Today I read a very thoughtful blog post by a game designer who I greatly admire, but with whom I absolutely disagree: Chris DeLeon wrote a scathing dismissal of the argument that games like Galaga are based on interesting decisions. (That argument was itself presented in response to Chris' previous blog post, titled "Many Games Are Not About Choices.")
I'd like to respond with an assertion: that Galaga really is a game based on interesting decisions; and that, in any game which includes anything that could possibly described as "challenge" (in other words, virtually all games), the gameplay is in fact entirely based around interesting decisions. My argument is that we should take Sid Meier's definition that "a good game is a series of interesting decisions" (which Chris dismisses as only applicable to certain types of games) and apply it in a deeper and more holistic way than it's typically applied; and that doing so will show how it is possibly the most important, fundamental law in the field of game design. Recognizing this may involve rethinking one's definition of the term "decision"; but I believe that thinking this way reveals certain fundamental truths about game design which seem to elude even many experienced game designers.
Learning the Ropes
I should provide a little background before I continue. My formal education isn't in game design, it's in software engineering; however, I've always had a great passion for game design, and several years ago I set about methodically self-educating myself in it that discipline. But for the most part, I was disappointed in the lack of rigorous academic material available - coming from a highly analytical and well-defined field like computer science, I kept feeling that there must be some hidden cache of "Game Design 101" educational materials that really explained what game design was about, but eluded me. To make a long story short, my education in game design has almost literally been a self-education - I was basically unable to ever find a "universal theory of good game design" which I found satisfactory... so I set about defining my own.
(Note that there are diamonds in the rough... in particular: virtually everything ever written by Marc LeBlanc; and most of the teaching coming from NYU's Game Center, especially the book Rules of Play by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, which I'm currently reading and loving.)
Guitar Heroes and Unified Theories
My personal "unified theory of fun gameplay" didn't begin to crystallize until a couple of years ago. Until then, my definitions of "fun gameplay" and "good game design" were rather fuzzy and non-rigorous: various theories and definitions floated about in my head, but it was unclear how they related to one another. (I now recognize that this is pretty much the current state of game design theory in general.) One of these definitions was Sid Meier's "interesting decisions" quote, which I intuitively felt to be extremely important, though it was hard to explain why.
Then I read a blog post by Chris Bateman which directly challenged the Meier quote, holding up Guitar Hero as the ultimate proof against it:
"...these rhythm action games do not rely upon a series of interesting decisions, for the most part they have no decisions of any kind!"
I realized this was an important question: was the idea of Interesting Decisions fundamental to good game design, or was it optional and disposable?
I thought about it extensively and realized that it was the former: all good gameplay is comprised of interesting decisions ... but only if one expands one's definition (and understanding) of what a "decision" is. And once I expanded this definition, I finally found the "uniform theory of good game design" that I had sought all along.
Who Turned Off the Choices?
I played Guitar Hero obsessively, and much like I played any other game: I'd go to a level that I hadn't completed yet, attempt to complete it, and fail. I would then try again and again until I succeeded, at which point I would move on to the next challenge. I noted that this was exactly the same pattern that I applied to a game like Advance Wars: Dual Strike. And though those two games clearly had huge differences, it was clear that there was some kind of fundamental similarity between them as well. Advance Wars (a turn-based strategy game) was clearly about making interesting decisions. But Guitar Hero wasn't... right?
But consider the following genres of game, and tell me when they stop being about "interesting decisions":
- Turn-based strategy [Advance Wars]
- Slow-moving real-time strategy [Kohan, Neptune's Pride]
- Fast-moving real-time strategy [Starcraft]
- Tactical "action" games [Defense of the Ancients]
- Pure action games [Super Mario Bros, Galaga]
- Rhythm action games [Guitar Hero]
At what point in this spectrum does the gameplay stop being about "interesting decisions"?
My answer: they don't stop being about interesting decisions. Each genre is fundamentally about making decisions during every moment of gameplay. There are decisions being made in every one of these games; they're just extremely different decisions, which occur in different layers of the brain.
At the bottom of the spectrum, the decisions are so minute that they're no longer what we would call "decisions" in a normal definition. In other words: the exact way you configure your fingers across the buttons to prepare for the next set of notes coming towards you in Guitar Hero is a decision that you make.
Again, this is not what we'd typically call a "decision" in day-to-day language - we might normally call it a "choice" or even just an "action." But fundamentally, they're all the same thing.
Fretting Over Tanks
Is there a difference between choosing what configuration my fingers are going to be in during a given millisecond-long period of Guitar Hero, and choosing what configuration my tanks are going to be in during a given turn of Advance Wars? Of course there are differences: in Advance Wars, my conscious mind is rationally considering the battlefield and making an intellectual decision; in Guitar Hero, my unconscious mind, my physical instinct, my muscle memory, and my intuition are deciding where my fingers need to be this instant, and moving them there as best they can.
