Last time (it feels like just moments ago) I used Deus Ex as an example of giving the player choices about how he or she plays the game. If you’ve just tuned in, I recommend going and having a quick read of Part I. Unless you’re the kind of person who reads the last couple chapters of the book first, then you’ve come to the right place. While these layers of gameplay choices can add fun and interesting depth to a game, communicating that there is a choice at all can be equally important. I’m going to start a bit differently than normal just to illustrate the point. Enter: The Hypothetical Game.
The Road Not Taken
So I’ve got this great game with all these choices, let’s say a racing game where I’ve balanced various on-road and off-road paths to be equally effective and interesting. I give it to people to test, and they all do the same thing – follow the road (aside: something like this has actually happened to me recently). Is it really that surprising? Sure, I know that there are these other valid choices, but they know there is a road, and generally with these things the goal is to stay on it. Now, what if I put some dirt paths off the road? Even if they’re not functional (they could act the same as ‘off-road’), they communicate the idea to the player that there are other options.
This could apply to an FPS like Deus Ex as well: generally, you shoot things in a first-person shooter. There could be all these choices about whether or not to take out guards and how to avoid security, but if I’ve got a gun in my hands, a checkpoint to get to, and the game seems to be about shooting things, guess what my Plan A is. I (and probably others) would be missing out on the stuff that really makes the game such a hit. Now, Deus Ex has a bit of a reputation for being ‘more interesting’ than just shooting, and it doesn’t exactly advertise itself as ‘just another FPS’, but it still goes the distance in communicating with the player in the game, a lesson which is important for all those other games out there that don’t have a reputation on which they can rely.
The Direct Approach and Dangling Carrots
So how does Deus Ex successfully manage this? I’m going to get the really simple (and effective) thing out of the way first: it just says there is a choice. On the helicopter to the first real mission, the player is asked whether they want to go lethal or not, and what sort of range they want to be equipped for. In reality, this just decides the starting equipment (you quickly get access to both lethal and nonlethal weaponry regardless of your choice), but suddenly the player is aware that there is a choice. The game could have equally put the equipment in a locker room so the player equips him or herself, but this accomplishes the same thing with a side of ‘Pssst, you might want to think about how you do this’. It might sound silly, but it works.
Often just telling a player a choice exists isn’t enough to help them feel good about it, though. This is where incentives and rewards like achievements and bonus experience can shine. Sure, everybody likes rewards, but they can also fill the role of communicating with the player. What better way to let a player know it’s possible (and interesting) to do the entire game without killing anyone than slap an openly visible achievement for doing just that on the game? What if I’m proud of my sniping? Bonus experience for each headshot. Sneakiest around? Bonus experience for getting through an area without being spotted. Smooth talker? Experience and achievements for navigating the more social elements of the game. Explorer? Bonus experience for every secret passage found. The list goes on, and each one is a chance for the game to either whisper an opportunity to the player, or sit-back and applaud the player’s style. It helps the player feel good about their own personal challenges and style, revealing and validating depth in the gameplay that could otherwise be completely missed or found but ignored.
The Finish Line
Back to my hypothetical racing game. I’ve balanced different sorts of paths, I’ve given some cues in the game that the paths exist, maybe I’ve even thrown a help tip or tutorial tip that mentions trying out off-road paths. Then I add some awards for things like completing an entire race within an allocated time but 90% off-road or cutting the closest path to the most dangerous obstacle. Maybe I even have something like an upgrade system, and you get points towards upgrades for pulling off stylish stunts during the race. This is all hopefully without losing sight of the main goal of any racing game: be first, be fast. If this all sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s effective. It might not be perfect for all games, but by adding the possibility for players to make gameplay choices to match a variety of styles, and communicating appropriately that those choices exist to the player, a game can tap into a lot of otherwise unavailable depth. This hypothetical game is already sounding like a game I’d rather play than just ‘a racing game’.
This is another tool for a game designer’s toolbox, and it can be done well or poorly. For now, I’ll just say I think Deus Ex did it well. There are a variety of different (and equally fun or interesting) ways to play Deus Ex, catering to all sorts of styles and choices. The game highlights this variety by communicating directly and through incentives, thus making sure the player is aware of the choices while also feeling like he or she is getting the thumbs up for trying something a bit ‘more’ or different than just completing an objective in the most straightforward manner.
Now I’m interested in hearing what you think. Did you enjoy the ability to forge your own path (or try many different paths) from the many different possibilities in Deus Ex? What examples can you think of where catering to player choice (or communicating it to the player) is done well or poorly? Is this the sort of feature you generally enjoy in your gaming, or do you not really care? Is the Hypothetical Racing Game starting to sound like something you’d play?