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Interesting Decisions in Games

There’s an often cited quote from Sid Meier, the creator of the Civilization series, “Games are a series of interesting decisions”. In the game industry timeline it is an ancient quote as it hails all the way from GDC’89. Despite how popular this quote is, an “interesting decision” can be a pretty hard concept to break down, but Sid Meier himself does dissect the game design concept at his GDC’12 talk. Defining a game is at the very core of game design theory, and this article will highlight and discuss some of Meier’s points.

In general the most important factor is that interesting decisions must have interesting consequences. The player must be able to see that their choices matter to the progression of the game.

I’ve broken his concept further down. An interesting decision:

  1. Must accommodate different play styles
  2. Must be informed
  3. Must contain trade-offs
  4. Must give feedback

Play styles

It’s not an interesting decision if all players choose B within an decision range of A, B, and C – then the game might as well not give them the choice. All three options should be viable and give different players different ways to play the game – this also adds to the replay value of the game as players can choose another option on their next playthrough.

As an example of an important decision, in many RPGs, you must choose a class and will be somewhat locked to that path. In a classic RPG like Diablo 2, players can express themselves and their play style by choosing to be a Barbarian, Sorceress or Necromancer and can play the game again later choosing another class.

One of the reasons why game designers must playtest their games a lot is to make sure that all options are chosen by their testers. It is a trap to believe that designers can be objective testers themselves and cover all play styles. E.g. If all players choose the Necromancer, maybe the other characters should be made more interesting.

informed

A random decision is not interesting, the player must have some form of information to base the decision on. Random events can happen, but whenever the player must make a choice, they should have been given the right tools to make that choice. When picking A, B or C, the player should be able to distinguish between the options and have an idea about what to expect when making a decision.

Here designers can lean on conventions and known tropes for information, eg. use zombies as enemies or let the story be inspired by historical events so players know what to expect. If used without a lot of extra information the tropes should be followed.

For example, when choosing between Barbarian, Sorceress or Necromancer, the classes should express character traits that the player expects, ie. the Barbarian furiously attacks with heavy weapons, the Sorceress casts impactful spells and the Necromancer raises the dead to fight.

trade-offs

Trade-off decisions are what it is all about, when designing interesting decisions. When choosing A, players must give up on B. Players should not be given so much gold that they can buy all the best equipment, they should decide if they want to buy a set of mediocre equipment or splurge it all on the best weapon and walk around naked.

Shooter games should not give the players the choice between a bad gun or a good gun, but rather the choice of sniper vs shotgun and let them decide which is better for the level, which is clearly exemplified in Counter-Strike

In racing games, the fastest vehicle could have bad handling, making the player figure out what the best vehicle for a given track or their play style might be etc.

In strategy games, like Age of Empires, long term vs short term can often be very interesting as well, should the player risk their long-term plans by rushing the enemy and maybe get a fast win or build up their base and economy first to make sure they are strong long-term.

feedback

A game should always acknowledge that the player gave some input, it might just be a small blinking icon or a sound effect, but there should be feedback so the player knows they were heard by the game. If all decisions must have consequences, these consequences should be made clear to the player – it would be a shame if they did not realize something important happening, eg. if they missed that their great skills unlocked a new level or weapon. Letting the player know why they got the result is important, letting them know that because they chose A, they got here and B would have resulted in something else.

“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”

Sid Meier

Final Thoughts

As always one of the most important aspects of game development is to playtest and iterate. To test the game with external people is the only way to be sure that the game makes sense to anyone but the team. So get the game to a state where it can be tested and keep testing and balancing throughout the development process.

If you are testing a game, remember that even though testers/players are almost always right about pointing out problems, they are almost always wrong about the solutions. It’s the designers (or QA’s) job to listen to the players when they find problems in the game, but the designer must create the solutions. 

To reiterate, the most important factor is that interesting decisions should have interesting consequences. The decisions should be informed and give different players options to take different paths, there should be trade-offs and risky choices and the game should always give the player feedback on their choices.

Jannick Hynding Lund
Jannick Hynding Lund

Producer and game designer - Partner at Vizlab Studios

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