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Archive for November 4th, 2010

It seems to me that games are built on choices.  I wrote at length about making mistakes a while back (still one of my favorite articles), and how that affects game design, but I wanted to run another tangent today.

Candyland is billed as a game, but the only choice you have is whether or not to play (barring metagame choices, of course).  Once that deck of movement cards is shuffled, the game is set in stone.  There are no choices to make in the actual gameplay.

So, what if we make some?

How about a simple one to start with?

Instead of taking the top movement card and obeying its prescription, you take the top two and choose which one to use, and the other is ignored and discarded.  (Alternate:  put the unused card on the top of the deck to add a layer of memory.)

This is still pretty rudimentary, but it does give the chance for players to look ahead and make an informed choice.  It’s a meaningful choice as game designers sometimes ask for, because you can only choose one of multiple options, and the choice is irrevocable, but it’s an informed choice.

So, how about removing some information?

Draw two cards and choose one without looking at either.  Move accordingly, then discard both cards.

Now it’s getting interesting.  It’s still a meaningful choice, but now it’s an uninformed one.  It’s still enough to make the game unpredictable because of player choice, and it gives a veneer of player autonomy… but it’s still largely random.  This isn’t much better than the core “game”, but the act of choosing at least starts to feel a bit more like the players have control.

So, maybe add a little Monty Hall flavor?

Let’s Make a Choice.  Draw three cards, reveal one, then choose one of the three cards as your move for the turn.  (Alternate:  Have the other player take Monty Hall’s position as arbiter of the cards and really play this parallel to the hilt.)

Well, well.  Now we’re digging into a classic game perception paradox, and really making choices matter.  This is a semi-informed choice, with a bit of “playing the odds” for spice.

Layering some complexity on top of the bare bones of the Candyland game gives a lot more potential for choices to be made.  Increasing the complexity doesn’t always help, of course, since giving players the choice of four or five cards with two rounds of choices is technically more complex, but in practice, it’s not really going to add much to the game.  The initial addition of choice to Candyland scheme has a much stronger effect on the game than simply pushing that implementation deeper for the sake of complexity.  The diminishing returns of that sort of increased complexity is something to be aware and beware of.

Alternatively, or in addition to any of these, one could splice in some chaos, and shuffle the deck after each turn.  This wouldn’t have a huge effect on the actual choices as individual events, but it would make the underlying game potential more chaotic.  The game state is no longer decided and set in stone at the game’s start, it’s in flux.  As far as any individual semi-informed choice is concerned, that flux is largely irrelevant (unless you start putting non-chosen cards back in the deck to be shuffled instead of discarding them), but the game on the whole has more going on “under the hood”.  That bit of churn adds ever so slightly to the game.  (Though probably not enough to justify actually taking the time and effort to shuffle that much.  The principle is more useful in digital games where “shuffling” is very low cost, relatively speaking.)

Such uncertainty imposed by randomization is a huge part of most card games, games that use dice, and even most computer games where there is a RNG under the hood fudging the predictability.  That’s usually a good thing, as randomness brings the potential for even more choices to a game, if harnessed properly.  When you have to constantly shift tactics and strategy in a game, it changes the choices you make.  Sometimes that’s desirable, sometimes it isn’t, but most games incorporate some sort of randomization.

Of course, randomness has to be bounded somewhat (another old favorite article), lest the design get completely out of hand.  Complete randomness makes choices all but useless, as a completely uninformed choice may as well not be a choice at all.  Without at least a vague sense of predictability and consequence, there’s not much to a choice, and not much to be learned.  Again, too much chaos pushes a game design into useless flailing.

Even too many choices can be paralyzing.  As useful as choice is to making a game a useful and fun tool of experimentation and learning, too many choices can paralyze or confuse players.  Too much intricacy and interconnectedness between choices can also cause trouble as players don’t really take the time to understand their own choices or don’t have sufficient feedback to understand what their choices mean.

Certainly there is room for complexity and chaos, but they must be wielded carefully.  Choice is, in my mind, a backbone of gaming, but it, too, can be used ineffectively or unhelpfully (and it may not even really be choice a lot of the time).  A little of all of these is perhaps necessary for a really great game, but finding the right mix is what makes game design an art… one that I appreciate and enjoy as both a gamer and a game designer.

It’s not an art that I’ve mastered, but I am learning to appreciate agency, psychology and creativity the more I dig into these things.  That’s part of why I believe games have a lot to offer… if they can manage to be more than exercises in foregone conclusions, railroading players or overly random gibberish.

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