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Make a better game: Limit the player

Stardock producer and former Civilization lead designer Jon Shafer explains the benefits of keeping limits in your game, pulling examples from his own design decisions with Firaxis' strategy series.

Jon Shafer, Blogger

April 6, 2012

7 Min Read

[In this piece reprinted with permission from Stardock producer Jon Shafer's blog, the former Civilization lead designer explains the benefits of keeping limits in your game, pulling examples from his own design decisions with Firaxis' strategy series.] Okay, okay, I know what you're saying. "Limiting the player makes a better game? Are you crazy? Games should have fewer limits, not more!" Players should always feel like they have options -- but having limitless options is definitely not a good thing. To kick things off, let's start with a little story completely unrelated to games. You go to the grocery store because a friend asked you to pick up some flour for a recipe. Now, this happens to be a very unique grocery store with forty varieties of flour to pick from. You find yourself rattled standing before this Great Wall of Ground Wheat Product… What should I pick? Does it even matter? My friend wants to bake some cookies, is there a special kind of flour for that? Before fully succumbing to a panic attack, you race for the nearest emergency exit and make your escape. Your next destination is a much more typical grocery store, and this time around you find but three different kinds of flour: all-purpose, bread and cake. You think about your options for a few seconds, but it's pretty clear that cookies are neither bread nor cake, so you quickly settle on the all-purpose flour and return from your shopping trip flush with victory. While this story is a bit silly, the obvious lesson is that contrary to what you'd expect, presenting someone with a huge number of options does not give them more 'freedom' -- in fact all it does is overwhelm them. This has long been a tenet of good interface design. There's a bit of a 'rule' which states that a user's attention should be split between no more than seven items. The human brain is equipped to weigh only a handful of possibilities simultaneously. I'm sure at some point all of you have opened up some random website that had waaaay too much going on. And you probably weren't thinking, "Oh boy, I can't wait to dig into all of this, where should I start!" Once someone passes that invisible threshold, the end result is nearly always frustration. That said, there are definitely a few individuals who do love being "overwhelmed." The reason why open-world RPGs have become so popular is because they offer players so many things to do. It is possible to provide an immense amount of depth without catering to only the hardcore -- the key is proper pacing. Throwing a list of 40 possible quests at a new player within the first minute of gameplay is bad. Starting them with three quests, which then branch into nine, which then branch into 27 and so on is much more inviting. With regards to the strategy genre in particular, restrictions on unit movement is one of the best examples of how limitations can make a game better. The inability of land units to enter water is why ships are so valuable -- and just plain cool. Gaining access to new units with unique "powers" is a major motivation for many players. Just like in economics, scarcity is what drives value -- the fact that most units are unable to perform certain actions is what makes the few that can so much fun. Movement restrictions also show that there's a place for even permanent limits. An example from the Civ series is how mountains became impassable for the first time in Civ 4. It's a subtle change that very few players would point to as a major innovation, but even something small like this helps breathe life into the map. Instead of mountain ranges being just another part of the map with a slight movement penalty, they suddenly transformed into true barriers that now require serious consideration. A dilemma I faced while designing Civ 5 was what to do with strategic resources. I knew that I wanted the game to have a "quantified" resource model where you can have a lot of something or a little bit (in earlier Civ games you either had a resource or you didn't), but I was unsure exactly how to proceed from there. One idea I played around with was having resources increase the production rate of certain units -- say, iron for swordsmen -- but still allow players without access to iron the ability to train swordsmen, mainly for balance reasons. After some playtesting, I came to the realization that something was off… I eventually figured out that the lack of limits on what you could build made both the units and the resources less interesting. "Soft" limits that hinder the player but don't completely block him also have a subtle but still very important role to play. In 4X games, a randomized map is nearly always the main source of soft limits. In one game, you might start with iron next to your capital, while in another there might be none within 15 tiles. The lack of convenient iron is a type of limitation which helps direct a player toward the best strategies and away from the non-ideal ones, but this doesn't preclude him from committing to get it one way or another. I'm a big fan of nudging the player towards and away from strategies with the map. When there's a web of trade-offs to consider, limits of this sort help crystallize what the player's options are. Let's say you're playing a 4X game and want to specialize a city for the production of money. If this can be done equally well in any city then there's really no special considerations to make -- after all, if every city is just as viable you might as well just flip some coins to decide. Which, for the record, isn't terribly interesting or fun. If instead an ideal money city is built next to a gold deposit, this provides the player with a basic set of expectations. He knows that if there's a lot of gold around then a strategy built around generating tons of money is worth considering. He knows that a neighbor with cashflow problems is going to have his eye on that gold right next to his border, so maybe it's a good idea to build a city there sooner rather than later. But maybe there's an iron deposit he really needs -- our player now has a tough choice to make. It's obvious that this kind of soft limit makes for a much better game than giving the player complete "freedom" in deciding which city does what. The last benefit of limits that I'll talk about is their ability to help ease new players into a game. Developers nearly always get too close to their games and forget how intimidating it is to learn as someone picking it up for the first time. If the player knows his first goal is to find and harvest a particular type of resource, or that he needs to capture a certain part of the map, it helps focus his attention and keep him from becoming intimidated by a vast array of options. The alternative is abandoning him in front of the dreaded Wall of Wheat Product, leaving him to sink or swim on his own. Just don't go overboard and eliminate all of the player's control. This is the mistake many tutorials make. You want to teach players, but you also want them engaged and having fun while learning the rules. A bad tutorial is often worse than no tutorial at all, because the wasted development time could have been spent on improving other aspects of the game. If you're going to bother, do it right! Ultimately, every good game should have multiple ways to complete any one goal. If there's not, then focusing the player's attention on a single feature will only bring to light other issues with the design. Now then, go forth and limit thy players! For more thoughts from Jon Shafer, you can follow him on Twitter at @_jon_shafer_.

About the Author(s)

Jon Shafer


Jon Shafer is a lead designer at Stardock Entertainment, currently directing an unannounced project. Prior to working at Stardock, He was the lead designer and principal gameplay programmer for Civilization 5 while at Firaxis Games. Jon lives in Michigan and (when he's not fighting-the-good-fight on behalf of PC games) spends his free time cooking, listening to podcasts and playing strategy games/RPGs.

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