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Improving Player Choices

One of the most important aspects of choice is consequence. For a game to engage a player's mind, each choice must alter the course of the game. This means the decision has to have both an upside and a downside; the upside being that it advances the player one step closer to victory; and the downside being that it hurts the player's chances of winning. This concept seems simple, but you'd be surprised at how many games force the players to make choices that have no impact upon whether they win or lose.

Steve Hoffman, Blogger

March 10, 2004

27 Min Read

Because it is simply one of the most powerful aspects of fun in gameplay, we need to look more closely at choice as an aspect of fun. What makes a choice interesting versus uninteresting? How can you design choices that are more interesting than not?

One of the most important aspects of choice is consequence. For a game to engage a player's mind, each choice must alter the course of the game. This means the decision has to have both an upside and a downside; the upside being that it advances the player one step closer to victory; and the downside being that it hurts the player's chances of winning. This concept seems simple, but you'd be surprised at how many games force the players to make choices that have no impact upon whether they win or lose.

Remember, the player wants one thing more than anything else, and that is to win. Anything you do that is outside this scope runs the risk of alienating your audience. So when Sid Meier says "interesting choices," what he means is that the game must present a stream of critical decisions that either directly or indirectly impacts the player's ability to win. No matter what you've been told in the past, drama and suspense in games seldom come from the storyline. It comes from the act of making decisions that have weight, and the more weight each decision carries, the more dramatic the game becomes.

As a designer, this is what you must strive for. But how do you make the choices in your game have significance? To start with, let's step back and analyze your game. What type of decisions are your players making? Are those decisions truly meaningful, or are they tangential to the main objective? To help analyze this, we use a tool we call the decision scale, shown in Figure 1.

If there are decisions in your game that seem "inconsequential" or "minor," you have a problem. Go back and rethink the choices you are giving your players. Is there a way to make those choices matter? And if there isn't, those choices need to be eliminated because they aren't adding anything to the game and are probably hurting the experience. Now take a look at the decisions higher up on the diagram. Is there a way to make some of your players' decisions fall into these categories? These are the types of decisions your players want to make.

But, unless your game is an arcade-style shooter, the decisions you ask your players to make shouldn't all be life and death. Nonstop action can get boring too--it's in the breather between waves of enemies that we can appreciate our accomplishments, anticipate the next wave, and steel ourselves for the battle ahead.

In order to create a truly engaging game, you want some peaks and valleys. Let the decisions rise and fall, and as the game progresses, ratchet up the tension by making the decisions gradually more important, until by the climax of the game, everything hangs in the balance.

Types of decisions

It's easy to say that games should have interesting choices, but why is one choice more interesting than another? The answer lies in the type of decision you ask to the player to make. If the player has to choose between two weapons, and one weapon is only slightly superior to the other, even though the player may be faced with a life and death encounter, the decision itself does not reflect this. To make this decision interesting, each weapon must have a dramatically different impact on the player's chance of winning.

But if the decision itself is too easy, then it's not a decision at all. If it's obvious that the player should use the golden arrow to slay the dragon, there's no real choice. Why would the player risk using anything else? This decision, although it appears to be life and death, is meaningless. The player will invariably choose the golden arrow, unless he doesn't know about its powers, and in that case, it's an arbitrary choice, not a decision.

The key to making this decision interesting is for the player to know that the golden arrow is the right choice, but also to know that if he uses the golden arrow now, he won't be able to use it later when he has to fight the evil mage. To make this decision truly dramatic, the player must be put in a position where both paths have consequences. If the player doesn't use the arrow now, his faithful companion, who is not immune to dragon fire, may die during the battle. However, if the player uses the arrow, it will be much harder to destroy the evil mage later on. Suddenly the decision has become more complex, with consequences on both sides of the equation.

