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Let's dig into why it's awesome when games shake things up and encourage players to adapt.

You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.


"No plan survives contact with the enemy."

This statement, famously uttered by our good friend Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder, of course) concisely frames the challenge faced by military strategists the world over. More practically for us as students of design, it also helps shed light on why some games are so much fun.

Without a doubt, there’s a unique form of glee one knows after crafting the perfect plan which also happens to work brilliantly. Humans are hard-wired to experience pleasure when gaining mastery of pretty much anything, and I don’t know anyone alive who doesn’t think winning is better than the alternative. However, if a player meets with success every time without facing a speed bump or two the game quickly becomes hollow and loses its charm.

For that reason it’s good to keep players on their toes, forever pondering what will happen next, crafting strategies to counter the threats lurking in the unknown. The need to adapt to changing circumstances is what helps separate a strategy game from a puzzle game. In a (good) strategy game, there should never be a perfect solution – just a broad spectrum of possibilities, some of which are better than others depending on the situation. If you can identify the ‘correct answer’ to a problem right from the very beginning then all the time and effort put in afterwards is completely pointless.

It’s clear that we need to shake players a little bit and make sure they’re never toocomfortable. Let’s examine some ways this can be done, along with a couple examples of how pushing the player too hard or in the wrong way can hurt the gameplay experience.


How Can a Game Encourage Adaptation?

One of the most engaging and strategically interesting ways to prod players into shifting strategies is to have past decisions directly influence the current situation. Maybe the player chose to build a massive number of factories early on, and now their collective pollution output is becoming a major problem. The player is able to recognize that their current predicament is completely the result of earlier choices that they made. Perhaps next time they’ll instead invest resources elsewhere. Or maybe it was still worth it, in spite of the consequences.

Another example involves a diplomatic exchange where one player asks another for a favor. The one on the receiving end can either oblige or refuse to help. Saying no obviously risks angering the other party, and should a declaration of war follow the player is forced to adapt to a situation very much of their own creation. A good game should always require players to make trade-offs, and the result of the decisions made can help shape the situation they face in the future. With this type of adaptation players can always later remark, “man, if only I didn’t blahblahblah it all would have turned out differently…” When players are faced with new hurdles to jump over they can only point the finger at themselves, instead of blaming the game and the developers behind the scenes.

There are also many good ways to encourage adaptation when the player doesn’t have complete control. Map randomization is one of my favorite tools. While the layout of the world is obviously completely out of the player’s hands, a random map still provides what I like to call “soft encouragement” – offering benefits for taking up a new path that weren’t even previously on the radar. However, players still have the option to ignore the ‘offer’ and continue focusing on whatever they were doing before the discovery. Finding a gold deposit might strongly point to adopting a cash-centric strategy. Starting in a desert poses completely different challenges from finding yourself in a lush river valley – surrounded by potential enemies. Providing players unexpected opportunities is an excellent way to get them to reconsider their strategies.

Most soft encouragement is the result of exploration or discovery of some kind. It could be meeting an NPC that provides an interesting quest while playing an RPG, or maybe revealing new resources via research in a strategy game. One will have to seriously consider dropping their plan of pursuing a builder strategy if they suddenly discover the resource which unlocks the most powerful weapon in the game right on their doorstep. Players won’t always change directions when faced with this kind of situation, but they will often enough that it’s definitely worth the designer’s time to craft systems that can give rise to scenarios of this sort.

Gradual changes to the game’s ‘environment’ can also be an effective means of pushing players towards or away from certain paths. Maybe over the course of a long game the climate grows drier and it becomes harder and more expensive to produce food. Or perhaps the most powerful enemy in the game grows increasingly wary as you grow in strength and pick off his minions. If these sorts of things happened suddenly they would be jarring and seem unfair.

Unfortunately, there are also some oft-utilized methods for forcing adaptation which don’t work nearly as well as some of the above. Many games use random events to throw the game situation into chaos and force the player to pick up the pieces. While this works for some players, most will not get much fun out of random penalties. Players want to feel like they’re in control, and if they make the optimal decision in every situation nothing bad will happen. Maybe the player forgets to guard a flank, or takes a risk that doesn’t pay off – the outcome might be bad, but those results are due to choices the player made. True randomness eliminates that feeling of ownership. “There was nothing I could do, the game just decided to screw me.”

Even worse than random penalties or limitations are those arbitrarily imposed by the designer. Maybe it’s taking away a special ability in an action game or RPG, or locking away a specific unit type in an RTS scenario. This sort of tactic never has the intended effect. Everyone wants to feel like they’re overcoming difficult but fair challenges, and earn rewards for achieving success. When the developers just arbitrarily take something away the only thing running through the player’s mind is “why would they do that?” This is probably the best example of developers trying too hard to wedge adaptation into a game.

