Recently, a follower on twitter asked me a question that I thought would make for a good post. Specifically, it was about how to go about making interesting cards for a cooperative deck building game. I want to expand on that because I thought that it would make for a good central design concept post - what does it mean for a player to make a choice that is interesting? As a designer, how do I provide interesting choices to the player? Choices become interesting when they generate some tension in the player. This comes from two fundamental elements: 1.) no clear “best” answer and 2.) established stakes that aren’t trivial.
An Interesting Choice shouldn’t have just one answer
A choice is a situation where a player must decide between two or more mutually exclusive options. A choice is not interesting where the better option is obvious. If you are choosing between spending one mana and dealing two damage or dealing three damage to any target in a vacuum, the choice is obvious. Even if it involves some amount of calculation, if those calculations are the same, the choice isn’t interesting. It’s a math problem and it gets solved. A solved choice is not interesting by definition, because there’s a right answer and a wrong answer. The choice is no longer interesting once you know what the answer is. Memorization isn’t interesting.
An interesting choice is one where things aren’t always known. Conditions that are not always fulfilled (e.g. flame punch deals high damage than laser fist normally, but laser fist deals extra damage to burning enemies) lead to interesting choices. Controlled randomization of outcome (e.g. this move has a higher chance to critically hit than that one) can be interesting. Choosing a character can be interesting if the characters are reasonably balanced.
An Interesting Choice needs stakes
If a choice doesn’t cost the chooser anything, it isn’t interesting because the stakes are too low. When you have tens of thousands of gold coins, deciding whether to buy a potion for single-digit gold cost isn’t really interesting. If the player isn’t aware of the stakes of the decision, the choice won’t be interesting. When you want the choice to be interesting, the player must be aware of what the stakes are for the choice - choosing this option means this big event happens, which means that other big event won’t happen. If the results from the choice are significant to the game, the story, or the character, we must convey this to the players in order for them to understand full weight of the choice that is being made.
This isn’t limited to a game’s story though - think about the factors involved in making the decision to use your character’s Ultimate in Overwatch or League of Legends. The stakes are important - using it right can often swing the game in a drastic way. Using it wrong and you’ve wasted a long cooldown for little appreciable gain. Deciding when to use your ult in a close game is much more interesting than deciding when to use it in a curbstomp game because the stakes are higher.
Not all Choices must be Interesting
It’s important to recognize that not all choices must be interesting. Making a choice requires the decisionmaker to expend mental energy. Think back to when you spent a lot of time thinking about hard problems all day and just felt utterly exhausted afterward. Expending too much mental energy leads to mental fatigue. Too many Interesting Choices can cause that to happen to our players if we’re not careful. Interesting Choices are good at raising the tension level of the current gameplay experience and not good when players are already riding high on the [tension curve] and the choices push them over the edge into feeling stressed out. When you’re designing the gameplay experience, consider where these choices are offered and what the expected tension level should be.
These two elements are the core of what makes choices interesting. I’ll soon post part 2, where we can examine some details in the implementation - different ways we can adjust the answers and stakes of some example choices to make them more or less interesting. In the meantime, try looking at the various choices you are offered in games. You should start seeing how they break down - what the stakes are, what the answers they offer are, etc. Consider which choices you found interesting. Can you see the options and the stakes? What about for those that weren’t interesting?
The FANTa Project is being rebooted. [What is the FANTa project?]
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