Many Games Are Not About Choices

Aug 30, 2011

Sid Meier has a famous quote that, “A [good] game is a series of interesting choices” (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38).

Some games are, no doubt, a series of choices. I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. However since this phrase is so easy to repeat, and so easy to understand, it has echoed all throughout the game development community and taken on a status of universal relevance even though it often doesn’t fit. I’ve heard peer developers of commercial action/reaction/skill games – people specifically making games that are virtually decision-free (at a planning or strategic sense) – parrot this as an expression of the finest thinking on game design.

If a game tells a great story and frames quality art content in a compelling way, but it doesn’t branch much or involve many choices, it can hardly be regarded as a failure on purely theoretical grounds. There is a sizable audience for that type of game.

If a game is exciting or satisfying without containing a single choice, perhaps because of well-tuned kinetics and visceral rewards, such that what to do isn’t the problem so much as doing it, that’s fine. That’s terrific. Wildly successful games have been made for decades and will continue to be made for (at least!) decades with that at the core.

There are good games about choices. And there are good games that can be played with no more ‘choice’ than how to turn left on a more efficient line or how to aim better and mash a button more rapidly.

Any time someone tries to sum up an entire design field in a sound bite (and this generally happens second-hand; I certainly don’t think Sid Meier is responsible for how often he is quoted in short form, possibly even out of an original context he had in mind) tune-in to considering carefully which genres, audiences, and cases it does or does not apply to. Sometimes there’s benefit to borrowing from the ideals and lessons of other subdomains – but there are plenty of other times when forcing the application of an inappropriately adopted ideal will only dilute the would-be core strengths of an otherwise unrelated project. Know what you’re working on building, and don’t try to make every game (or every type of game) at the same time.

Follow-up reply to reader response: Galaga and Making Interesting Decisions

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