Interesting Choices: Interesting Gameplay pt.6
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 10:38AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Depth & Complexity, Dynamics, Interesting Choices, Interplay, Mechanics

You've come so far with Fictive RPG I assume you want some kind of closure. First, a bit of a recap. Causing interesting choices to emerge in gameplay is a matter of making a game complex (rules/properties) and interconnected (dynamics/interplay) enough so that the gameplay (mechanics/choices) is balanced and varied. With such a game, any choice that you make is deemed "interesting" because there are many ways to reach the goal and it takes more than one interesting choice to get there for "good" games (according to Sid Meier). When this happens the choices reflect the individual player's personal preferences. The choices become interesting because they reflect interesting players.

So Fictive RPG needs some combination of additional properties/variables, dynamics, and interplay. Right now, it's too obvious how shallow and straightforward the RPG combat is. The reason it's obvious is because we can mentally run through all of the possible outcomes or emergent permutations to determine the best possible strategy. Assuming that whatever we add Fictive RPG remains balanced, we can get a good idea when interesting choices will emerge by calculating the permutations from the starting battle conditions. The idea is, once the number of permutation gets far too high to where a player can't figure out how their first decision will come close to reaching the goal even with perfect knowledge of the game rules and plenty of time, then the game is of a sufficient level of complexity.  


To be clear here's a short list of the relationship between various elements of design:


Basically, more variables create a greater potential variety and combinations for the rest of the design elements to work with. You must have more than one mechanic to give the player choices. The more mechanics there are, the more spaced out design space wise they should be. This is because unique or spaced out mechanics tend to exhibit different variables. The more dynamics in the game system, the more these mechanics and other interactions will push-pull the direction of gameplay.

This is the level many quality games reach, but this is not enough for interesting choices to emerge. Up until this point, gameplay will still boil down to a limited set of optimized strategies designed around a simple idea (like doing as much damage as quickly as possible). This is why interplay is so important. I started the Critical-Gaming blog by analyzing interplay, and it has proved to be one of the most important design concepts. The best way to keep gameplay from boiling down to exercises in optimization is interplay. Think about it. You do all this work maximizing your ROCK, but all I have to do is throw a PAPER to ruin your efforts. For games far more complex than RPS, there can be many different strategies to optimize. The threat of a hard counter (interplay) to your chosen plan of attack can influence you to devise strategies that aren't completely focused on one strategy. This is how interplay can elegantly force opponents out of what would be dominant strategies while encouraging an exploration of other emergent avenues. With interplay in your game system, interesting choices are much more likely to emerge. 


How many complexities are needed so that interesting choices emerge? Well, the choices (dynamic or otherwise) must be difficult enough to compare (according to the value scale of the game) that we fail to simplify the gameplay through dominant strategies. Knowing that our short term or working memory can only handle about 7+/- 2 bits of information, it's easy to see how a combat system of about 5 complexities to consider are not challenging. Even 10-20 complexities is a breeze because we being simplifying the various complexities in terms of what will reach the goal most efficiently. But when a game system has 30, 60, or 100+ different complexities to consider we're easily overwhelm. It'll take hours of playtime to sort through all of it. And if there isn't a dominant strategy because of the interplay options, you'll never simplify it all. Thus, you're left to make interesting choices to win as big of advantages as you can given the current battle conditions.


Let's Wrap-UP Fictive RPG!

If you haven't realized it yet, interesting choices is a topic of emergent gameplay. This is why I couldn't tackle or even understand the concept until I wrote about mechanics, variation, design space, dynamics, and interplay. After years of work, we have all the clear language we need. Because interesting choices are an emergent matter, there isn't a formula that we can derive. Despite being made of the four design elements listed above, it'll be too difficult to even create a set of soft rules that express the relationship of values between any two categories in terms of increasing the amount of interesting choices in a game. 

Instead of bombarding you with a long list of various design features, I'll simply express the grow of Fictive RPG with a series of graphics. 




The dominant strategy in version 1 is simply to use MAGIC on the BOSS until you win. This is represented by the line from start to BOSS = 0 HP. Version 2 is the same strategy with an arrow to indicate the loop of attacking and healing. Version 3 shows a diversion in the main strategy that happens when you run out of MP for MAGIC spells. Notice how the end goal is still the same: get the BOSS's HP to 0. Notice how this notation system focuses on dominant strategies and the dynamics and counters that bend the strategies and possibly stop them all together. This model is very similar to the model I devised for graphing the evolution of a metagame


Excluding the MP decay feature and the GUESS mechanic, Fictive RPG v.3 has the following:


So far the dominant strategy is obvious and the gameplay is a stalemate. With so little to work with, I can't even imagine what kind of interplay we could add that wouldn't severely limit this already limited game. If we add a move that prevents ITEM from being used, the rest of the gameplay becomes one note (as opposed to 2). If we make a move that blocks either ATTACK or MAGIC not much changes. We simply need more of any and possibly every category from this point. We need to define the design space and fill it with enough mechanics and dynamic effects so that when interplay blocks one plan/path there are other areas to stress and explore.

From here I'll represent the additions to Fictive RPG somewhat abstractly like in the model above. With each addition or set of additions I'll note the version and the number of total complexities (V+M+D+I). Below the image, I briefly explain the additions to give you a sense of how the game would play. You should be able to see how the dynamics, mechanics, and counters all weave the system together. At some point, you should lose sight of the dominant strategy and get utterly lost in the emergent possibilities. That is where interesting choices should emerge for you for you. 




Notice how they dynamics between the elements increases the total complexity count at an alarming rate between v.6-8. At some point when a game is designed with many parts that interact with each other in numerous ways (dynamics) the emergence will bloom like this. 

In conclusion, because the 4 supporting design elements of interesting choices are so flexible and the exact point interesting choices emerge is somewhat subjective, I can't give you an exact number for the amount of complexities it takes for interesting choices to emerge. All I can leave you with is the idea that designing games with interesting choices is like a jump rope. The two people holding the ends are the anchors representing variables and interplay. Without enough properties/variables the game won't have enough design space to work with. Without effective interplay, dominant strategies are far more likely to exist. After these anchors are fixed the rest of the design is fairly free to sustain many different mechanics and dynamics like a jump rope swinging in wide circles. Tighten up on either end/anchor and the circles will constrict.

In part 7 we'll discuss various design features that help sustain interesting gameplay without having to rely on such complex and interconnected designs. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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