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.