Why Not Games




Miscellaneous Thoughts on Designed Decisions

Premise

Players approach a number of decisions with the knowledge that a real person wrote that specific decision and that knowledge informs their decision making.

There are schools of design philosophically opposed to this as this knowledge detracts from player immersion, but it is inevitable to some degree and so it makes sense to look at the consequences of this simple fact for video game designers.

Belief In Balance

This unspoken contract between the designer and the player is the only thing that allows quite a few games to work. Games ask players to make decisions that they don't have the information to solve correctly. For example

  • Choosing a starting class.
  • Choosing to play the good or evil side.
  • Choosing to side with person A over person B in your party.

All of these are decisions that players make completely off personal whims because they assume that the game is balanced such that none of the choices are going to keep them from finishing the game, or even going to make the game significantly harder. When the game doesn't hold up its end of this bargain, it will greatly frustrate players who have made what turned out to be the incorrect decision, as you can see from peoples' experiences with the Deus Ex: Human Revolution boss fights. The pattern of letting players make a decision that will keep them from completing the game and only tell them that hours later has long been obsoleted.

The upside of this contract is that it lets people tailor the game to be what they think will be the most fun. In a game like Hearthstone, you don't have the ability to play whatever cards and hero you think is the most fun and win, you're at the mercy of the meta. However, if you've picked up Knights of The Old Republic, your choices are subject only to your whims.

Corollary: If the players do not have the ability to make an informed decision at a decision point in a game, it is then necessary that both of those options be balanced enough not to severely affect the player. In other words, the less the player understands the decision, the lower its impact should be, lest the player find your game unfair. Note of course, that there are points where you can deliberately give the player a decision that they don't know how to decide as you want them to feel pressured or that the scenario they were in was unfair. However, this is the kind of thing that should be done intentionally, and not simply due to the failures of the game's communication.

Corollary: Games that don't require you to play optimally give you more leeway for having the player not understand the decision and so can allow more designed decisions with greater variance in their results. Something like RollerCoaster Tycoon doesn't expect you to figure out what rides will make the most money for your park, it just wants you to make what you think would be cool.

Reverse-Engineered Decisions

A number of decisions that the player experiences are very explicitly designed by a person. These include:

  • Choosing an option in a choose-your-own-adventure style game.
  • Choosing a dialogue option.

For these, when the player is given a difficult choice that has consequences they care about, they are going to consult their mental model of the game world to try to guess the results of each choice. When they know that someone made the game, that cannot help but inform that decision. We don't expect to lose much in the game for failing a decision that we didn't understand. We expect some degree of safety.

From this, we can see the following points:

  • Decisions that have consequences that players care about should be kept distinct from those decisions that would require the player to read the mind of the designer.
  • A consistent world model that allows the player to better guess the consequences of their actions can greatly mitigate this issue.

The other half of this is that playing some games feels like a constant competition of cleverness with the designer. This is why players try to take the wrong path in a level to pick up all of the hidden loot and why players skip the obvious choice because they smell the designer has set a trap. This style hurts immersion, but that doesn't preclude it from being an enjoyable experience for the player. As a result of this, adding hidden loot can reduce immersion as it pushes the player to take unintuitive actions.

This reminds me strongly of plot armor in traditional narrative. In those cases, we see a character take an action and expect the results not to be what such an action would normally be in the real world, but instead what works best for the writer of the novel. We expect the last second saves that are so cliche because that is how fiction works. The best way to illustrate this is the difference between watching live sports and watching a sports movie. When LeBron blocked Iguodala on the fast break in the NBA finals in 2016, the moment was much stronger because it was great storytelling, but there was no reason for it to have happened except for the player doing all he could. Were you to have watched the same moment in a movie, it would have less impact because it would have felt a little too scripted and a little too unrealistic. The knowledge that the live game is unscripted quiets that cynical part of the mind.

- @murthynikhil

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Written for Why Not Games.