to train or even where to send them; all these choices were either abstracted away or managed by the game instead. Again, the relevant question is whether these lost decisions were worth the massive amount of complexity they added to a typical RTS.

The success of MOBAs demonstrate that although players enjoy the thrill and spectacle of the large-scale real-time battles pioneered by RTS games, they do not necessarily enjoy the intense demands of trying to control every aspect of the game. Designer Cliff Harris discussed a similar point for his successful alt-RTS Gratuitious Space Battles, which does not allow the player any control of units during combat: "GSB does not pretend you can control 300 starships in a complex battle. It admits you can't, and thus doesn't make it an option. Some people hate it. Over 100,000 enjoyed it enough to buy it, so I can't be the only person with this point of view."

Too Repetitive

The final way that too much player choice can negatively affect the game experience is perhaps a bit surprising: Games with too much freedom can suffer from becoming repetitive. A typical example is when a game presents the player with an extensive but ultimately static menu of choices session after session; players often develop a set of favorite choices and get stuck in that small corner of the game space.

Sometimes, a fixed set of options can work if the player needs to react to a variety of environments; the random maps in a Civilization game can prod the player down different parts of the technology tree. However, almost all games could probably benefit from reducing some player choice to increase overall variety.

Consider Atom Zombie Smasher, a game in which players use up to three special weapons (such as snipers or mortars or blockades) to help rescue civilians from a city overrun by zombies. However, these three weapons are randomly chosen before each mission from a set of eight, which means the player reacts as much to the current selection of weapons as to the city layout or zombie behavior. Instead of relying on a particular favorite combination, the player must learn to make unusual combinations work, which means the gameplay is constantly shifting.

Similarly, in FTL, the crew members and weapons and upgrades available change from game to game, depending on what the randomly generated shops provide. Thus, the game is not about discovering and perfecting a single strategy but about finding the best path based on the tools available. Put simply, the variety of gameplay in Atom Zombie Smasher and FTL emerges because the designers limited player choice.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, games with hefty customization systems usually devolve into a few ideal choices, robbing the flexible systems of their relevance. In Alpha Centauri, players used the Unit Workshop to create units with different values and abilities. However, the most effective combinations soon became obvious, marginalizing this feature.

Thus, giving the player too much controlâ€"by offering too many options and too much agency -- can reduce a game's replayability. The game would certainly feel different as the loss of intentional progression would turn off many veterans, but the new variety might attract others looking for a more dynamic experience. Randomly distributed skills might force players to explore sections of the tree they would have never experienced otherwise. The important fact is that this loss of meaningful player choice would not necessarily hurt the game.

Ultimately, game design is a series of tradeoffs, and designers should recognize that choice itself is just one more factor that must be balanced with everything else. Even though player control is core to the power of games, it does not necessarily trump all the other factors, such as brevity, elegance, and variety.

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