Mar 28

2010

5 Rules for Writing Interesting Choices in Multiple-Choice Games

Posted by: Dan Fabulich | Comments (14)

The hardest thing about writing a multiple-choice game in ChoiceScript is creating interesting choices for your players. Here are five rules you can follow to make decisions you write more fun and engaging.

Rule 1: Every option should have real consequences

If my decision has no effect on anything, why am I even making a decision?

This rule is pretty uncontroversial, but in practice it’s hard to follow consistently. It’s easy to write a collection of choices where nothing really happens; the player moves from place to place pointlessly. If you catch yourself doing this, consider just deleting those false decisions and skipping ahead to the good part!

It’s also possible to take this rule too far, requiring that every option needs to branch into a completely different story. That would be pretty cool, but unfortunately it’s impossible to write a game like that; you’ll never finish.

Fortunately, as a multiple-choice game designer, you have alternatives to branching the story completely. For example, sometimes player decisions don’t branch the story right away, but they have an effect on the main character’s attributes (the “stats” on the stat screen) or on other variables in the world.

Some options may have no effect on the game, but have a big effect on the player’s imagination. For example, choosing a gender in Choice of the Dragon doesn’t really change the story at all, but it can completely change the way you think about the game, especially when it comes time to find a mate!

Rule 2: The player needs some basis to make a decision

Even if you’ve guaranteed that every option has consequences, if players have no idea what the consequences of their decisions will be, it becomes impossible to make a meaningful choice.

One of the classic “choose a path” series of books broke this rule all the time. As an example, here’s the very first choice from  Journey Under the Sea (the 2005 edition):

The cable attaching you to the Maray [research vessel, above water] is extended to its limit. You have come to rest on a ledge near the canyon in the ocean floor that ancient myth says leads to the lost city of Atlantis.

You have an experimental diving suit designed to protect you from the intense pressure of the deep. You should be able to leave the Seeker [personal submarine] and explore the sea bottom. The new suit contains a number of the latest microprocessors enabling a variety of useful functions. It even has a built-in PDA with laser communicator. You can cut loose from the cable; the Seeker is self-propelled. You are now in another world. Remember, this is a dangerous world, an unknown world.

As agreed, you signal the Maray, “All systems GO. It’s awesome down here.”

  • If you decide to explore the ledge where the Seeker has come to rest, turn to page 6.
  • If you decide to cut loose from the Maray and dive with the Seeker into the canyon in the ocean floor, turn to page 4.

How am I supposed to decide whether to explore the ledge or explore the canyon? Both of these options are exploratory; neither of them has any clear advantages or disadvantages. Without more information, I’m forced to decide at random.

The goal of a multiple-choice game should be to make the player care about what happens; random decisions force players to disengage from their options and select an option unemotionally.

Rule 3: No option should be obviously better or worse than all the others

If one of the options is significantly better than the others, the player selecting that option loses a sense of agency—the feeling of making a decision. It’s like that Dilbert cartoon where Dilbert creates a computer with just one big button: “We push the button for you before it leaves the factory.”

If you’ve got one really great option, try to improve the others to match it. Similarly, if one option is much worse than the others, fix it or remove it.

When you break this rule, resist the temptation to “fix” it by giving the player less information. Hiding the consequences just turns one mistake into another, by removing the player’s basis for making the decision.

Instead, make an effort to ensure that every option is appealing in some way; even “wrong” choices should be fun. For example, in Choice of the Dragon, it’s possible for your dragon to die, sometimes rather gruesomely, but we tried to ensure that your death would always be pretty cool.

Make the player say, “Wow, that was neat!” and not, “Oops. That was lame.”

EDIT: One particularly common way to make an option worse than all the others is to have an “opt-out” option, where you can choose not to participate in the story. If you’re telling a story about a big adventure, don’t put in an option to stay at home and not go out on the adventure. Either you’ll have to override the player’s choice, (which breaks Rule 1 by removing the consequences of the decision) or you’ll have to give the story a boring ending. “Opt-out” options are inherently uninteresting.

Rule 4: Know your players

Multiple-choice games are role-playing games. If you can learn what it means to be a good RPG gamemaster, you’re well on your way to becoming a good game designer.

A great deal has been written about how to be a good gamemaster, including an enormous body of role-playing game theory, much of which is highly relevant to multiple-choice game design.

One of the most important tips for good gamemasters is that not all of us play games for the same reason; different players can prefer vastly different games. Traditionally, three types of players stand out in role-playing games:

Gamist
Gamist players want to “win” the game; they win when their character is successful. They want victory to be difficult but attainable. Gamists usually prefer “power fantasy” stories, where they can take the role of heroes accomplishing great deeds.
Dramatist/Narrativist
Dramatists want to tell a great story, even if their characters are unsuccessful; they play for emotional impact. A dramatist would enjoy role-playing an epic tragedy, whereas a gamist would find a tragedy “unfair” because there is no way to win.
Simulationist
A simulationist strives to ensure internal consistency within the rules; they want the game to be plausible. In multiple-choice games, simulationists prefer options that make sense for their characters, even if those choices don’t help them “win” and don’t make the story better. Simulationists especially dislike “unrealistic” consequences; for a simulationist, “that’s not what would really happen” is a damning critique.