Decision types

  • Hollow decision: no real consequences

  • Obvious decision: no real decision

  • Uninformed decision: an arbitrary choice

  • Informed decision: where the player has ample information

  • Dramatic decision: taps into a player's emotional state

  • Weighted decision: a balanced decision with consequences on both sides

  • Immediate decision: has an immediate impact

  • Long-term decision: whose impact will be felt down the road

In the example of the golden arrow, the decision is a combination of the previous decision types. It's an informed decision because the player knows a lot about situation he is in, it's a dramatic decision because the player has an emotional attachment to his faithful companion, it's a weighted decision because there are consequences balanced on both sides, it's an immediate decision because it impacts the battle which is taking place with the Dragon, and it's a long-term decision because it impacts the future battle with the evil mage. All these combine to make the decision of whether or not to use the golden arrow a critical choice in the game, and this makes the game interesting.

Not all decisions in a game need to be as complex as the one with the golden arrow. Simple decisions are fine, just so long as they're not hollow, obvious, or uninformed. As a rule, you want to remove all nondecisions from you game, and a player should never be forced to think about anything unless it has some impact, either direct or indirect, on whether they win or lose.


Dilemmas are the situations where players must weigh the consequences of their choices carefully, and in many cases, where there is no optimal answer. No matter what the player chooses, something will be gained and something will be lost. Dilemmas are often paradoxical or recursive. A well-placed dilemma and trade off can resonate emotionally with a player when encountered during the struggle to win your game.

Game theorist John Von Neumann used dilemmas as a framework for studying how people make choices, and how conflicts are resolved in both game-based and real world dilemmas. Game designers can use the same methodology to study the choices in their own and other designer's games.

To understand dilemmas, von Neumann broke them down into very simple structures, called moves. Each move was diagrammed on a matrix, showing the potential outcomes of each strategy as they pertain to each player. To understand this concept more clearly, let's next look at a classic dilemma with a simple structure.

Cake-cutting dilemma

A mother wants to divide a piece of cake between her two children. In order to avoid arguments about how large a piece each child should get, she makes one child the "cutter" and one child the "chooser." The cutter gets to cut the cake, and the chooser gets to choose which piece. If we assume that each child wants the bigger piece (i.e., wants to "win" the game), we can diagram this conflict to show the potential strategies for each player, the dilemma they face, and the payoffs for each potential outcome.

As we can see, each child has two possible strategies. We know that it's impossible to cut the cake exactly in half; there will always be one crumb more or less on either side; but the cutter can choose to cut the cake as evenly as possible, or she can choose to cut one piece bigger than the other in an attempt to get the larger slice. Since we've determined that one piece will always be larger than the other, even if just by a crumb, the chooser also has two strategies. He can choose the smaller piece or the larger piece.

By looking at the payoff matrix created by combining these two possible strategies for each player, we can see that in this simple game, there is an optimal strategy for each player. Since we have said that each child will try to get the bigger piece, the chooser's optimal strategy is obvious--he will choose the larger piece. And, since the cutter is also trying to get the largest piece possible, she will try to cut the pieces as evenly as possible. The optimal strategies for each player meet in payoff #1: the chooser gets a slightly bigger piece.

The cake-cutting dilemma is an example of a zero-sum game. By this we mean that the total amount won at the end of the game is exactly equal to the amount lost. In this case, the chooser gains the crumb lost by the cutter. Because of the nature of zero-sum games, the interests of the players are diametrically opposed. What one player loses is gained by the other.

What von Neumann discovered in his study is that there is an optimal strategy for each player in games of this nature that will produce the best possible results in a given situation. He called this concept "minimax theory."

Minimax theory states that there is a rational way for players to make choices in a game, if we are talking about a two-player, zero-sum game. The optimal strategy for all players is to "maximize their minimum potential result." So, in the case of the cake-cutting example, while the cutter cannot "win" the game, her optimal strategy will still maximize the amount of cake she gets to eat.

Games that fall easily into optimal strategies may be interesting for mathematicians, but as game designers, they are often the kiss of death. If you present your players with a game as simple as the cake-cutting dilemma, they will always make the optimal choice and the game will play out the same way every time. How can we create dilemmas that are more complex, where the players must weigh the potential outcomes of each move in terms of risks and rewards?

A game that has a more complex payoff structure was created by two RAND scientists in the 1950s. Called the "prisoner's dilemma," it's a simple, baffling game that shows how games that are not zero-sum can create situations where the optimal strategy for each player can result in sub-optimal results for both.

