GameDev Thoughts: The Power Of Meaningful Choices In Game Design

There are many ways to give your player arbitrary choices. Meaningful choices, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult to create. They often lead to the player asking themselves questions, such as the following: Where should I go? How should I spend my resources? What should I practice? How should I customize my character? How fast should I go through the game? Should I be more offensive or defensive? Should I play it safe or risky?

Good games have many meaningful choices — ones that actually matter and have a real impact on how the game turns out. Many designers fall into the trap of providing meaningless choices. One of the bigger examples is in a game with vehicles where the choice of vehicle is strictly cosmetic; if you have vehicles that all drive the exact same way, it’s as if you didn’t have a choice at all. Another common mistake comes with imbalanced choices; in a shooter, if you have twenty weapons but one is clearly better than the others, your choice is pretty much always going to be that one and again it’s as if you didn’t have a choice at all.

In the latter case, this is called a dominant strategy, where choices are offered but there’s a reason to massively bias picking one over the others. Once dominant strategies are found, they can suck the fun out of the game due to a lack of choices to make, and therefore a lack of variety in your gameplay. When a developer discovers a dominant strategy, it is in their best interest to balance out the options so that meaningful choice is restored to the game through the lack of a dominant strategy. With the shooter example, if you nerf (or lower the potency of) the clearly dominant weapon, you give the player the option to choose the other weapons without putting themselves at a disadvantage.

A hidden dominant strategy discovered by players is often referred to as an “exploit,” as they offer unintentional advantages to the players who abuse them and most of your playerbase won’t be aware of their existence. Exploits should be fixed as soon as possible, or if they add to your game, they should be officially recognized. The best example of this is rocket jumping. In the original Quake, due to quirks with its engine rocket jumping would cause players to gain immense height, and this along with other strange mechanics such as bunny hopping created a host of advanced movement techniques that added to the skill cap of the game. Future games in the series intentionally left rocket jumping in as a feature, and it is recognized by name in many games today and even in some of their tutorials.

Dominant strategies will be common in the early stages of a game’s development due to a lack of refinement. With more development time, these strategies will start to be properly balanced. Paradoxically, this can throw a novice designer into a panic, especially when referring to exploits. They can concern themselves with how the game is supposed to be played, and when the game is played differently the developer can lose a bit of their attachment to the game that they know so well. They can feel as if they’ve lost their handle on their own game, but in reality the game takes a big step forward; balance leads to a lack of dominant strategies, and as a result there are now more meaningful choices to be made.

Important Takeaways: Meaningful choices are an important part of good games. These choices should be thought-provoking, not meaningless such as having a choice of fifty cars in a racing game where they all control exactly the same. Dominant strategies can eliminate any meaningful choices that were present previously, such as having a choice of weaponry where one weapon is clearly superior to the point of the others never being chosen. In that case, it’s as if there wasn’t a choice at all as choosing any other weapon puts yourself at a disadvantage. These dominant strategies can eliminate the fun of a game unless they are properly balanced.

Exploits, a form of hidden, non-common knowledge dominant strategies like abusing glitches, can cause the same problem, and they should either be fixed or embraced and officially recognized like what happened with rocket jumping in the original Quake. Dominant strategies will be common early in development, but with time they will be ironed out. This can cause the developer to worry due to being unfamiliar with the play-style of their own game after all of this refinement, but instead developers should be celebrating since their game is improved as a whole due to the return of meaningful choice to the game.

GameDev Thoughts: The Secret To Game Development Success

Some game developers have the mindset of creating their game precisely in their own creative vision, and not that of anyone else. This is fine, whatever works to get the game shipped. The problem, however, is that some of these developers also believe that said game is a good fit for the market, and that these players should play and support it. Unfortunately, this won’t always be the case. If you want to create a game for the player, you have to first define what type of player you mean and determine what they would want from the game genre as a whole. You must learn as much as possible about your target audience, and find out exactly what they’re looking for in a game. Otherwise, you’re leaving a lot of your success to pure chance.

If you plan to make your game and sell it, and start production before conducting any market research, including the basic “ask the players what they want” type, you’re already setting yourself up for failure. This means that the game is being made for yourself and anyone close to you such as friends or your development team. When you do this, you’re simply winging it and hoping that other people like it enough to buy it. That’s awesome, and I hope that they do! Unfortunately, though, this is unlikely to bring in consistent revenue to pay for the living expenses of you and your development team. It’s a shot in the dark. You might have the perfect combination of talent and luck to hit the target in a dark room, but your odds are much worse than if the light had been on.

Allow me to be a bit cheeky but sincere. If you want to fix that, you have to conduct market research or extrapolate from someone else’s. This should be done often. Conduct it during pre-production to make sure there are people who would actually buy your game, and determine who those people are. Don’t make too many assumptions — make sure to back up the claim with data, then continue to conduct research while creating the various sections of your game such as game mechanics, characters, and the art.