These types don’t have to be distinct; most players will have more than one of these goals. Multiple-choice games have another category which I think is distinct to computer RPGs:

Explorationist
“What will happen if I push this button?” The explorationist wants to discover what’s possible. They may become obsessed with finding every ending—good or bad—and trying options simply out of curiosity.

Since a good multiple-choice game will be played online by thousands of strangers, it’s hard to “know your players” the way you know your friends. However, you should still decide which type(s) of players you’re trying to satisfy. Are you writing a story? Building a world? Crafting a game?

Due to the nature of the multiple-choice game format, it’s not impossible to satisfy many of these goals at once!

Which will you choose?

  • The action that helps me win.
  • The action that creates the deepest story.
  • The action that my character would most likely choose in real life.
  • A mysterious action with unknown consequences.

Rule 5: Break these rules

Knowing when to break the rules is almost as important as knowing when to follow them.

  • Fake choices. A decision with no real consequences can be almost as fun, as long as you don’t let the player realize that their decision had no effect. (Of course, players are certain to discover the secret on future replays, so try to avoid using this technique too often.)
  • Unfounded choices and the spirit of exploration. The old “choose a path” books were fun to explore, despite not always having clear reasons to choose one option over another. Some people tried every option anyway, just to see what would happen. If you want your players to explore all of their options, make them all equally appealing and let the players try them all. (But beware: exploring a large tree of choices can be a chore, as you try all the options nested within option 1, then all the options nested within option 2, and so on. It feels a little like mowing the lawn.)
  • Just do it! Theorizing about games can be a fascinating exercise—almost as fun as playing and writing them—but theory can also clog up your creativity. If you’re tying yourself in knots trying to make all of your options equally satisfying, to explore every possible branch of your story, or to satisfy every category of player, then just forget about it. If you miss something, you can fix it later!

14 Comments

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  2. Simon says:

    Nice article! I’d like to read more about writing multiple choice games and theory.

  3. Adam says:

    Bearing in mind that I think Rule 5 is probably the most important, I’m going to engage in a little abstruse theory here in response to Dan’s comments under Rule 4.

    As a minor point, explorationism can exist within table-top RPGs. One of the obvious examples is the classic “exploring a wild section of the world,” but “hey, I found this wacky magic item, let’s see if I can figure out how it works” is also explorationism and not unique to computer gaming. A less common form of explorationism involves figuring out how, e.g., magic works in a world. I’ve heard of games where players might spend an entire session performing in-game experiments, because gathering information about how the world works is both interesting and useful. But that’s rare, in part because it’s difficult to do in a game based on published resources where both the GM and the players have access to the resources–figuring out how magic works won’t be very fun or interesting if the Book of Magicky Stuff tells you the answers.

    On a more significant note, I think it’s useful to distinguish between “emulationism” and the rest of dramatism/narrativism. To me, emulationism is about creating a work that mimics genre norms. When someone sets out to make a game that feels like a noir thriller, or a Star Wars movie, or a Hornblower novel, they’re not trying to simulate a fantasy world exactly–instead, they’re trying to match the patterns, conventions, and (especially) the feel of the source material. (My understanding is that Ron Edwards and the Forge community use “simulationism” to refer to what I call emulationism; I find that usage problematic, because simulationism already had a well-defined and (IME) useful meaning in the Threefold Theory. Also, I view emulationism as fundamentally a subset of dramatism/narravatism, and thus view GNS definitions of simulationism as embodying the classic failure of (A) positing that other people’s stated position is nonexistent/nonsensical/impossible and (B) redefining their playstyle as referring to a subset of your own playstyle, because you find it more comprehensible.)

    My intuition is that many players of choice-based games try to be emulationist, at least at times–“I’m going to pick option (C), because that’s what James T. Kirk would do, and this is a space opera game about exploring new worlds!” That’s related to making choices because they will make the best story, but sometimes people will say, “it might make a better story overall if I do A, but I’m going to do B instead because that’s what the genre conventions demand.”

    When writing a ChoiceScript game in a well-defined genre, I think almost every choice should have (at least) one option that is emulationist–the sort of choice a character would make in the source material for the genre–and taking those choices should generally lead to a genre-consistent result. It’s good for some choices to also have options that get their kick precisely because they are contrary to genre assumptions–those make for good grist for explorationist and simulationist players who want to push against, subvert, or question genre conventions. But there should generally be the option to go with the classic emulationist approach.

    In our games, some of the “kidnap a princess” sort of stuff in Choice of the Dragon is intended, at least in part, as emulationist. Likewise, much of the design approach to Choice of Broadsides is emulationist.