Player Perception is Paramount

This brings me to a key point: the main difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ adaptation is merely how the player perceives it. The designer always needs to keep in mind their players’ expectations, and help ensure the game is conveying the right message. If someone feels like a game is unfair… then it is. Period. Intentions matter for nothing – game design is no exception.

That’s not to say slapping any sort of penalty on players is a terrible thing. If a game makes it clear that a system works in a specific, unambiguous way then players will be willing to (and maybe even readily) accept a certain measure of ‘unfairness’. One of the best examples of this working in a fairly recent offering is the dynasty system in Crusader Kings 2. For those unfamiliar with the game, you play as a dynasty which controls a medieval European kingdom. Instead of taking the role of a specific king or queen, players ‘live’ through whoever the current ruling member of their dynasty happens to be. The game spans several hundred years, and as time progresses one’s family head will eventually die, either due to old age or some premature cause, and the crown will pass to the newly-deceased character’s heir. This has several consequences, most of which are bad: the realm is destabilized, other characters in the game might not like this new fellow as much as the previous ruler, his or her governorship stats might be awful, etc. If these sorts of penalties just popped up randomly players would be justifiably annoyed. But Crusader Kings is a game about ruling a dynasty and dealing with these sorts of problems. For that reason it works brilliantly and never once did I feel like the game was cheating me.

There’s a myriad of other gameplay mechanics based on reality that can force adaptation in interesting ways. There is one in particular that I personally love, and feel is woefully underutilized: climate and seasons. I’m a huge fan of systems with effects that cycle over time, but seasons in particular have always grabbed me. Summer is the growing season, great if your armies need a quick bite to eat. Good luck with that in winter though. While the frozen landscape might pose some new challenges, perhaps it also freezes all of the rivers, eliminating certain barriers. Seasonal change is something most of us are familiar with, so if a game decides to incorporate that natural phenomenon as a major gameplay system no one will complain about its inclusion being ‘arbitrary.’ If the mechanics are overly harsh they might not be happy, but the concept itself is sound.

Hell, it seems like pretty much every major fleet put together prior to 1850 was sunk by a so-called “once in a lifetime” storm. Well… that’s what I picked up from skimming the history books anyways… that may not actually have been how it went down. Just for the record, having half of your invasion force sunk by a typhoon is not the type of adaptation I suggest designers apply in their games!

Adaptation VS Variety

Speaking of suspect design choices… While I’ve talked a lot about how adaptation can improve a game, there are also some drawbacks to consider. The largest issue is the balance between offering strategic possibilities and the variety, replayability and structure provided by starting traits.

The dilemma of how to approach the design of faction differentiation in a strategy game showcases this challenge. As designers, we want the various playable characters or factions in our games to be unique and fun to try out. Players have come to expect that not every side will play exactly the same – and our job as developers is to deliver. The problem is that having asymmetric factions either elevates the importance of certain mechanics, or can even outright discourage their use. If you’re playing a race that is greatat warfare, why even bother with the boring peacenik stuff? Sure, you’re still able to play peacefully, but why would you? The whole point of playing a race like that is to take advantage of their strengths and explore the game in a different manner than you would with all the other factions.

This problem is most acute in games that offer more than one way to win. In a game like Starcraft there is only one way to win a single match, so having three extremely asymmetric races is less of a design challenge – ultimately they’re all trying to cross the same finish line, and everything can be balanced off of that. All three factions still have air units, they all still use Vespene Gas, and they’re all trying to destroy the enemy base while protecting their own. But what do you do in a game where you can win militarily orthrough peaceful means? Most players will ignore the features which either 1) don’t naturally interest them, or 2) aren’t an element of the optimal strategy. Either way, the player in charge of that warfare-inclined faction we were talking about earlier probably isn’t going to be spending much time constructing temples.

Everyone wants something different from the games they play. Game developers must decide between focusing on the extremes and running with it, or trying to offer a balance and provide something for everyone. The game I’m currently working on has several factions, and I’ve decided to go with the latter approach. Roughly half of the races are highly specialized, while the other half have much more flexibility in terms of what strategies are worth pursuing. This way, fans of any type can decide which approach best fits their taste.

Just as there are no perfect solutions in good strategy games, there are no perfect game designs. Even so, adaptation is a great tool for spicing up what could otherwise be a monotonous experience, while also ensuring one never really knows what’s going to happen next. However you do it, make sure your players always have an enemy out there that will at least rough up their plans – even if those plans do ultimately come out the other side alive.

- Jon

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