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Balthazar Auger

Measuring 'choice' in games

constraints2 min read

While reading a very interesting post over at Chris Bateman’s blog about player choice in games, I obviously tried to find a constraint in how much power over the game you give your player, ranging from total (sandbox games) to none (his Guitar Hero example is quite fitting).

But then, reading it again, I wasn’t so sure it could be called a constraint. Player agency is a variable you can adjust while designing, but it has no real, tangible value you can set as reference. You can say “This game gives me more choice than this one”, but it’s hard giving both games a value you can compare mathematically.

inverted tree

While at school, we discussed narration structures linked to graph theory. For arborescent narrative games, it is easy to measure the amount of narrative choice given to the player, you just count the nodes. However, there is sometimes another layer, non-narrative and non-arborescent which can’t be measured this easily. Play.

In play, as in life, we actually are constantly making successive, small trivial choices. So numerous and insignificant in fact, that we’re not even aware of them. And since you didn’t know about it, are you really making a choice after all?

Maybe the first step to measuring choice would be to settle on a level of granularity. Sid Meier’s “interesting” adjective is right-on, but can’t be used due to its inherent subjectivity. Someone could spend hours wondering what to wear, while someone else might just want to wear the same clothes the rest of their lives. You are given this exact same choice in Grand Theft Auto. I guess the developers must have found it interesting enough to implement it, but I usually skip it. I just don’t care.

The word “interesting” is a good shortcut, but raises many problems if you try to build a theory around it. If you changed the word, would that change the measurability of choice in games? What if I decided to focus on meaningful choices instead?

For starters, you would need to define the context of the choice, as meaning is most of all a matter of context. This is easy: the context is the game as a whole. If you want a closer frame, take a play session, or a single level.

If we were to say that a choice is meaningful if it affects the outcome of the game, we might then infer that, for story-driven games with one ending, choices are meaningless since the outcome will be the same (or contained within pre-rendered possibilities, in the case of multiple endings) no matter what choice you make.

Whereas for sports-like games (including multiplayer videogames), a given choice has direct influence over the outcome of the game or play session, so much that if you have a recording of the session, you can pinpoint every choice made by each player and accurately say whether that choice was a step towards victory or defeat.

This is all very nebulous, of course. Measures are always made after an event has happened, and what I would like to find is a way of predicting an amount of meaningful choices. Yet, seeing as meaning is defined by the outcome of the game (the context), It would seem we are running in circles…

I think Mr. Bateman’s conclusion is valid. The term “a series of interesting choices” was a term adapted to strategy/sandbox type of games and shouldn’t be applied to every game we can think of. Also, seeing as choice is a completely subjective matter, it is very hard to predict and measure, and cannot be considered a valid constraint to game design.

I’ve just proved myself wrong. Neat!

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