Previously I wrote about the fundamentals of crafting interesting choices in gameplay - the choice must have more than one viable option and the choice must have stakes. However, I don’t want to leave things too abstract - game design is about taking an idea and translating it into real game rules and mechanics. Today, I’ll go into some more specific implementation principles that designers can use while crafting their choices in order to get the player thinking.
Borrowing from the Future is Interesting
There was a famous cognitive psychology test run at Stanford University where children were offered a marshmallow and told that they could eat the marshmallow now, but if they waited for a time, they would be given a second marshmallow to eat in addition to the first. The children were put into a position where they needed to evaluate whether eating the marshmallow immediately was worth more than getting two later. This was a very compelling choice for the children to make! We can approximate this by offering a similar choice to the player - choose this for immediate cash-out or let the choice run its course to get more value over time. This kind of choice tests the player’s ability to evaluate and predict the game state over a measure of time. If you balance things right, the choice isn’t always obvious and will depend on evaluating other factors at the time of the choice. That’s what makes it interesting.
This also applies to having a non-trivial cooldown on an ability. Generally, this falls into the range of one to five minutes of gameplay where it is unusable, depending on the pace of the game’s core loop. If the cooldown is too long, players run into the loss-aversion situation where they never use it for fear of not having it available. However, if the cooldown is short enough that it is usually available but long enough that using it isn’t trivial to use it, it is usually an interesting choice to use it. That generally falls within the one-to-five minute mark.
Making a choice without enough context isn’t interesting
Have you ever played a game where you had to make a choice really early on (like your character’s race) that had a big effect later that you regretted? If the choice a player makes really early on in the game without sufficient context for how important it is comes back far later in the game, it can be a major frustration point because regret feels bad. Make sure that players are informed of what the stakes of a choice are or there will be some bad feelings later on when the stakes for the choice are revealed.
Establishing explicit stakes before offering a choice makes the choice more interesting
This is the inverse of the above principle - if we explicitly show the player the context of things leading up to the choice, it makes the choice much more interesting. This works very well for story-related choices where the results aren’t something as obvious as damage dealt or stats gained. If we establish the story context for a choice before we offer it to the player, the player will then be able to extrapolate the choice’s consequences within the story. Establishing the character of Legion and then leading up to the Geth-related story choices in Mass Effect 2 is a great example of this.
That isn’t to say this is limited to only story-related choices either - choices now that build up to bigger future choices in the future are also often interesting. Choosing between skills to generate a resource (e.g. using the V-skill in Street Fighter V generates V-meter) can lead to making a different choice to consume that resource (e.g. Deciding when to activate the V-trigger in SFV).
Choosing between selfishness and generosity is Interesting
In games where multiple players are on teams or in a free-for-all situation, having the choice between choosing selfishly or generously results in interplay between players. For example, if I am playing a card game and I play a card that reads “Choose one: you draw two cards or target other player draws three cards”, I must evaluate whether the two cards I draw at that point in the game are more or less valuable than my ally getting three cards. This kind of decision is usually interesting because it causes the player to evaluate their own game state, but also the game state of their opponent(s) and their allies before making a decision.
Making the same choice more than once reduces how interesting it is
If a player has spent time evaluating a choice and making a decision, that’s great. But players will lose interest if they must make the exact same evaluation repeatedly, especially if the game state doesn’t significantly change at each time of evaluation. This is a problem common to 4X games, where the choices you make early on for your city/settlement/civilization/whatever are often repeated for all subsequent cities/settlements/etc. Deciding to build a granary instead of a blacksmithy is interesting the first time for your first city, but significantly less so for your fifth or tenth city.
Increasing possibility space is generally less frustrating than decreasing it
Imagine you’re a player and you spend a lot of time creating a build for your character with a specific mechanic or interaction in mind. You research it, you acquire the gear and skills for it, and you’re ready to use it… and then you run headfirst into a bunch of enemies who are mostly or completely immune to that mechanic. It feels really frustrating to the player when this happens. This isn’t the case if the player is going up against an AI opponent because AI can’t feel bad, but if the player is the one being restricted, be very careful about forcing stakes of a choice by removing options - especially if those options are things the player already likes doing.
Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list of all of the ways to make player choices interesting. These are just some of the myriad of ways we can make players have to stop and think before making a choice. Players need to know the benefits and drawbacks of their decisions. That information comes from the content and context we create - we need to provide that information to the player via our implementation. This is how we craft interesting choices.
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