Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Poor Choices

Despite initial excitement, I don't like Civilization V nearly as much as Civ 4.  I'm not wildly interested in breaking down everything I think went wrong with it, in part because I didn't have anything to do with the design so it seems mean-spirited, and partially because if I wait until my complaints are related to larger issues, I can milk it for more introductions.  It did get me thinking, though, about a big issue in game design that I'd like to talk more about: the desirability and creation of choices.

Choice is almost a buzzword in game design, and often seems to be portrayed as something like a universal good.  Mark Rosewater, on the other hand, in his charmingly contrarian way, recently published a column in which he talked about the importance of sometimes denying the player choices in order to make them do something they'll enjoy.  I don't agree with MaRo on this one.  (Aside: I agree with MaRo a lot, but you'll mostly see me disagreeing with him here, because it's not very interesting to write extensively about things you agree with.)  If you, as he suggests, intentionally remove interesting choices in order to herd players, you're risking the path of SquareSoft: moving from making games to making movies (or other kinds of storytelling media).  To me, meaningful choice is what makes a game a game, even more than competition (there are plenty of non-competitive games, after all.)  Go too far from that, and you've gone from game to toy.

That said, a lot of people - including designers! - look at choices in games as a case of "more = better", and I think MaRo is right that this attitude is dangerous, even if I find his expression of why to be unconvincing.  There's a lot to be said on this topic - for example, one of Mark's favorite quips, "restrictions breed creativity", can be well taken here, and I think Battleground's command action system is a great example of restriction choices to improve gameplay.  I want to start, though, with something a bit more focused: kinds of choices that are bad.  These are ways to introduce choices into your game that are dangerous and, I believe, you should usually avoid.  I've got a list!

1. The Lose-Lose
This is the kind of choice that prompted the post, because I find it all over the place in Civ 5.  In this kind of choice, you offer choices where the player can or must focus on what's bad about what they picked, rather than what's good.  The most obvious example is just forcing a choice between two purely undesirable things, but all that's really required for this one is a choice where it's easy for the player to focus on the bad.  It's easy to unintentionally end up with things like this if you're doing heavy-handed balance fixes.  In Civ 5, for example, roads have a gold upkeep cost.  This is much hated, not because roads aren't in some sense worth it, but because constructing them is profoundly unexciting; the benefit of potentially being able to move your units around faster seems insubstantial compared to the certainty of paying to maintain the things.  The risk with choices like this, and one that Civ 5 often falls into, is that instead of the player being happy with whatever choice she made, she's unhappy regardless of what she does.  To savagely crossbreed metaphors, when you offer the player two partially full glasses, you'll almost certainly make her think her neighbor's grass is greener.

Of course, you want bad choices to seem bad.  There's nothing wrong, especially in a competitive game, with the player getting feedback that a mistake is a mistake!  But if you're making developmental choices - like what to build in Civilization, or what traits to take when you level your character in an RPG - you always want your players to be excited and feel like their choices are causing them to improve, even if they might not be optimal.  This rewards creative players who like to feel like they're not following the beaten path, as well as newer players who don't want to feel like they're suffering for not being experts.  Which leads us to the second...

2. It's a Trap!
One of the most disgraceful statements ever uttered about 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons has to be the infamous incident where Monte Cook completely misunderstood the meaning of "Timmy Card."

Here's a summary if you don't want to dig through the link; feel free to skip this paragraph if you know the incident.  Basically a Timmy Card in Magic is a card that appeals to players who play the game as an experience rather than as a purely competitive exercise.  Everyone likes to win, but Timmy (the avatar of a psychograpic profile) likes to do awesome things, so he'll play giant creatures that cost tons of mana because they're exciting and flashy, even if they aren't particularly worth their cost.  In that blog entry, Monty Cook instead claims that Timmy cards are "skill testers": bad cards that bad players will play, allowing good players to feel good about not playing them.  He then says that the Toughness feat in D&D is a similar kind of choice, something they learned from Magic.

In short, in D&D 3E, the Toughness feat is a trap: an intentionally bad choice designed to fool the player into taking it, with the theoretical "payoff" that once she figures it out, she'll feel good about herself.  Clearly, by calling this kind of choice something you should try to avoid, I'm making a somewhat controversial statement.  Indeed, especially in games like Magic or D&D, that quickly develop stupefying levels of choice, it seems very difficult to avoid having some choices that are just going to be bad most of the time.  The trick with the Trap, though, isn't that it is often bad - it is that it is intentionally bad but tempting.  That's why Monte Cook's misunderstanding of "Timmy Card" is so unfortunate: the issue with Toughness is not primarily that it is bad (though see below) but rather that it pretends not to be bad.  The right way to do this is something closer to the opposite: something that appears bad but hints at ways it might, in certain contexts, be good.  A great example is something like Goblin King in Magic; he's not a great card on his own, but he draws you into the game by suggesting situations in which you might make him shine.  Well-designed power level choices make you feel smart when you crack them because you've figured out what context makes the "bad" choice good; traps make you feel dumb or, even worse, make you feel like the game has misled you.

