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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7 Comments

  1. Ipsquiggle says:

    I honestly think the biggest problem with the overquoting of this statement is that people have a pretty shallow definition of choice.

    Perhaps this is me being apologetic, but I would elaborate the phrase as, “A game is a mechanism which responds to a variety of player input, producing significantly different output when significantly different input is given.” That’s how I’ve always interpreted it.

    Trying to find the fastest line in a Gran Tourismo license test is meaningful; the player can be on the fastest line, or not on it, and it matters if he is or isn’t and for how long. If it had ‘no interesting choice’, then it would not matter if you were on the fastest line or not; in a shallow sense it may award you the license anyways, and in a fundamental sense the car physics would provide a similar lap time regardless of the line followed.

    But instead it makes the race ‘a series of interesting choices’ about how much to bend the stick, when to apply the brake, etc.

    Even a game with no quantitative feedback — something that’s little more than a screensaver, say — the system still needs to respond to the player’s input in different and readable ways. A particle system which randomly behaves is nothing more to be looked at and quickly ignored. If it supports even a tiny amount of input, say, modulating based on mouse position, then I can cause effects and behavior and discover something unique to show to a friend. But it has to react meaningfully to my input, allowing me to make a choice about what input to give it.

    A game consisting of a long single thread of monologue that the player clicks through is, in fact, not a game. (Not even by liberal definitions, I would argue!) Even something as subtle as allowing the player to choose which order to display the bits of the monologue in may give them an opportunity for interpretation that doesn’t exist in a purely narrative artifact.

    Really this is mostly me being contrary though; I agree with your basic point, that people shouldn’t assume a game ‘is this’ or ‘is that’.

    But another point I mean to make is, “Not every good and entertaining thing is a game.” There’s nothing wrong with writing a story, or creating generative art, or building a simulator, or whatever. I think both our points could boil down to, “Make the thing you want to make, regardless of how people define it.”

  2. zaphos says:

    re “the biggest problem […] is that people have a pretty shallow definition of choice”

    That may be the problem for some examples but it doesn’t salvage the saying for me. I don’t find it meaningful to broaden my definition of “interesting choice” to include, say, “choosing to press the right button at the right time in rock band.” ‘Interesting choice’ to me means cases where it is not immediately obvious what the ‘right’ answer is, which excludes pure reflex challenges characteristic of simplistic rhythm or typing games.

    • PSpeed42 says:

      “‘Interesting choice’ to me means cases where it is not immediately obvious what the ‘right’ answer is, which excludes pure reflex challenges characteristic of simplistic rhythm or typing games.”

      That’s interesting because that means it’s a matter of player perception. What’s “obvious” to some might not be to others. I know some people who would consider Sid Meier’s games no more “decision” than playing guitar in Rock Band simply because they instinctively deconstruct the rules and play it more like speed chess. To them there is a right way to win and anything else is the choice not to win as easily… like deciding to miss a note in Rock Band because you thought it might sound better.

      Apparently even generalizations about generalizations are tricky to make. 🙂

  3. […] – I notice!), and this morning I caught a discussion about one of last month’s entries, Many Games Are Not About Choices. A counter-argument came up that I suspect may be a common reaction among readers, and I would like […]

  4. […] All Games Are About Choices Posted on September 24, 2011Today I read a very thoughtful blog post by a game designer who I greatly admire, but with whom I absolutely disagree: Chris DeLeon wrote a scathing dismissal of the argument that games like Galaga are based on interesting decisions. (That argument was itself presented in response to Chris' previous blog post, titled "Many Games Are Not About Choices.") […]

  5. […] seems to have started with a post over at Chris Deleon’s HobbyGameDev blog, where he took issue with the quote, contending that: There are good games about choices. And […]

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