The prisoner's dilemma

Two criminals commit a crime together and are caught by the police. For the purposes of our example, we'll call the two unlucky criminals Mario and Luigi. Mario and Luigi are held in separate cells with no means of communication. The DA offers each of them a deal and discloses that the same deal was made to his partner in crime. The deal works like this: if you rat on your partner, and he denies it, you can go free and the he gets five years. If neither of you rat on each other, the DA has enough circumstantial evidence to put you both away for one year. If you both rat, you will each get three years. Figure 3 shows the payoff matrix for each potential strategy.

Using the same process we used to determine the optimal strategy for the cake-cutting dilemma, we can see that the optimal strategy for Mario is to rat on Luigi. If he rats, he gets either three or zero years. If he doesn't rat, he gets one or five years. The optimal strategy for Luigi is also to rat on Mario for the same reasons. If both players choose the optimal strategy, however, they will both serve three years--more years total will be served in jail than in any other resolution.

The hierarchy of payoffs in the prisoner's dilemma is as follows:

  • Temptation for defection: zero years

  • Reward for mutual cooperation: one year each

  • Punishment for mutual defection: three years each

  • Sucker's payoff for unreciprocated cooperation: five years

The actual numbers in this hierarchy are not important. What is important is that they ascend in this order: Temptation > Reward > Punishment > Sucker. If this hierarchy exists, the optimal strategy for each player will always result in a payoff that is less than if they had acted cooperatively. Now, we are talking about a true dilemma--what will Mario and Luigi do?

In a recent presentation at the Game Developers Conference, designer Steve Bocska of Radical Entertainment applied the hierarchy of payoffs in the prisoner's dilemma to a hypothetical game design in order to show the usefulness of game theory concepts to designing compelling dilemmas.1

Bocska imagines an online game in which two players are building and customizing spacecraft with a budget of $10,000. The game requires bartering and trading of raw materials, but at a high transaction cost: $8,000 of "shipping and handling" in a typical game round. A technology can be purchased that allows materials to be "transported" with no transaction cost--but in order for it to work, both players must purchase it. The cost of the technology is $5000.

Bocska asks, "Under these conditions, what is a player likely to do? If both players purchase the transporter equipment, they will reduce their transaction costs for the game from the usual $8,000 to a one-time cost of $5,000 for the transporter--a savings of $3,000. If, on the other hand, neither player purchases a transporter, the transaction costs throughout the game for each player will amount to the usual $8,000. What if only one player purchases the machine? With nobody else to connect the transporter to, their machine becomes effectively useless, resulting in them receiving the "sucker's payoff"--the cost of the equipment plus the added cost of continuing to barter using the traditional costly method ($5,000 + $8,000 = $13,000)." The payoff matrix in Figure 4 shows the results of the potential strategies.

Unlike the prisoner's dilemma, Bocska envisions a game in which the players can communicate--negotiating with each other when and if to purchase the technology. This complex payoff structure creates a dilemma for the players that can make for compelling strategic moments and potentially deceitful or cooperative decisions play after play.

This is exactly the type of situation you should strive to create in your games. If possible, give the players dilemmas as part of the core gameplay. Make sure to tie the dilemma into the overall objective of the game. If you can accomplish this, it will make the choices much more interesting.



Another format for structuring interesting choices in your games is by incorporating puzzles. Puzzles are solvable systems. They can contextualize the choices that players make by valuing them as moving towards or away from the solution. Suddenly, the act of rifling through a treasure chest takes on new meaning if you are searching for the key to open the door to maze, rather than just looting the castle.

Puzzles are also a key element in creating conflict in almost all single-player games. There's an innate tension in solving a puzzle. If you tie this into a system of rewards for solving the puzzle and punishments for failure, the puzzle transforms into a dramatic element. For example, take Myst, the best-selling adventure game of all time. It's essentially comprised of puzzles. It incorporates story and exploration as well, but at its core, it's really a glorified collection of interlocking puzzles.

The popular genre of first-person shooters is also puzzle-based, especially in single- player mode. Take Medal of Honor. You have to plant bombs, unlock doors, find medical kits in a labyrinth of rooms, and figure out how to use weapons and explosives in just the right way. The game is one giant action puzzle. The same holds true for many other single-player games.

