This essay is a compendium of a talk I gave (Spanish) in October 1st, 2019, in the context of Gamedev Planet, a monthly gathering in Santiago, Chile, where gamemakers give talks and show demos of their in-development games.
This talk focused on the decision-making process from the players and how to analyze and create compelling and interesting decisions. Ultimately, this will help you understand your players and be able to know and predict why they make some decisions and left others aside.
So, why decisions are important?
The major characteristic that differentiates games from other types of digital entertainment media, is the fact that there are players that are constantly making decisions. A vast amount of the entertainment that the player will perceive come from how the players interact with the systems of the game through their own decisions. It’s so important that Game Designers like Sid Meier have defined games like “A set of interesting decisions” or Greg Costikyan, that defines games as a “form of art in which the participants, termed Players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in pursuit of a goal.” Decisions are a foundational part of games and therefore, Game Design.
A set of 4 decision measure units. A combination of these 4 will create a decision for the player.
How can we measure a decision?
There are four units to measure a decision: Previous knowledge, the loop in which the decision occurs, the sensation through the whole decision-making process and finally, the consequences of the decision.
We divide the previous knowledge in two concepts, proposed by Brian Upton: The horizon of action are the decisions that the player can make on a specific moment of the game. These decisions must be clearly communicated to the player, so he/she knows exactly what choices are available at any given time. We can use Game Theory tools or Behavior Economics to predict and understand why the players are making certain decisions and to direct the player to make decisions that are closer to the intended experience. Making multiple decisions possible adds more value to the chosen decision. The horizon of intent are decisions that the player THINKS that are possible to make, but that are not always possible using the system of the game. This could be due to a wrong system model of the game on player’s mind or because the player is thinking in a long-term decision, that lie a number short-term decisions ahead. It’s, in fact, on this crux that the player make a decision and receives feedback from the systems, in order to adjust and update the existing model on his/her mind and interact again with the game, using an increased knowledge of the system.
After making the decisions, the players will experiment the consequences of their decision. Consequences must be previously known by the players, in concrete terms or yet more interesting, on relative terms, adding the right amount of uncertainty so the player can be challenged by the system. Also, consequences must be communicated through feedback: auditive, visual, but most importantly, through the systems of the game. This will help the players to update the model of the game in their mind and being continuously challenged by the systems, meanwhile they learn and apprehend those systems.
Sensation must be considered through the whole decision-making process. Adding extra layers of visual and auditory polish take a huge role on sensation, but also having the feedback on an adequate time and, if there is a playable character, analyze and implement the correct ADSR for the movement, jump or acceleration of the character. Platform games, make a huge ideal of investment on making the jump feel right, because players will interact through the same interface (jump and run) hundreds or thousand of times making decisions to surpass the challenges imposed by the systems. It’s known that Game Designer Shigeru Miyamoto spend hours making the jump and movement on Mario 64 feels just right before making everything else, as the creators of Celeste did, as they explain on this GMTK interview.
A diagram of the Horizons of Action and Intent, proposed by Brian Upton. You can find more about this in his book “The aesthetic of play”.
Interactive loops are formed by the numbers of factors that players have to take into account while making a decision, and the time that decision take. These are called loops because it take into account how the player interacts with the system using his mental model of the game, and receiving feedback from the system of the game to readjust and update the mental model to interact again.
• Action/Feedback: are reactive decisions, that require little to nothing cognitive load, but that are usually presented in consecutive and high-energy/fast successions, so they usually require more physical/skill load. Chess openings or killing enemies in Downwell belongs to this loop. It’s important to notice that games that have an Action/Feedback loop as the main loop the game, are usually supported by longer loops (like I explain on this previous post about Downwell).
• Short-term: These are decisions that are made to overcome a short-term challenge. The player usually have a vast amount of information about these type of decisions, so they have low amount of uncertainty, but can take from little to big cognitive load, depending on how the decision is presented and how many choices the player has available at that moment. These are usually called “tactics”. For example, when you are playing XCOM, a short-term decisions could be how to get rid of the 3-4 enemies you have ahead.
• Long-term: These are usually a set of short-term decision, that are made in succession to overcome a long-term challenge. As there is a longer loop, carries out a great amount of uncertainty and cognitive load. They are also called strategies. Keeping the XCOM example, a long-term decision can be how to overcome the level objective (rescue civilians, infiltrate on an alien base). But there are longer-term decision, like how to manage the base and the trust from countries on the XCOM plan. You can call the level objective medium-term and the base management a long-term, anyway you call it, it’s important to have into account the level of uncertainty and the cognitive load to define it as a short or long-term decision.
Between short and long-term decision, a set of interesting decisions exist:
• Tradeoffs: decisions that give an advantage at the exchange of a disadvantage.
• Risk-reward: taking a less-beneficial decision on the short-term, so it’s more certain, but expecting a big advantage on the long-term, but with a big amount of uncertainty.
• Planning: this is planning on the long-term, creating an strategy from the start of the game. It requires previous knowledge of the game systems.
• Yomi: is the art of reading the rival’s (human or the game system) mind and adjust the tactics and strategies accordingly, in the intent of outwitty rivals.
To give an example in RTS games like Warcraft III there is an strategy called rush, that consists in a player that concentrates all resources on make a huge number of units in the shorter time possible. This is a strategy that is decided by the player before the game starts (planning), and is a risk-reward decision, because the player expects in the long-term to win the game quick and use the surprise factor, but generating resources instability and less upgrades in the short and long term. There is a huge amount of yomi between both players, because one player can predict rival’s strategy and adjust her strategy accordingly.