But though they're happening on different levels of consciousness, they are still fundamentally the same thing. Now that we've acknowledged the differences, consider the commonalities:
- Each are actions defined solely by my own initiative. What actions I take, and what exactly the action is comprised of, are defined entirely by myself. I never move my hand on a Guitar Hero controller without it being my decision to move it; and no one but me is deciding where my fingers are going and how they're getting there.
- Both are always decisions which may be either "better" or "worse" than other decisions I might have made. My line of tanks could be more or less optimal for defense; the arrangement of my fingers could be more or less optimal for allowing me to hit the notes currently moving down the screen.
- My decision-making improves as I learn. I don't just get better at Guitar Hero because I'm memorizing the level: my hand is also constantly learning better ways to move and arrange my fingers on the keys. With time, my skill increases and allows me to take on new and greater challenges.
I admit that there's a big difference between decisions that a player must make under time pressure, and decisions that the player has infinite time to make. Playing my puzzle game Connectrode (which has no time pressure) is very different from playing Dr. Mario (which does), though the games have mechanical similarities. But both types of decisions are still decisions: just because a decision has to be made within a time limit doesn't mean that it stops being a decision. They're just different flavors of decisions.
Essentially I'm expanding the definition of "decision" here to encompass something that happens on all levels of human consciousness. Consider a game like Counter-Strike, where within one round the player must make "strategic" decisions (what configuration he and his squad should take and what points of the level to assault with what strength); "tactical" decisions (what vectors to approach from, what hiding places to choose); and minute "action" decisions (whether to use gross-movement muscles of the arm, or fine-movement muscles of the wrist, in order to maneuver the mouse so as to place the crosshair over an enemy player's head onscreen). I think it's best to holistically view all of these as "decisions" which are made during gameplay, but which simply exist in different layers of the operations of the human brain. (For a more detailed analysis of the varied decision-making in a Counter-Strike game, read Tynan Sylvester's excellent Gamasutra feature Decision-Based Gameplay Design.)
Now, I'll admit that calling these things "decisions" does seem silly (or at least inaccurate) once we start talking about minute movements of fingers on the buttons on a plastic guitar! In regular language, no one calls what you're doing in Guitar Hero "decision-making." I would probably be better understood if I said instead: Guitar Hero tests a skill, and so does Advance Wars; and though these are very different skills, they're still both clearly skills, testing different areas of human mental (and physical) performance. But I believe that all "skills" have, fundamentally, the same "structure" - they're composed of actions.
In the end, all games that are based on an element of challenge are by definition based on testing and challenging one or more skill. (If you think that your challenge-based game isn't based on testing any player skills, then either you're wrong and you're not looking hard enough for the skill... or else you're right and your game is neither challenging nor fun.) And all skill levels are essentially defined by what decisions you're making and the quality of those decisions. As you play the game, you learn more, thereby improving your decision-making capacity - which is the same thing as saying "improving your skills".
Galaga and Garrison Keillor
While playing Galaga, I definitely make decisions, at a rate of about 60 per second: I'm either pointing my ship in a direction or not, hitting the Fire button or not... every moment of action (or inaction) is my own decision. But a large number of those minute choices are made by my "lizard brain"... or my "muscle memory", or my "instincts", whatever you prefer to call it. For some reason we don't usually call such choices "decisions"; but I believe that classifying them holistically with other types of decisions clarifies their role, and their importance, in game design, and allows us to better understand and compare game designs.
And what of the decision in Galaga to allow my ship to be taken away, so that I might recover it later as a power-up? Clearly this is a higher-level, "strategic decision", and it's actually unusual and is used to break up the constant low-level "action decisions" that the gameplay is mostly comprised of. Many great games have multiple layers of decision-making, often taking place at the same time - this is an example of that.
Ultimately, that one decision in Galaga is the one that's easier to talk about (and recognize) than the many tiny "wrist decisions", because it's the one occurring at the higher level of our consciousness. But a truly far-seeing game designer is willing to acknowledge the importance of all types of decisions, which may compose all types of mental and physical skills. Garrison Keillor said "Nothing human is beneath a writer's attention." Similarly, no human capability for decision-making should be beneath a game designer's attention... from leading a civilization, to moving a finger over the correct button - and remember, the former is never possible without the latter.
[Shay Pierce is a game programmer/designer with over 8 years of experience in the AAA, social, and mobile game development industries. This post is reposted from the game design blog for his personal microstudio, Deep Plaid Games, which released popular iOS puzzle title Connectrode earlier this year. He currently holds the position of Lead Game Developer at social game developer OMGPOP, Inc. Shay develops games and lives in Austin, Texas, and doesn't plan on changing either of those things in this lifetime.]