You'll notice that we keep using the qualification "single-player." This is because in multiplayer mode you don't need puzzles to provide conflict. The conflict comes from the competition with other players, whether they are human or computer-controlled. But in single-player mode, especially when you are sent on a quest or mission, puzzles play an increasingly important role. That's why every game designer should also consider herself a puzzle designer. The better your puzzle design skills, the better your game will be.

One consideration when designing puzzles in your games is to make sure that the elements of the puzzle are woven into the fabric of the game. By this we mean that it advances the player towards his overall goal. If a puzzle doesn't enable progress, it's a mere distraction and should be redone or removed. A puzzle may also advance the storyline. You can use the puzzle to tell the player something about the unfolding plot.

If you can integrate your puzzles into the gameplay and the story, they won't feel at all like "puzzles," but rather like integral, interesting choices a player must make to progress in the game as a whole.

Rewards and punishments

The most direct consequences for player choices are rewards and punishments. Obviously, players enjoy being rewarded and dread punishments. Nothing is more natural. So when designing a game, a designer often emphasizes the rewards, while limiting the punishments. This makes sense; players aren't playing games to suffer the hardships of life. And in reality, you don't want to punish players so much that they stop playing your game. But often, the threat of punishment, if not the actual punishment itself, carries a dramatic tension that can add layers of meaning to even the most trivial choices a player makes.

Think of a game that forces the player to be stealthy, like Thief or Deus Ex. The tension, when you are trying to accomplish a task without being caught is tremendous. Getting caught and attacked, and let's face it, killed, is not fun. But that moment when you oh, so quietly pick a lock and sneak past the security bots without incurring any harm is made much more effective by the threat that the anvil of punishment was hanging over your head all the time (see Figure 5).

Insurmountable obstacles

Another problem area to avoid when designing a game is insurmountable obstacles. Despite the name, these may not actually be impossible situations, they just seem that way to a certain percentage of players.

Whether this occurs because of a dearth of information, a missed opportunity, or lack of experience or intuition, the result is always the same: your players wind up banging their heads against the same obstacle over and over and over. Look at your watch--how long now before they shut the game off in frustration, never to return again?

Most of us have been trapped by insurmountable obstacles at one time or another and wound up going in circles looking for that hidden doorway or secret panel. As a designer: make sure that and the game has some way of recognizing when a player is stuck and providing them with just enough assistance to make it past the obstacle without diluting it's challenge completely. Of course, this is easier said than done. Nintendo adventure games, such as those in the Zelda series, are typically good at providing info when players are stuck. Game characters are placed in strategic spots to provide clues and other information that will help you overcome the obstacles. Like with other variables, clues have to be balanced to provide an appropriate level of difficulty for the players.

Building this kind of intelligence into the game is costly and time consuming. Sometimes, it doesn't need to be that sophisticated. In his presentation at the 2003 Game Developers Conference on making games more fun through user-testing, Microsoft User-Testing Manager Bill Fulton used an example from the opening moments of Halo to illustrate how a task that seems obvious to the designer may seem like an insurmountable obstacle to the player.

Immediately after the introductory tutorial of this first-person shooter game, your character is asked to follow a guide character to the bridge of the spaceship you are on. Of course, you do, but seconds later, the guide character is killed in an explosion right before your eyes, leaving you trapped behind a partially open doorway with no guide, and no clue how to open the door.

As part of his presentation, Fulton showed a videotape of just one of many user tests in which a playtester stumbled around the corridor, pressing every button on the controller, trying everything he could think of to open the door, all the while talking out loud about how he didn't know what to do. This went on for several minutes until it became clear from his tone of voice that if this player were at home, he would have given up--only five minutes into the game. As Fulton pointed out humorously, "I hope you all recognize this as 'not fun.'"3

The goal of the Halo designers, in leaving you guideless, trapped behind the door, was to create a sense of confusion and vulnerability that lasted only a few seconds for dramatic purposes. They assumed the player would immediately realize the door wasn't going to open, see the alternate exit to the corridor they had planned, and be on their way. User-testing proved that most players needed a little help past this obstacle.

