One of my favorite game design quotes has always been Sid Meier’s “Games are a series of interesting choices.”
I was thinking a lot about it last night, and I think if I were saying it now I’d make a slight modification that, I think, might make Mr. Meier’s meaning a bit clearer to the novice designer.
Players make interesting choices. Games ask interesting questions.
It sounds really minor, but hear me out.
In my experience, trying to design choices into a game doesn’t usually produce good results. Most of the time, interesting choices come OUT of your game design, they don’t go IN to your game design.
It usually goes like this:
JUNIOR DESIGNER: I wanna add in choices!
ME: Great! You do that.
JD: LOOK, you can go left or right here! The player can CHOOSE!
ME: Er… very nice. But doesn’t that mean we have to make twice as much content and the player will only see half of it?
JD: Um… yeah. But… choice?
Don’t get me wrong, this approach CAN work (look at the Fable games, for example — they did it brilliantly). But lets look at a few examples of what happens when a game asks good questions instead:
Skyrim: The game shows you really cool-looking interesting things and asks you “Where do you want to go?”
Combat games (Halo, Ratchet, etc): In a combat encounter, what enemy do you want to attack first?
These games all design their individual pieces so that players can make choices and come up with a wide array of different answers to these questions. These questions all also encompass more than they seem at first glance:
Skyrim: The different places you can go all mean different things depending on what kind of powers you’ve chosen to have, and the challenges you encounter encourage you to buy different skills. Further, the player gets to carve out his own story as he goes through the game — and that story is different than the way anyone else plays it.
Combat Game (e.g Ratchet, Halo): Based on the encounter and how the player is equipped, the player may have many choices spawned by this question: If I want to kill the guy across a ledge, I need to use a weapon with some range (my Energy Sword won’t do the trick). If I want to kill that guy up on that ledge or behind cover, I need to use my jumping ability in concert with my weapons, or I need a weapon that fires indirectly, or I need to dodge fire to get close enough to use another weapon.
Basically, these questions that seem very simple can cascade out into scenarios that cause the player to make a series of interesting choices.
Another cool side effect to implementing questions over choices is that you can design many parts of the game in tandem — there are fewer bottlenecks.
Here’s an example:
When we were making Skylanders, we had a situation where we had to make more than 30 different hero characters. How do we design enemies and combat setups for such a varied group?
What we decided to do was break the game down into questions. What questions will the enemies ask the player? What questions will our level designs ask, and how can we give the player powers and abilities that can give the player good choices to answer these with?
We decided that players would have four different “categories” of attacks: Near, Straight, Indirect, and “Other.” Each hero character has two of these.
Because we knew that players would have these options, we decided that our enemy setups would try to ask questions that can be answered differently by each. For example, putting an enemy with a ranged attack across a gap asks the question: How will you kill me? Will you switch to a guy with a straight-ahead attack to shoot across the gap, or will you run your melee guy around to attack me close up? This allowed us to design the enemies and levels even without knowing EXACTLY what our heroes would do.
When you start mixing in other enemies and other level design elements, answering these kinds of questions gets even more interesting. Putting a guy with a ton of HP up on a ledge along with a ton of one-hit-point guys down on the ground means the player has to decide which enemies pose a greater threat, which ones he wants to attack first, and what abilities he wants to use to take them out. Does he switch to a guy with an indirect attack to get the guy up on the ledge? Does he kill the swarmers first with a close range area attack and THEN switch to a guy with an indirect attack? Does he run past them all, climb the ledge, and attack the heavy guy close up?
Asking simple, interesting questions (when backed up with good options for answering them) causes your players to exist in a state where they’re constantly making interesting choices.
The choices come out of the game, and you don’t have to put them in. More with less.
Or so I’m thinking now.