  4. geolo says:

    Choice of Broadsides or GTFO! >:(

    • Dan says:

      @geolo, we appreciate your dedicated interest in Choice of Broadsides. We originally wrote that Broadsides would be available by the end of March; to our chagrin, we let it slip to April 1.

      We shall, therefore, remain here for the time being. I believe it was Amelia Burr who wrote: “Because I have loved life, I shall not sorrow to GTFO when the time comes.”

  5. esha says:

    Just a quick comment, actually-

    I think what you guys did in Choice of Broadsides with the dream sequence- giving those kinds of choices- REALLY worked. I actually experienced a brief moment of panic because I honestly couldn’t figure out what choice to pick, and the final question, when all the choices were the same, was eerie yet fitting. Looking at the types, I’m probably more of a ‘Simulationist’ player, and I have to say it really worked for me.

  6. Dan Hemmens says:

    Without wanting to get too deep into Forge-eseque debates about the correct use of terminology, I think you’re making a crucial mistake about satisfying different sorts of players in a multiple choice game.

    Sorry, this might get a bit wall o’ text…

    If you present players with a set of four options, one of which is clearly mechanically the best, one of which is clearly the most interesting narrative option, one of which clearly makes the most sense “in character” and one of which clearly has the most potential to have unforseen consequences, you actually violate rule three *simultaneously* for every player, because for every player the option that fits their playstyle is “obviouly” the “best”.

    I also think you very much miscategorise the three player types here – particularly the poor, much maligned Gamist. “Gamists” absolutely do *not* want “power fantasies”. Gamists play *to* win, but they play *for* the challenge. Yes, a strongly Gamist player will feel cheated by tragic ending that they couldn’t avoid, but they will feel *equally* cheated by a happy ending they felt came too easily.

    The three creative agendas (as the Forge calls them) aren’t about how you *play* the game, they’re about how you *approach* the game in the first place. They’re not about what choices you make, they’re about what *sorts* of choices you think are significant. This adds a nasty complication to Rule One, because what a player thinks count as “real consequences” will be vastly different depending on who they are. Choice of gender is a good example, to a strongly Gamist player the choice is meaningless, because it doesn’t carry game mechanical consequences, to a strongly Narrativist player it might be equally meaningless (particularly if they’re a Forge-definition Narrativist and beleive that anything that isn’t a real, gut-wrenching moral crisis is a waste of time), but to a Simulationist – somebody whose primary concern is interacting with a fictional reality – it’s highly significant, because your character’s gender is an important part of *who* you are playing.

    It’s not necessarily impossible to satisfy all three “types” of player at once, but I think it’s more difficult than you make it out to be, because the agendas do often conflict. Ironically it’s even more of a problem because in reality most people’s playstyle falls between the different types. You can just about design a choice which functions both as a (Narrativist) moral decision and as a (Gamist) tactical decision, but if a player has both Narrativist *and* Gamist impulses (which many people do) they might feel cheated, because the moral choice is undermined by the tactical choice. Of course in that situation a strongly Simulationist player would be perfectly happy, because the mix of moral and pragmatic issues makes the whole thing seem more “real.”

    So umm … yeah. Players are complicated.

  7. Adam says:

    Dan: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You raise an interesting point with the problem of “pick a choice for your style of play” or “agenda” or whatever presenting an uninteresting choice, although I think that in practice there are usually overlaps that make this problem less severe in practice than it might seem in theory.

    I agree completely with your comment about Gamism not being the same as an Achievement orientation, although I think Dan F.’s description of Gamists wanting victory to be difficult but achievable is spot on. To some extent, achievement orientation may be separate from any of the three styles/agendas of play: clearly, some players do want to win and do enjoy the power fantasies, even if it’s not fair to tar all Gamists with that brush. (I should say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting achievement from your games–people face lots of setbacks in real life, if they want to win and be awesome in games, I’m not going to say there’s anything wrong with that.) In fact, the desire of some players to “win” can conflict with the desire of other players for challenge in winning–the more you ensure that Joe Achiever will get his desire, the harder it becomes to adequately challenge Jane Gamist.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful comment.

  8. […] the protagonist develops personality stats during play, but the game play is all about making (as their own manifesto indicates) “interesting choices”. (I think Chris Crawford would approve of that part, if not of […]

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  9. […] the protagonist develops personality stats during play, but the game play is all about making (as their own manifesto indicates) “interesting choices”. (I think Chris Crawford would approve of that part, if not of […]

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  10. unknown says:

    i want to make a game but dont know how help me

  11. Joshua Elliott says:

    I’ve been thinking about how to make the gamists happy. To be more specific — let us say you design a CYA where there is no way to lose the game (usually, this means the character cannot die, or something similar) — if you cannot lose, winning isn’t exactly the same, so under those constraints, how do you put a smile on the face of the gamist?

  12. Sally Mallis says:

    Im really interested in making a multiple choice game, but am stuck at the first hudle. Does anyone have any advice on how to get started? Or what app to use to create the game in the first place? Any help at all would be great and much appreciated 🙂 thanks alot guys

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