Making Player Choices Matter

This presidential election has got to be one of the craziest in America’s history. All the rules we’re used to politicians following seem to have been thrown out the window, and yet we’re still faced with making a decision which will have a significant impact on our country’s future. And that has got me thinking, perhaps as a distraction, about the impact of player choices in games.

As game designer Sid Meier says, games are a series of interesting decisions. All games are about choices, even if the choice is as simple as whether to move left or move right at any given moment. Now, there is nothing wrong about simple choices; classic games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders are all about moving left or right at the right moment. What does matter is the information the game provides to the player in making those decisions and the impact of those decisions on the game’s goals.

Here are a series of decisions I present to my game design class in a discussion of player choices.

  • You are at a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will find a gold coin worth 10 doubloons.  But if you go right, you will find another gold coin worth 10 doubloons.  Which path do you choose?  This is what is called a hallow choice. No matter the choice, the player will receive the same outcome.  This is poor design: choices should matter in games.
  • You are at a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will find a gold coin worth 10 doubloons.  But if you go right, you will find a gold coin worth only 5 doubloons.  Which path do you choose?  This an obvious choice. One outcome is clearly superior to the other, and so it really isn’t a choice at all.  This too is poor design.
  • You are at a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will find a gold coin worth 10 doubloons.  But if you go right, you will find two gold coins worth 5 doubloons each.  Which path do you choose?  These two choices provide the player with rewards of equal monetary value.  However, there may be reasons for choosing one reward over another.  Perhaps the 10 doubloon coin is less cumbersome and lighter to carry than the two 5 doubloon coins.  On the other hand, perhaps the player will later need to buy an item worth five doubloons from a vendor who can’t make change.  This would be a minor decision, because the different choices have only a small impact on the player meeting his or her goals.
  • You are at a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will find a bronze coin worth 10 doubloons.  But if you go right, you will find the Golden Coin of Zeus, also worth 10 doubloons.  Which path do you choose?  This may seem like a minor decision, since the two coins are worth the same, but there is also a dramatic element here, based on the coin’s description.  (If the game’s storyline has been about Greek mythology, the choices is even more dramatic).  The decision here may not be meaningful in terms of the game’s goals, but it may be meaningful in terms of the player’s immersion into the game’s story.
  • You are at a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will find a pile of gold coins.  But if you go right, you will find another pile of gold coins.  The two piles have different amounts of gold coins, but you don’t know which is greater. Which path do you choose?  Although one choice is likely better than the other, the player just doesn’t have enough information to make a decision, so the decision really isn’t meaningful.  This is an uniformed decision, and is another example of poor design.
  • You are at a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will find a 5 doubloon coin.  But if you choose the right path, you will find either a  10 doubloon coin or nothing. Which path do you choose?  Now things are getting more interesting!  This is an informed decision.  The player has enough information to make a meaningful choice, but due to the lack of certainty in outcomes, the choice is not obvious.  Actually, the choice here is whether or not to take a risk.
  • You are at a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will find a 10 doubloon magical coin that will double in value every 10 days until it reaches a maximum value of 2,400 doubloons in 100 days.  But if you choose the right path, you will find a 10 doubloon magical coin that will turn into a flying steed worth 3,500 doubloons in 150 days. Which path do you choose?   These are both long-term decisions having effects that will not be felt immediately, although a decision made now will have far-reaching effects.
  •  You are at a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will find a 10 doubloon gold coin.  But if you choose the right path, you will be attacked by a dragon that might kill you, but if you survive, you will get its treasure of 100 doubloons. Which path do you choose?  This is a weighted decision, with pros and cons for each choice.  The left path offers safety but the right path offers wealth.
  • You are at a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will will be able to rescue your beloved dog, who is drowning in the river.  But if you choose the right path, you will be able to save a human stranger, who is also drowning in the river.  You can only rescue one  Which path do you choose?  This is an ethical dilemma.  There are no good choices.  Something will be gained and something will be lost.  In these types of situations, a player’s values are put to the test.

The further down the list, the more interesting the type of decision being presented.  At least in theory.  I’ve been distressed to find that every time I present the dilemma scenario to my students, almost all of them choose the dog over the human.  I’ve been considering offering the scenario of having the students choose between their dog and their Game Design instructor, but given the nastiness of today’s political climate, I’m afraid to dicover the answer.

 

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About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, 3DO and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, Lead Faculty, Game Production Program at The Los Angeles Film School, co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge, and answer kid’s questions about game design on the Boy’s Life website. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on June 6, 2016, in Game Design and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this piece! I personally feel that informed decision is one of the two most fundamental and important game design tools, although I might be looking at it a bit too widely.

    I have to say, though, that I’m not sure if I understand the differentiation between an informed decision and a weighted. Do you mean that in Informed one the result is in the same magnitude regardless of an option (so, the effect will be the same, but there can be a difference; for example, in both situations you might fight some opponents, or get some reward, but the details might differ), while in the other one you are choosing the gameplay experience your player is going to have (seasoned with different reward)?

    (Also, do your students have to learn all the terms with their names for exams? That sounds horrible!)

    • An informed decision is one in which sufficient information is provided to make a choice. A weighted decision is one in which each choice has pros and cons. They are not mutually exclusive — most weighted decisions are also informed decisions.

      I don’t think my exam included any of these terms. My exams are mostly about concepts, not vocabulary.

      • I see, thank you a lot for both answers! I completely misunderstood the article: I wrongfully assumed that all the types of choices presented describe completely different situation (which I admit was pretty stupid of me).

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