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Opinion: The Problem Of Choice

In this opinion piece with bonus video, designer and Divide By Zero founder James Portnow highlights why most game choices are really problems, and why knowing the difference is key.

James Portnow, Blogger

April 10, 2009

7 Min Read

[In this Gamasutra opinion piece with bonus video, designer and Divide By Zero founder James Portnow highlights why most game choices are really problems, and why knowing the difference is key.] All the time in our media we hear people railing about what it will take for our medium to become an art form. I should know: I’m particularly guilty of shouting from the rooftops. The problem is that we want to race ahead to becoming an art before we’ve done the groundwork that will allow us to develop a unified art form. This leads to pieces of art emerging out of the milieu of ‘games’ but keeps us from becoming a coherent art. Today I’d like to offer up one of those groundwork definitions that may help us move a little further down the road towards becoming an art. I’m open to criticism and correction. At the bottom of this piece you’ll find contact information – please send me your thoughts. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Animator Daniel Floyd has also provided a v.entertaining video version of this opinion piece, available on YouTube - go check it out!] The Problem of Choice Game design is about designing decisions. It’s the first thing we learn when we embark down the path of becoming a game designer. The problem is that we are rarely taught that decisions come in two forms: problems and choices. We often muddle these two ideas. We use them loosely. Even the most experienced game designers will haphazardly apply these terms, often referring to everything as a "choice." As pretentious as it sounds, and as a much as I hate to say it, this linguistic confusion is holding back our medium. Why? Because at the core of our craft as game designers there are two very distinct and very different ideas that we’ve conflated and now try and address as one. Until we unravel that distinction we’ll still be lumbering in the dark. So, without further ado, let’s define the types of decisions found in games. Problems: Any decision that has a definitive best answer is a problem and not a choice. Anything with a ‘solution’ is a problem and not a choice. Anything that is a calculation is a problem and not a choice. The easiest place to identify problems is in the math problems that many games are riddled with. For example: in World of Warcraft deciding what gear to wear is a problem and not a choice. Why? Because for any given objective in World of Warcraft there is a set of gear that will best facilitate accomplishing that objective. Or, more simply put: if you want to kill a monster in WoW there is an optimal set of gear for doing so. Gear in World of Warcraft is a puzzle. It is an interesting and complicated puzzle, one whose solution may not be immediately obvious, but it is a puzzle. The dexterity challenges in first person shooters are also problems. There is very little “free will” involved in these types of problems, for the most part you know what you are trying to execute (moving your reticle over your opponent without letting them move theirs over you) and the challenge is in the execution. Anytime where you present the player with a clearly defined goal and the “fun” or challenge is in the execution of that goal you have presented them with a problem. Choice: Choice appears when you are asked to decide between two things of equivalent or incomparable value. Choosing between an apple and an orange is a choice. Choosing between friends or lovers, choosing between roses and lilies, choosing between anything that’s six to one half dozen -- these are choices. Choice appears in games less frequently then problems do, but that does not make it less important to the game designer. The easiest way to identify choice in games is to find decision points that aren’t problems (yes, it’s as simple as that). These usually come when the player is offered multiple, exclusive options that can’t be weighed against each other. Choices tend to be much harder to design than problems because they don’t have a clear right answer. They also tend to be much harder to fit into games because their divergent nature tends to broaden the scope of games. Problems direct the player towards a goal; choices let the player choose their goal. Are problems a problem? Are problems bad? No, absolutely not. In fact, most games are, and should be, built around problem-solving. To date few games have been made without problems (Facade and a handful of indie games being the only things that come to mind), but many great games have been made without choice. Problems are at the heart of what we consider gaming today, and there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s just important that we distinguish them from choices. So why is this such a big deal? Because without making this distinction we tend to reduce problems to choices. How many times in a game have you been presented with something that should be a choice but instead was simply a problem with a clear right answer. Bioshock and Mass Effect are two recent examples of this. In both of these games what should have been ambiguous moral choices were reduced to elements of larger game problems. How? By making them commensurate with other gameplay mechanics. What does that mean? Let’s return to our apples and oranges example. Deciding between an apple and an orange is a choice, but if you become informed that an apple is worth five dollars and an orange is worth ten dollars, and you know the goal is to get the most dollars, deciding between an apple and an orange suddenly becomes a problem rather than a choice. This is the issue we often run into with faux choices in games. Many games attach rewards that effect gameplay problems to choices, thus reducing the choice to a simple equation. For example: how many times have you been offered a choice to be nice to an old man or to ignore him and had the reward for being nice to him be X experience (or ammo or money) and the reward for ignoring him be Y experience (where Y is less then X, and often zero)? This decision is a problem and it’s pretty automatic, you simply ask yourself “Do I want that experience, or would I rather spend my time doing other things?" Helping the old man never even enters into the equation. For many of us in our mental state, we place the tangible benefit of solving problems over the more nebulous (and work-intensive) satisfaction of making a choice. This does not mean we get more pleasure out of solving problems or that problem solving is a more “fun” activity, it simply means that reducing choices to problems is one of the easiest ways to approach them, and thus what a player will do if given the option. So what was this hoopla about art? In order to become an art we have to be able to address “the human experience”. There are a whole range of human experiences that are better expressed through choices then through problems. If we want to move this medium forward we have to be able to distinguish between the two and choose the one that is appropriate for the experience we are trying to craft. Conclusion: We face today a problem – a problem of choice. As an industry we are trying to learn how to make our games more compelling. As an art we are trying to learn how to make our games more expressive. These challenges will not be overcome without utilizing all the tools we have before us. The first step to doing so is to understand exactly what our tools are. Choices and problems are both vital to crafting compelling gameplay. Both are vital to expressing the human experience. Not every game needs to include both, but better understanding the distinction is essential to creating the best products we can. [James Portnow can be reached at [email protected].]

About the Author(s)

James Portnow


James Portnow is a master's student in the Entertainment Technology department of Carnegie Mellon. He can be reached at [email protected].

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