(Only tangentially related but critical when thinking about what kind of choices are good or bad for your game: another important lesson of the Toughness disaster is to know what kind of game you're making!  As a competitive exercise, Magic benefits from inequalities in deck power, because that's part of the skill the competition is testing - Magic has to allow bad choices, at least in aggregate, because the challenge and fun of the game is in learning to make good choices.  Also because collecting cards and improving your deck is a big emotional aspect of the game.  On the other hand, in a cooperative game like D&D, huge variances in power level make the DM's job a huge nightmare, and make it very difficult for everyone to have a good time.  The function of choice in D&D is very different: it allows you to translate your creative vision into a character with unique mechanical features to match that vision.  In a collaborative RPG, if your player says "I want my character to be tough as nails!" you don't want a game element that describes itself as meaning just that, but that's mechanics say "suck it, you fell for my trap, now your character sucks.")

3. Fake Choices
Choice paralysis is a real thing.  I think virtually everyone has had that feeling of just being swamped with too much to think about in a game and feeling paralyzed, usually ending with "fuck it, I attack" or "screw this, your turn" or some other variant on giving up and moving on.  In small doses and for certain players, this is a fun experience, but even those who enjoy it occasionally are easy to overload, and I've seen extremely careful players honestly lament their lack of spreadsheet while playing some games!

In most cases of choice paralysis, the root issue isn't too many choices, but rather some number of what I call fake choices.  One way or another, fake choices are those where you make a choice, but in most game states there's no benefit to choosing rather than randomizing.*  The most obvious is a choice that clearly has no effect on the game, but of course these are pretty rare.  Much more often, though, you get games that often create choices where the player doesn't have enough information to make an educated choice, even probabilistically.  Most often this is because of some information that's hidden by game rules or just not immediately apparent.  For example, let's say your game uses a normal deck of playing cards, and you have an effect that says "pick face card or non-face card, then reveal the top card of the deck.  If you picked correctly, put that card into your hand."  If your game values all cards roughly equally, this isn't a very interesting effect; someone who knows the composition of the deck knows the correct statistical choice so will always pick non-face-card, and someone who doesn't know the composition of the deck might as well flip a coin because while there's a correct answer, no amount of sitting around agonizing is going to help figure it out.  (If face cards are worth more than non-face-cards, it is an interesting choice, especially if you print the odds on the game element as reminder text.)

This might seem like an easy problem to avoid, but in fact I see it in lots of games, and there are, I think, several reasons it is often missed.  First, because it is often based on incomplete information, it primarily strikes new players, and so can be difficult to catch when playtesting your own game, since you're never really in the new player stage.  (This mostly applies to non-choices that crop up because the player doesn't have enough information about game elements, though if you call on some really esoteric knowledge you can create annoying memory issues.)  Second, it can be an emergent property of game elements that can seem desirable and interesting.  As an example of the latter, take the Legend of the Five Rings trading card game.  It's a fun game that I enjoy from time to time, but combat is absolutely terrifying.  First, when two armies fight, the entire losing army is killed.  That means that the stakes are high, especially if large armies clash.  Second, players have an entire separate deck devoted to nothing but combat tricks, and they draw a card from that deck every turn.  So you end up sending your valuable forces into battles that have extremely high stakes, and your opponent has up to eight cards in his or her hand that you have no idea what are and that might wreck you.  It's a neat experience, but especially for new players, can be really paralyzing, and, even worse, the longer you're prevented from attacking by the high stakes, the larger both armies grow, and so the more complicated and devastating the eventual conflict becomes!  No individual game mechanic is responsible for that dynamic, and many of the things that contribute to it are individually good ideas, but ultimately it leads to stagnation, especially for new players who have no reasonable idea what might be lurking in the opponent's hand.

The three categories of bad choices above, I think, point out some of the pitfalls of choice in design.  Choice is the element that separates games from more passive entertainment, and is also one of the most powerful design elements, because by and large choosing from limited options is how your players interact with the game system and with each other.  These pitfalls highlight, though, that like everything else, that interaction is in the service of fun, and can go badly wrong.  The lose/lose highlights that not all choices that are mechanically interesting necessarily engage players or add to enjoyment; players shouldn't feel that making a choice has actively harmed them.  The trap illustrates the dangers of giving players choices that are insultingly opaque; making newbies feel like the game is lying to them is a great way to make sure they never become veterans.  Fake choices show the danger of making your game too complicated or falling in love with choice for the sake of choice - players need to be able to untangle the web in a gratifying way, even without intimate knowledge of every game element, and adding choices that might as well not be is easier than it seems.

I might well be neglecting some other kinds of unfortunate choices you can end up foisting on unsuspecting players; feel free to suggest some in comments, or I may do a follow-up if more occur to me.  For now, it's late and I'm fading.  Until next time.

* Fake choices can also be ones where you choose but every option but one is obviously awful; these are bad because they waste everyone's time, but aren't otherwise very interesting.  They also risk becoming traps, because it's very difficult to make a choice so awful that there's not someone who will be fooled.  Embarrassingly, sometimes this issue arises because the person who was fooled was the designer.

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