Back in 1989, game developer Sid Meier said that “Games are a series of interesting decisions,” which is completely obvious when you’re playing a game like Civilization, where decision gates are often laid out in black and white for you when choosing things like what technology to develop.
But it’s less obvious that you’re making choices like this that affect your gameplay experience in everything you play, from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 to Angry Birds. While it might seem like a no-brainer to look at games like that, it’s something that Meier wants more developers to pay attention to during the development process.
He broke down his now-famous quote into several different pieces for the audience at GDC: What makes a decision interesting? What are the actual decisions that the player is being asked to make? He also referenced the question that all developers ask themselves during the debug process, “Why did we choose to make this game?” If you ask yourself that question too often, then you might need to abandon ship and start over.
But what are the characteristics of these decisions? Decisions that are good for the game should be tradeoffs, like in Civilization you can choose to create a scout and check out the surrounding terrain, or you can build a military unit to defend your city. The tradeoff is one or the other. Also, when the player is presented with a decision, is it situational? Is it personal? Is it persistent within the game? These are the things developers think about while building these into the game.
But that’s not all. Meier also urged developers to consider the types of decisions being offered to the player: Risk vs. Reward? Short Term vs. Long Term? Play style vs. Personality? Are there multiple goals? Is there customization, even if it’s as simple as letting the player choose the color of their car or outfit? He also underscored the need to not overwhelm the player with choices. Three to five choices seem to be about the perfect amount for players to digest.
The key is to use all of this advice to make the decisions more interesting to the player. Make them important to what your game is about. Make them colorful and if it doesn’t work, get rid of it. Above all, once you’ve designed these decisions into your game, remember to “Re-mystify” your game. Remind yourself what it is all about, and why you chose to make this game.
Meier summed up his talk with this quote: “It's more than just decision: make it about the fantasy you're creating for the player” and also, “Maximize awesomeness. Make it epic.” Two tenets that are pretty obvious in his games. While this might seem like it only appeals to developers, the next time you play a game, think about the decisions you made, and why they were put into the game where they are. Then decide well, and game on.