Interesting Choices: Interesting Gameplay pt.5
Sunday, April 17, 2011 at 4:24PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Dynamics, Interesting Choices, Misc Design & Theory

Interesting choices only become relevant to one's gameplay experience when they are paired with their consequences. Whether you end up choosing correctly or regretting your choice, experiencing the result is when it all clicks. Continuing with additions to Fictive RPG, we'll consider how decay dynamics and suspension design shape interesting decisions. 



Along with 2D/3D space and time, decay is an organic gameplay dynamic. Organic gameplay dynamics are powerful dynamics that closely simulate common real life experiences. Because they are so familiar, learning how they function in a gameplay system is very intuitive. With 2D space we can instantly relate to and distinguish on screen elements as solid objects. Take Super Mario Bros. We anticipate that Mario won't be able to simply walk through solid bricks or pipes. We understand the preventing Mario from coming into "contact" with dangerous enemy elements will keep him safe. Likewise, with decay dynamics we intuitively understand that one can only fire as many bullets as one has ammo for. Or one can only do so much in a "day" of game time in Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, or Pikmin. 

A lot of decay design is the simple "ammo" type. You can keep using a mechanic until you run out enough of MP, ammo, super meter, etc. Once you're out of ammo, you can't use the move. This all should be very familiar to you. So in the case of Fictive RPG let's make it so that using MAGIC requires having enough magic points (MP). Let's say each spell cost 1 MP and you have 3 MP maximum. Imaging how this feature would change the game! If you think about it, the overall strategy doesn't change much. I'll bold the only change:

Also notice that if the BOSS has limited MP for MAGIC and is forced to eventually switch to ATTACK your strategy remains the same. 



As far as interesting choices go, adding decaying MP doesn't necessarily make the game any more interesting. In the Fictive RPG example, at every step the best option is obvious. Use MAGIC until you cannot because of a lack of MP, then use ATTACK. This change to Fictive RPG highlights a peculiar quality of decaying mechanics; the most dynamic moment with ammo-decay mechanics occurs on the "final shot." In other words, the last possible MAGIC you use is the action that simultaneously does damage to the BOSS and prevents you from using any more MAGIC spells. All of the uses when you still have plenty of ammo left are less dynamic than that "final shot." While it's obvious that planning ahead and making the most of every bit of "ammo" affects one's strategies, when analyzing dynamics it's clear that the dynamic moment is delayed by how much ammo one has. This makes sense when you think about it practically. You never have to make tough or interesting choices when you still have plenty of bullets, money, or cookies left. It's what you do with that last shot, dollar, crumb that's unique. 



Though Fictive RPG only has one battle that makes up the entire game, other RPGs and genres feature mechanics with decay dynamics that are suspended across many different gameplay challenges. Take Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer for example. In this rougelike death is a big deal. When you die you have to start the whole game over (almost from scratch). The items you use decay with use like many RPGs. Some items are very rare and extremely powerful. For example, the Destruction Scroll can kill any enemy no matter how strong including the final boss! How do we factor possessing one of these scrolls in terms of interesting choices?

Do we say that even though it's obviously the most powerful option in the game when attacking a single target, it's rarity makes it less abusable and therefore less "better" than other options? Do we simply conclude that because the scroll is such a powerful and dominant strategy, that interesting choices are impossible as long as the player has 1 Destruction Scroll in their possession? I say, not quite to both.

There are many things I consider when carrying around a Destruction Scroll. I wonder whether I'll lose it permanently if I happen to die. I wonder if a monster will knock it out of my possession. And I wonder if I will encounter a dire situation where the scroll must be used long before reaching the final boss. Yes, these thoughts are neat. But these interesting considerations contribute to the tension and consequence design of Shiren. Factoring the scroll into interetsing choices first requires us to define how much of the game we're considering.

I should also explain here that the analysis of interesting choices is always focused around a game goal. Because games can have different goals (not multiple goals), it's important to state up front which goal you're working with. If we look at an individual encounter in Shiren, the Destruction Scroll would be a dominant option. But if we look at the scope of the whole game, the decay and suspension elements are put into proper focus and gameplay balance. Because Fictive RPG only has 1 battle, including a 1-hit-KO BOMB mechanic that can only be used once would clearly ruin any interesting choices present. BOMB is a dominant strategy because of its shear power. It's so effective having it turns Fictive RPG combat into a joke. And as along as our scope is relative to winning this single battle between HERO and BOSS, it easy to see how any decay features built into BOMB are irrelevant.

Just to be clear, the decay design of a mechanic alone does not necessarily help develop interesting choices. Even when the decay mechanic is suspended across a game, it can still be a dominant strategy that kills interesting choices. Or even when a mechanic has limited "ammo" one can have more ammo than one can run out of. The decay and suspension elements of mechanics aren't necessarily relevant depending on the scope of one's analysis so we know we have to look at other facets of a game's design to determine how these elements contribute to the emergence of interesting choices

In part 6 I'm giving you numbers just like I promised. Not just numbers, I'm breaking down the entire complex formula for the emergence of interesting decisions. 

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