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Article - 'A Guide to Choices: Part I' by Mateui

An item about Game Design posted on Jul 20, 2004


The first article on choices which covers: different types of choices and their intensities, including ways in which to balance the varying degrees of decisions and consequences in ones game.


A Guide to Choices: Part I
By: Mateui

Do I go left or right?

What are RPGs without choices? Yes, they’d be like a book. But that’s not what we want.. we want a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” type book. Now we’re talking. But how do you go about this, and what kind of choices can you make about choices?

What is a Choice?
Likely everyone knows what a choice is, or at least you should, but I’ll enlighten you with the definition. (According to

Choice: The act of choosing; selection

Well, that was a no-brainer – but, here’s something interesting that is also listed, that will broaden your awareness of choice and its synonyms:

Synonyms: choice, alternative, option, preference, selection, election

These nouns denote the act, power, or right of choosing.
Choice implies broadly the freedom to choose from a set:
ex:The store offers a wide choice of weapons.
Alternative emphasizes choice between only two possibilities or courses of action: I can take the left path, or the alternative - the right path.
Option often stresses a power or liberty to choose that has been granted: The Ability Points System gave the characters many different skill options.
Preference indicates choice based on one's values, bias, or predilections: The player was offered his preference of starting character.
Selection suggests a variety of things or persons to choose from: The Materia store had a wide selection of Materia to choose from.
Election especially emphasizes the use of judgment: The university recommends the election of courses in literature.

So those are basically it. Throughout this article, I will mentioned all of these, and for simplicity’s sake, I will use “choice” as the embodiment of all these synonyms.

Degrees of Intensity

Not all choices are the same. Some are life-and-death choices, while others are not really that important. Each choice has an intensity that relates to how much it affects the game, either in the long term, or short term.

Critical Choice: It’s do-or-die. These types of choices determine whether the player lives or gets Game Over. The most important of all choices, as it may possibly end the game.

Significant Choice: These types of choices are not as impacting as Critical choices, however, they have a direct and immediate impact on the game.

Basic Choice: The middle-ground choice – not the most important, but not the least either. It is indirect or has a delayed impact.

Minor Choice: This type of choice has a small impact on the game, and is either direct or indirect in the way it unfolds.

Pointless Choice: This type of choice has no impact whatsoever in the game. It’s basically pointless, hence the name.

A Game Designer’s Point of View

Here we go. We’ve outlined that types of choices that are possible to have in a game, but where do we go from here?

Take a look at the game you’re designing. Are there many Minor or Pointless choices that are offered to the player? If so, then try to rethink them, and bring them up on the intensity scale. Not all the choices in your game must be critical, or significant, as that would lead to Save-Game-Play-Over Syndrome.* (However, for every action/choice, there should be a reaction.)

(* “Save-Game-Play-Over-Syndrome” refers to the condition of a gamer who saves before each choice, and after making that choice, restarts, loads the game, and takes the other choice. Sometimes he will make multiple save slots in an attempt to make all the choices in the game.)

Try to balance the intensities so that the player is not always making little decisions that have small repercussions, or vice versa with Critical decisions. The key is try to raise the intensities of your lower choices, and if not possible, eliminate the Pointless choices, as they will likely take away from the experience of the game. If you have too many of those, the player will be constantly asking himself if anything happened because of what he chose, and when he finds out that nothing did, the choices he makes in the future will likely reflect his new attitude – hurting the his experience.

Balancing the Choices
Games should offer the player interesting choices. Choosing left or right, is not a very interesting choice. If you expand on the idea however, it can become interesting.

Let’s say the player is offered the choice between 2 items – a small sword and a large sword. That’s not good. Why? Because even though this decision may become a Critical one, when facing a boss, or an enemy, this decision is pretty pointless, as the player will always choose the large sword, because it is stronger. This type of decision should be avoided, when it is clear to the player which option he should choose.

To make this scenario a little more exciting, benefits and consequences should be offered on both sides of the equation.

Let’s say that the player chooses the Large Sword. (Well, of course he does). Now, after taking it, the player realizes that the sword wields magical powers that are needed to defeat a wizard. After an enemy has been destroyed by the sword, its magical energy is depleted forever, so the player must choose when it is necessary, or advantageous to use it.

Alright. The player now has 2 more choices.

1) He can use the Large Sword’s Magical Power to defeat the wizard easily, without much effort.
2) He can save the Large Sword’s power, and use it later for a tougher boss (Who we’ll say is a Dragon).

Let’s give both choices some consequences now.

- If the player chooses to defeat the wizard, then the Dragon will be much harder to defeat in the future. (The impact, or consequence, comes in the future – it is not immediate after the Sword’s use. The future will be difficult)
- If the player chooses to withhold the power of the sword, one of his party members will die in the process of fighting the wizard, and will be forever removed from the game. (The impact, or consequence, in this instance is immediate, but by choosing this choice, the future becomes easier to deal with)

This is just a basic example, but you can see how the game changes according to each choice. The choice seems insignificant in nature, but really, its intensity is higher up on the scale, and it significantly changes the game.

Also a quick note: Whenever a player makes a choice, and down the road in the game, when the consequence of that choice occurs, the player should know which decision made this happen. If, for example, the player chooses to eat Fries for lunch, instead of Pizza, and a robber enters his house as a result, the player will be confused, as there is no parallel between the choice and the result.

To make the connection evident, something must tie the two together. Alright, the player chooses to eat Fries, so he goes to the Fast Food Restaurant. After eating there, and leaving to go back home, he passes the Bank where the robber is currently trying to rob it. The Robber sees the player walking home, so he leaves very quickly (fearing the police) and begins to follow the player all the way to his house.

See the connection? If the player choose to have Pizza, he would have walked to the Pizza Store, which is at the opposite end of the town. He would thus have never passed the Bank, and the robber would not follow him.

Such a simple choice quickly turns the game in a completely new direction, but it does not end up with the player losing the game – it only changes the future choices he will have to make.

We have only begun to delve into the many aspects of choices, and are not really done yet. However, there is a lot more material to cover and it will be discussed in a future article, or two.

To summarize:

- Try to eliminate Pointless Choices, or increase their intensity by providing clear benefits and consequences.
- Don’t provide choices where one choice is clearly the one the player is supposed to choose. (Remember, a choice implies broadly the freedom to choose from a set of options)
- Make your choices interesting by providing clear benefits and consequences for each decision. (Remember, for every action, there should be a reaction!)

And that’s it! Happy Choices everyone! ^_^!

- Mateui