Following with the interactive loops, there are longer loops (from minutes to years) that transcend the world of the game, interacting directly with player’s emotions, society and culture.
• Emotional: are decisions that take longer, because the player is not only thinking about the strategic advantages of his decisions, but also how the decision makes him feel about his values, beliefs and personality. One example is from Frostpunk, where one of the first laws that players can sign is child labor, that usually grants a short-terms strategic advantage. On the other side, the player must take into account how this decision fits his own “moral compass”. How far is capable to get to make society survive or to win the game?
• Social: the players not only see themselves through the game, but also on terms of the depicted society and how it fits the society where the player lives. It’s easier to create interactions with this loop when the player make decisions that affects the society as a whole, like Civilization or Simcity, or when the decision affects a group of people in the game related to the character, like in “Papers, Please”, where a single decision can affect the family of the character and the people waiting in the line. In the case of “Papers, Please”, the depiction is nudged by an easy translation between the real world and the society depicted in-game (mid 80’s, totalitarian regimes, etc.) In the context of the game, If you don’t accept bribes, your family could starve to death or get sick, but if you accept bribes a terrorist could infiltrate in the country and make a terrorist attack, killing thousand of innocents.
• Cultural: Finally, a set of decisions could lead the player to consider how the game affects culture and even to consider how the game is influenced by the culture of its creators. In this step, the player thinks critically about the role of the game in the culture and have the opportunity to analyze the game holistically as a cultural product. It’s important to notice that decisions on this loop are usually made after playing the game, as a consequence of a much deeper thought process influenced by the game.
To round interactive loops
The shorter the loop, less cognitive resources and time are needed to take the decision and therefore, players consider less elements, which results in a game focused on physical reaction. Longer loops require more cognitive load usually occurs in more slow-paced action, giving the chance to the player to consider more elements and take deeper decisions, which opens the opportunity to leaving an emotional mark on the player. There is important to notice too, that usually the player is making decisions on multiple loops simultaneously or that longer loops can consist on many shorter loops, so it’s crucial to analyze the moment-to-moment of the game and identify how they are generated and how the player is interacting with them. This is why slow-paced game usually finds a way to make us think deeper about a certain topic (like “The Witness” about how we sometimes focuses on things that are not really that important, seeing patterns where there are not or “This War of Mine”, where the length of the in-game days allow us to see how our decisions affects our characters and sometimes other characters in the game.) Games with shorter main loops depends sometimes on other resources, like Blizzard using comics and animated videos to tell the backstory of their intricate world systems.
How the different levels of interactive loops use Mental Resources and Time
So, how can we create compelling decisions for the player to make? We can analyze a decision with the following 6 points, proposed by Brian Upton:
• Choice: we as a designers, have to take into account how many decisions are available to the player at a given moment of the game. Decisions that the player don’t take, actually give value to the chosen decision. It’s important to take into account not only the amount of decisions but also, in which interactive loop the decision is made. A number of decision in the action/feedback loop won’t feel equal that the same number of decisions in the short-term loop.
• Variety: Decisions must feel varied. Two decisions could feel the same even if they are different, depending on the interface used to make the decision or the consequences. To create a sense of variety, the player must make decisions on multiple interactive loops constantly, and also, have different effects on the systems of the game.
• Consequences: Must be communicated clearly to the player, so the player can see and have a sense of the the impact of his decision on the system of the game. If the decision have no consequence or even worse, have a consequence but it’s not communicated to the player, it’s considered an empty decision, which could lead to utter frustration on the player.
• Predictability: The player need to be given the chance to predict the consequences of his decision in the system of the game. This will allow the player to interact in a more meaningful way, having the opportunity to plan in the short and long-term or to react faster, knowing in a split second what the consequence will be, but…
• Uncertainty: The experience is enhanced in most games with a bit of uncertainty. This serve the purpose to challenge the player, avoiding the game to be tedious or grinding and maintaining the player in the state of flow (with the correct combination of challenge/learning and apply the new acquired knowledge). This can be achieved with random/semi random events or number generators, procedural generation, communication of consequences on relative terms or the adding of a multiplayer environment (which better creator of uncertainty that another human being!)
• Satisfaction: The player must feel satisfaction through the whole process of decision-making, therefore being attracted to make decisions. Generating satisfaction can be achieved with all the aforementioned points: creating the right amount of decisions, so the player doesn’t feel overwhelmed or bored, varied decision made on different levels, clearly communicated consequences, the chance to predict the outcome of the decision but also a level of uncertainty, to constantly challenge the player. This ultimately will avoid the player being frustrated, because he can’t understand the system due to one or many of these factor that are not working properly.
So, what’s lets to do? With all these new tools, analyze the games you are playing, or the ones that you have as a reference, apply the analysis to your games and hopefully, with a lot of care and thought, you will create more interesting, compelling and meaningful decisions for your players.
Thank you for reading the article and don’t forget to share!
Sellers, Michael (2018). Advanced Game Design.
Upton, Brian (2015). The Aesthetic of Play.
Kahnemann, Daniel (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow.
Sid Meier’s Interesting Decisions – GDC Vault
Why Does Celeste Feel So Good to Play? – Game Maker’s Toolkit