In the final product, a second explosion, timed a few seconds later, drives the player instinctively away from the half-opened door that will, in fact, never open. A text prompt pops up showing the player how to jump over objects, and a carefully designed floor mat points toward another opening in the corridor. The opening is blocked by a set of pipes, but if you know how to jump, that's no problem at all. With just a few modifications, the opening moments of the game were changed from an exercise in frustration to an exciting scene, filled with drama and tension.

Arbitrary events

As much as random events can be used to good effect in certain circumstances, like fortuitous surprises and unforeseen dangers, badly designed randomness can be the downfall of a game. Many games involve some form of randomness--we've seen how randomness can affect combat algorithms in real-time strategy games, and how it can stop movement mechanics from becoming predictable in boardgames. These types of randomness add to gameplay.

But there's a big difference between utilizing randomness to change up gameplay and allowing for totally arbitrary events to disrupt the player experience. For instance, if you've spent weeks building a sophisticated character in a role-playing game, and then suddenly a plague, for which there is no cure, kills your character; you had no chance to defend yourself, and all your hard work has gone down the drain. It's hard not to feel cheated. We all know that life is full of unexpected events, some of which are devastating. So why shouldn't games include them?

The problem is that, as in life, good surprises are welcomed by players, but bad surprises are not. So, how can you include random events that are negative in nature without alienating the player? Whether it's a meteor storm that levels a city, an economic fluctuation which bankrupts a company, or a surprise attack that wipes out an army, you have to make sure it fits into the players' expectations of the game. Prepare your players in advance for the possibility of such an event and give them options to mitigate the damage--just don't tell them when it's coming or how bad it's going to be.

If we take the example with the plague, you should warn the player about the possibility of diseases, and allow them to purchase an antidote in advance. If they choose to ignore the warning signs and take no action, then when the event does come, it's their fault, and they'll know it.

A good rule of thumb is to caution your players at least three times before hitting them with anything catastrophic. Random events that have a lesser impact require smaller warnings, or even no warning at all. It's fine for a player to learn through experience to expect events of smaller consequence. But the bigger the impact, the more of a heads up you should provide. If you follow this rule, the events won't appear arbitrary, and your players will feel like they are in control of their destiny.

Predictable paths

Games with only one path to victory can become predictable. Linear or simple branching structures often lead to this type of predictability. If you want to add a greater sense of possibility to your design, consider treating the structure in a more object-oriented approach. Giving each type of object in the world a simple set of rules for interaction, rather than scripting each encounter separately often leads to creative and unusual results.

An example of this type of thinking is Grand Theft Auto III, which has a level structure and story line that the player can follow, or he is free to wander the world, stealing cars, committing crimes, or running a taxi service if that's what he wants to do. While wandering the world doesn't advance the player very far in terms of the overall game objectives, it does give the sense that the world of the game is responsive and unpredictable. At any moment, you might attract the attention of the police and wind up in an unscripted high-speed chase. Simulation games are other examples of this type of design--games like the SimCity series can evolve in many directions, all based on the choices of the players.

Another way to keep game paths from becoming predictable is to allow players to choose from several objectives. For instance, in Civilization III, the player can choose between six paths to victory: conquest, space travel, cultural advance, diplomacy, domination, and overall score. Each choice takes careful planning and will cause the player to weigh each choice anew, making the game not only interesting the first time around, but extremely replayable. Simply choose another path to victory and the game takes on an entirely new twist.

Not every game has to have the scope of a Civilization or a Grand Theft Auto, but when finding the balance between too much possibility and too much predictability, it's usually best to err on the side of greater possibility.

1 Steve Bocska, "Temptation and Consequences: Dilemmas in Video Games," Game Developers Conference 2003.

2 Nick Yee, "EQ: The Virtual Skinner Box," http://www.nickyee.com/hub/home.html.

3 Bill Fulton, "Making Games More Fun: Tips for Playtesting Games," Game Developers Conference 2003.

End notes


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About the Author(s)

Steve Hoffman


Steve Hoffman founded game developer Lavamind, where he created simulation hits Gazillionaire and Zapitalism. In addition he was an executive with Sega in Japan, and CEO of developer, Spiderdance. Collectively with Tracy Fullerton and Chris Swain, his work has received dozens of honors including Best Family/Board Game from the AIAS, IBC's Nombre D'Or and PC Computing's Strategy Game of the Year.

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