Design Pillars – Part I: Meaningful Choice

The interesting aspect of player choice isn’t the choice itself. The interesting thing – the only interesting thing, really – is the revelation of consequences. Choice without consequence is a waste of time, effort and money.

-Warren Spector, Deus Ex, Ultima Underworld, Epic Mickey

As the studio began to shape up, one of the first things we worked on was to set a few Design Pillars – or guidelines – for the game. In very broad strokes, these pillars will help frame the sort of game we’ll finally end up with and help us make decisions that will be the best for the game. For this post I’ll talk about our first pillar: “Meaningful Choice.”

The gist of it is: while we want to give our players a plethora of decisions to make, we also want those decisions to carry weight and consequence. That is to say that whenever we ask the player to make a choice, be it on the tactical layer, while leveling up, or on the narrative path; that choice has to have a visible consequence after the fact.

Warren Spector said it best in the quote above and this design pillar has reverberating effects for us as game designers and writers throughout the game. In giving the player options to choose from, we also have to make sure that the choices are varied and difficult. This also means that the onus is on us to have enough information conveyed to the player so that the player can make an informed and deliberate choice.

This refers back to the notion of “visible consequence.” Without enough information the player’s decisions will be made blindly, and while it may be realistic, it will give the impression that whatever the player chooses, the result has been arbitrarily decided by the game designer. With sufficient information, we are giving the control back to the player on what choice and consequences he will face. The fine line that we will need to thread here will be balancing between spelling out the events directly to the player (not fun) and giving enough clues for the discerning player to have that “a ha!” moment as the consequences are revealed.

Finally, the biggest challenge we have in pursuing “meaningful choice” is in creating choices that do not present the players with a single superior option. Be it good or evil, fight or flight, individual players will have a choice – even if someone like me would choose the same decision over and over again, my choices should not reflect the cumulative bias for one particular path.

In the context of what we’re making, let me give you a few examples of how we hold some game design decisions against our “Meaningful Choice” guideline:

Build diversity:
When we started creating our character creation and progression system we really wanted to make a build system that would really reward a player’s understanding of the mechanics. While the Tank/Healer/DPS/Controller archetypes are part of the video game norm today, we wanted to create a progression system that doesn’t necessarily rely on making a character that fits squarely into these roles. Everything from way we forego experience points to the way we award skills and abilities through use goes into giving the player the freedom of choice in how they build, use, and progress their characters.

Strategy & Tactics:
On the strategic and tactical layer of the game, meaningful choice presents us with a different set of challenges. In our strategic overview, players will need to be given choices that reward and punish them appropriately for making decisions that will affect their progress in the larger game world. While on the tactical layer, meaningful choice means enabling the players to approach combat from multiple avenues and utilize their character builds. This – in theory –  should enable players who actually use different and effective tactics to overcome more challenging encounters at lower levels.

Character Respec:
One of our more recent discussions around “Meaningful Choice” was on whether or not to allow players to respecialize their skill points throughout the game. This was an interesting debate because the concept of “Meaningful Choice” could be interpreted as forcing players to live with the decisions they’ve made in building their character. However, the other side of the argument is that giving players the freedom to evolve their playstyles is in fact more in line with the philosophy of “Meaningful Choice.”

The push and pull of short-term and long-term benefits between abilities at lower and higher levels also plays heavily in the discussion. Meaningful choice actually covers both sides of the argument really well – living with consequences and choosing the right evolution for your character – and we ultimately had to approach the arguments by asking which is more fun?

A game should be fun, and in today’s busy world restarting the game because of a mistake in character build is decidedly not enjoyable. Allowing character respecialization gives players a chance to correct their mistakes and better yet: encourages experimentation with the diversity of builds we have made available to the player.

At the end of the day, design guidelines do not function as absolute law and their implementation should be tempered with a heavy dose of common sense. Part of the challenge for us as game designers is to find that sweet spot between adherence to our design principles, vision for the game, common sense and fun.

That is just an example of one of the many discussions we’ve had since we started. Let us know if you have strong opinions on this.

Until next time.



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