GameDev Thoughts: The Importance of Player Choice in Game Design

Games by definition require some kind of interaction from the player. Obviously the level of interaction differs from game to game, but have you ever noticed that the higher-quality games often allow the player to approach a situation from various angles and interact with the problem in different ways? We can simplify this… the “variation in a game’s methods for the player to solve its problems” can be therefore defined as the game’s depth.

A game with very little depth is one that will often be a one-time experience, such as a game entirely made of quicktime events; you can’t solve the problem in any other way except hitting the specific button requested. To further this example, a game with high amounts of depth will allow many different possibilities, such as a game like DOTA where the hundreds of characters, hundreds of items, playstyle differences, and specific timing of actions make each match of the game unique in every circumstance, and therefore making it a game that can be played for literally tens of thousands of hours without boredom.

So after knowing all of that, how should a developer take this into consideration? A game developer with little amounts of experience will likely make a game with little amounts of depth; the game might be “good” by most people’s standards, but there will be extremely little replayability due to the uniform way of solving a problem. It takes an experienced developer to offer the player copious amounts of choice, and then balance those choices out so that players aren’t compelled to pick one choice over another, and then making sure that these choices cater to every player by covering a broad spectrum of playstyles.

As an example, think of a projectile in an action game. The projectile is coming towards you, so how do you deal with it? A game with inherently good game design would allow the player many ways to deal with this problem, such as moving out of the way, strategically allowing the shot to hit you to give you a future positioning advantage, destroying the projectile with a weapon, blocking it with a shield, etc. A defensive-natured player would likely prevent the projectile from hitting them, whereas a more offensively-minded player might risk their health in order to give them an advantage in the fire-fight. Almost all players fall between these two styles, and the choices cater to both skill and playstyle, giving every player an option that they prefer, and others that also could be attempted for variation’s sake.

Important Takeaways: A game without depth won’t last long in the minds of most players. Most popular and critically acclaimed games today have an exceedingly high amount of depth of gameplay, allowing the player to continue playing without worrying about the inability to solve situations as they see fit, and making sure that they do not become stale. Inexperienced developers might forget to think about their game’s appeal after the new player experience, and this is how you make a game that will be forgotten in time. Even games with relatively simple concepts like Rocket League or arena shooters such as Quake give the player the ability to do things as they please, so they maintain their depth. The depth of your core gameplay loop is paramount to player enjoyment — don’t let your potential fans down.

GameDev Protips: How To Design More Meaningful And Engaging Game Mechanics

In game design, we can often sense when our games feel flat. We often get feedback that says our game isn’t unique or that it is boring. The trick is figuring out what to do with this feedback. Perhaps you could ignore it — what does your audience know anyway? But, ignoring the constructive criticism of people playing your game won’t do you, your game, or your players any good.

Focus on designing strong core mechanics. Excitement doesn’t last very long in game design, and novel or highly complicated features with a sub-par core mechanic is like eating a candy bar before dinner. It’s great in the beginning, but it won’t satisfy you. Your players might feel excited at first, but they’ll quickly become bored and your game will just start to seem uninteresting and one dimensional. The strong core mechanic of your main game loop should be your primary focus.

Make sure that your core mechanic has two things. One, your core mechanic needs clear rules on how to be successful. Does the player know how to complete the objectives presented and win the game? If there is a challenge will the player be able to solve in a reasonable amount of time? If not, what parameters do you have in place to ensure that your player will not become so unmotivated that they will just leave and quit your game?

Your game should have a tutorial or some character or menu in the game that the player can easily refer to when they need assistance. The tutorial should be easily accessible within the gamer’s interface. Without there being clear objectives and a way for the player find help when things get rough, the player will become frustrated and quit. Positive reinforcement keeps players interested in a game and positive reinforcement begins with clear instructions. Cause and effect should be clear; when a player does A, B will happen, etc. Feedback should be frequent and unambiguous, to let your player when they are doing something right and even more, when they are doing something wrong.

The second thing your core mechanic needs to do, is to feel natural. The player must feel like they are being challenged and naturally progressing through the game at the same time. In order to advance through the game, the player must pick up skills and those skills must evolve over time. Skills should start off at low levels, for example if you were making a simple platformer, a player can jump over one barrel at the beginning. Then later on, the player would be able to jump over 2 barrels, then 3, and so forth. This will result in progression and a feeling of accomplishment by the player. Going through each level with increased levels of difficulty will provide your game a greater level of depth and prevent your core mechanic from feeling flat. Always make sure that the player is learning and being introduced to something new — a challenge that they haven’t faced before.

Important Takeaways: Your core mechanic needs to properly guide the player towards successfully completing their in-game objectives and this must be presented to the player in an obvious and immediate manner. There’s nothing more frustrating to a player than being confused. The core mechanic also must also allow the player to move naturally from objective to objective and for the player to use all the in game features as intended. This may require that the core mechanic with regards to difficulty be self adjusting depending on the player’s skills. A player’s skill will grow over the course of playing the game, and the difficulty curve must match.