If you aren’t confirming that your audience actually wants the game you’re making, you can’t reasonably go into it fully expecting to succeed. Basing your development decisions on data doesn’t mean that your game “true to you,” or your style. The choices you are giving your fans during the development process should be well within your creative vision, and as a result, your style. You are just listening to what choices your audience deems most appropriate and creating those; this doesn’t mean you couldn’t have went the other route. As a result, you should never test an option you would hate to put in your game. Therein lies the artistic integrity in for-profit art.

Our perspective of our own art is colored by a lifetime of experiences, past projects, and very obvious bias in one way or another. In an industry where development costs can hit six-figures and beyond, you cannot afford to leave anything to luck. The people who love your game as a result of your willingness to listen to their input will appreciate the effort you put in to make a title that is truly for the players, and this helps pave the pass to true success for your indie game. Building a loyal community is a strong benefit to a company, particularly in providing a buffer for mistakes. Build that community, and design a game with a focus on prioritizing your ideal playerbase.

Important Takeaways: A lot of times game developers will design a game for themselves and the people close to them. Unfortunately, this also means that the game is not truly for the players, and its success is left up to luck. If you ever plan on selling your game, make sure you’re conducting market research and guaranteeing that there is an audience for your game. Starting the production on a game without doing market research is like throwing a dart at a dartboard in the dark; you might hit it or you might not, but your chances are much worse than if the light had been on regardless.

Do market research consistently throughout development and make sure that the players have a voice in some critical decisions in your development cycle; this will build up a loyal fanbase that appreciates your willingness to listen, and in turn you’re much more likely to build a successful game due to it being for the players. Do this consistently and you’ll build a loyal community that will forgive the occasional mistake as long as you fix it; if you don’t have a loyal community, a single mistake or two can ruin your game’s reputation permanently — even if it gets fixed later the damage will have already been done.

GameDev Protips: How To Design A More Compelling Game Using RPG Elements

Highly compelling games have immense replay value that allows similar content to be recycled or extended for a large amount of time. How does a developer implement this high replay value into their own games? Firstly, Most games that are extremely replayable have some kind of social aspect. Not only does this allow you to find other people to play the game with, but it can turn the game into a “hangout” of sorts. The game itself doesn’t have to be incredible if the community is. 

Next are challenges. Every highly compelling game will have unique challenges each time you fire up the game. Remember that content isn’t always king — when was the last time you saw new content for Chess? How many alternate maps in MOBAs are more popular than the standard? You have to find a way to challenge the player differently when they visit the same area over and over again. Usually this comes in the form of PVP as no AI will beat a human player in terms of ingenuity with developing a meta, and you can’t predict a person’s actions since everyone is different and an AI will perform the same actions as specified by its programming.

Give the player the ability to “max out” their characters. What is so appealing about grinding dungeons in MMOs for months on end? Obviously that’s so that they can get the next piece of shiny gear that will make their character better. Why is this appealing? You can show it off to other players as a sign of how much you play, and it also makes getting future, even shinier gear easier to get. If you let players get items that are considered to be difficult-to-attain, you will give the players who have them a sense of satisfaction and the players who don’t a reason to keep playing. This can generate a ridiculous amount of replay value, sometimes even in the face of a poor game in every other aspect.

Iterative storytelling is a good way to make a player look past repetitive gameplay. This is very popular in Korean RPGS; the next part of the story gets released and you’re back to grinding dungeons for items to deliver to an NPC so that you get drop-fed a small bit of exposition. This method relies on players being invested in your story quickly enough that the gameplay becomes secondary to storytelling before the repetition in the gameplay ruins the player’s urge to continue. Keep in mind that your story has to be solid for this to work.

As you can see, a lot of these features rely on multiplayer in some way or another. If you have a single-player, small-world RPG, the only true ways to have a large amount of replay value are to have meaningfully branching stories with alternate endings that the player deems worthy to try and obtain, procedurally generate as much of the map as possible in a way that is engaging and provides unique challenges, or some combination of these two. Of course, you can also just have a core gameplay mechanic that is extremely addictive, but that’s oftentimes hard to manage with an RPG format.

Important Takeaways: Replay value is a way to keep your players playing your game when content itself is lacking. This can be created in a game through having a social aspect, unique challenges every time the player visits the same area, giving the player progression in their equipment and levels so that they can “max out” their character, and having iterative storytelling that will compel players to push through repetitive gameplay.

Most of these aspects rely on having multiplayer in one way or another; to make a single-player RPG have large amounts of replay value, you can only realistically have a branching storyline with multiple, meaningful, compelling endings, and procedural generation in the map that gives the player unique challenges. You can always have a core gameplay mechanic itself be addictive, but this is hard to manage in an RPG format; these games are typically ones that are action-packed or ones with high amounts of variability and customization.