Saturday, September 17, 2011

Choice, Part Two

Some ten days ago I wrote about choice. This is going to be a follow-up. It will be based on Extra Credits' popular episode “Choice and Conflict”. (You'll probably need to watch this if you want to understand this post..)

First, Extra Credits doesn't present the broader picture. Choices are just something that keep the mind busy. They are good, because while a player ponders on a decision, his mind is busy. Choices and decisions prevent games from being boring and there is much more about keeping the players' minds busy.

My newest iteration of the list of things that keep the mind busy is this:
- information gathering (learning/exploring/watching...)
- educated guesses
- understanding/comprehending/setting into context
- coming up with courses of actions
- thinking through a course of action
- decisions/choices

- tension/relaxing/climaxes/adrenaline
- gaining/growing/losing/rewards/penalties
- anticipation of learning/gaining/losing (curiosity, greed, hope, fear, ..).
- execution: pressing buttons/moving the mouse
- interacting with other humans (that's a category in its own right)
(Planing = information gathering + educated guesses where necessary + comprehending + coming up with all possible courses of action + thinking through the course of action + deciding on a specific course of action)

Next, Extra Credits correctly say that choices are often good in games. What they don't say is that choices can also be bad. Every choice a player feels like he shouldn't have to decide on is a bad one for that player.

Consider this extreme example:
”Would you rather see the end of the game or gain access to a new special ability?”. I am sure you agree that this would be a ridiculous choice that most of us would consider frustrating: We don't think we should have to decide on that. We feel like we should be able to have the cake and eat it, too, in this case.

Another example are microtransactions. Consider this:
”Would you rather spend real money to advance your character faster or kill the same trivial mob 4000 times?”. This is not a cake problem. Some people just feel that they shouldn't have to choose between these two alternatives. This is frustrating.

When implementing choices in games, making them non-frustrating is very important and a major part of the whole process. The simulation-aspect helps a lot here by convincingly limiting the player's possibilities in a computer game (every byte could do his bidding).

Choices need to be meaningful and non-trivial, otherwise they are wasted developer time.

Consider this (imaginary) meaningless choice:
”In your 15 – minutes LFG group, would you rather have a fire mage or an arcane mage of equal skill accompany you?”. The WoW player usually wouldn't care.

An example for a trivial choice are the (old) WoW talent trees:
”Would you rather specc your own style, or the most efficient way?” This choice is trivial for many players. From their point of view, the most efficient way is obviously the correct decision. And in combination with other players and the internet, this choice is frustrating for just as many players. They want to be efficient and also play their own style. They feel like they shouldn't have to make that decision. Thus, the talent trees were changed.

- A meaningless choice is a journey which is not worth its goal (the decision).
- A trivial choice is very weak at keeping the mind busy and is often frustrating.

Extra Credits spend most of the video talking about three things:
a) calculations
b) incomplete information problems
c) incomparables

They state that calculations are not choices, “just decisions”. First, let's note that decisions aren't bad. They are good at keeping the mind busy and many very successful games use them a lot! Moreover, Extra Credits' argument is that a calculation is a calculation, because it can either be right or wrong. This doesn't make sense.

Take their incomplete information problem, Mushrooms in Super Mario, as an example. There's a right and wrong decision there, too. You just don't have all the data to do a calculation. And, at least as important, you don't have enough time to think it through. All you can do is an educated guess and you might very well turn out to be wrong!

What makes a calculation a calculation is not that it can either be right or wrong, but rather the possibility of finding the right answer before you apply it. This includes testing. There's always a best-strategy for WoW boss fights. The players are encouraged to find another solution, but if it's too successful, the fight will usually be “fixed”.
Blizzard wants the players to find the intended (='best') strategy and then execute it successfully. And this is working very well for the few players who don't have access to youtube videos. It's a simple calculation, but what's diminishing it is not this, but that most players have access to boss-guides and youtube videos which turn the choice into a trivial one.

In fact, the Super Mario mushrooms become trivial calculations if you failed just once. There might still be some choice left depending on your educated guess about your own skill and applying it. But there's no incomplete information left.
(Of course, you could consider your own inability to predict your success at execution incomplete information. But in that case most games with non-trivial execution are full of incomplete information problems.)

Anyway, calculations aren't necessarily bad. That's the point of this section. The reason is that they excel at keeping a player's mind busy just as well as incomplete information problems. Most incomplete information problems in games turn out to be calculations, because players can try again.

I don't share Extra Credits' love for incomparables. I think they can be good, but they often turn out to be meaningless/trivial.

Take their own example:
“Would I rather like to make mobs explode into goo or be able to carry more stuff?” Well, even if I liked bodies exploding into goo, I would still prefer to be able to carry more stuff.

Incomparables often turn out frustrating, because players want to explore the whole game and don't easily accept the choice; they reject it. This was my problem with Starcraft 2's binary “talent trees”. Since I only played the game once and never played multiplayer, I felt like I shouldn't have to play through a second time just to experience the other options (and experience the bland story a second time).

Finally, defining choices as “internal conflict” sounds great, but after thinking on it for a while, I fail to see how this insight is helpful or even illuminating.

My main point from last post remains: The act of choosing is a (nested) journey. The final decision is just the goal and helps giving meaning to this journey. As always, the journey is where the fun is actually experienced. It needs to be worth its goal, be non-frustrating and keep the player's mind busy.

In the next post I will reply to the comments made in the first post.

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