Editor Note: This is the first in what will be a regular installment where we take a look at an overarching design choice that benefits a title towards creating an immersive, interactive world. Join the conversation by submitting your own smart design nomintations in the comments, or respond to the ones here.
Here is the first time we see choices having actual consequences, which also means it is the first time that the author is ceding consequential control to the player. Here for the first time the player constructs not only their own narrative, but their own story.
-Raph Koster, On Choice Architectures
Games find their unique power in entertainment and as an art form through interactivity – the hidden conversation that happens constantly between the player and the developer. As Koster notes in the above article, this interactivity is unique to the medium of gaming – the choice a reader makes is to turn the page, the choice of a film-goer is to adjust in their seat or pass the popcorn; these are one-way conversations of consumption.
And more often than not, the games we love most are those that put the agency of choice at the forefront of their design. You can have the Fire Flower or the Raccoon Tail, but not both. The bow or the boomerang. Guts Man’s Super Arm or Elec Man’s Thunder Beam. BioWare has built an entire studio by being among the first to weave – at scale – the agency of choice into the narrative itself, even if many would argue – correctly – that these choices are illusions.
The challenge for designers is to create choices that are meaningful and impactful to the player’s experience while also ensuring that no choice is so wrong that they will ruin the player’s experience – particularly for those who are new or uninformed. And this challenge is all the more apparent in interactive worlds, where players are not only evaluating their choices against the response from the game itself, but also against the choices other players have made.
World of Warcraft has been through countless iterations of their talent system and justified their move away from talent trees by noting that the talent trees themselves provided no meaningful choices due to the emergence of cookie-cutter builds despite having plenty of opportunity for uninformed players to pyroblast themselves in the proverbial foot. Elder Scrolls Online, despite its myriad other problems, was celebrated for the sheer amount of choice players were given in building and advancing their characters, but it was coupled with many complaints about the lack of balanced design in the system.
So player choice is among the most important – and challenging – design elements for any game, but what design principles should we come to when applying choice to interactive worlds and narratives?
- Choices must be consequential and constant.
- Choices must reinforce a player’s suspension of disbelief – and thus immersion – in the world.
- Choices must spur further interaction among the players
H1Z1 is the subject of this Smart Design because, even in its early stage, it does an exceptional job of all three. Let’s examine in further detail.
H1Z1’s choices are consequential and constant.
To frame, let’s examine what makes choices – in gaming broadly, but in interactive worlds specifically – consequential. Strong choice architecture, I’d posit, is based on one of the following:
- The Right Tool: A choice between two or more options that are equal on the surface, but are unequal when they come face to face with a contextual challenge. (e.g. – a hypothetical – I can use the axe or the machete, and both damage values are relatively equal, but bears take additional damage from axes and wolves take additional damage from machetes.) When the contextual challenge changes (“There’s a bear!”) the choices become unequal. World of Warcraft’s current talent system is modeled primarily on this type of choice architecture. As a general note, the more permanent these choices are, the greater the sense of immersion and identity, but the less friendly and accessible to players.
- Power/Convenience vs. Risk/Time Investment: A choice between two or more options that are unequal on the surface, but balanced through the consequences being equal to the benefits of the choice. (e.g. In Koster’s Star Wars Galaxies, players could work to become a Jedi – a character with a far greater power differential when compared to other players. Becoming a Jedi, however, came at the cost of both time (a lengthy grind) and of risk (Jedi characters could be permanently killed.)
- Directional Choices. A choice between where to go and what to do that has no immediately observable power/risk differentials, but can often be combined with them. Heralded open world games like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto are appealing due to having an incredible amount of directional choices.
H1Z1 uses both choice systems – but particularly the second – beautifully. Consider a sample tale of a fresh spawn:
1) The player immediately must make a Right Tool choice that also has shades of Convenience vs. Risk. Do I shred my shirt to make a bow for defense, at the cost of a temporary limit on inventory space?
2) The player heads to the nearby gas station, where they encounter a Right Tool choice, finding a crowbar (don’t say it – I know), an axe, and a machete. They all take up substantial inventory space and there are only three quickslots.
3) The player encounters a geared player on the road. They face a Power/Risk choice: engage, knowing there is a substantial risk of death, but if victorious the chance to rapidly increase power?
4) The player is hungry. Light a fire to cook meat, knowing that the convenience of filling the energy bar quickly is offset by the fact it will attract both players and zombies (when the bug is resolved), or go on a blackberry hunt instead, at the cost of time?
5) A directional choice mixed with power/risk. Does the player head to a town, where there are more opportunities to loot, and increase power, but also far greater risk due to a greater number of players and zombies?
6) A directional choice without power/risk. Does the player go to Cranberry or Pleasant Valley?
7) Do I take out the player guarding the doors of the police station with my bow, that is less powerful/convenient, or with my shotgun, which will alert other players and zombies in the area and use up limited ammunition and weapon durability?
And that’s one story of many that can occur within H1Z1 – a game of constant choices that all have meaning. As we looked at in the example, every core system design – inventory, loot availability (particularly of guns and ammunition that have higher power differentials), crafting, and hunger/thirst dynamics – are all based on the idea of choice as something that is both constant and consequential. Smart design.
Choices in H1Z1 reinforce a player’s suspension of disbelief in the world.
This is likely so glaringly obvious that additional commentary isn’t necessary, and yet the number of games that stumble here suggest otherwise. Let’s consider a counter-example that we’ve referenced earlier on: World of Warcraft’s talent system. The system isn’t a total loss for immersion – there’s a reason that a hunter can decide between calling a flock of crows or adding additional mobility and damage to their pet, as opposed to say: calling a flock of crows and smiting their foes with a holy bolt of energy; class identity, in many MMOs, is about choices that reinforce fantasy archetypes and thus immersion in the world itself. But beyond that, no one could argue that the talent system does a great deal for suspending a player’s sense of disbelief that they themselves are existing within that world; that they are immersed.
H1Z1’s post-apocalypse world attempts, like others in the genre, to create a setting where there is constant danger and risk and where every choice has some measure of consequence. And every choice a player makes is similar to a choice that a real individual would need to make if they were placed into the environment. One of the arguments that Richard Bartle makes in his book Designing Virtual Worlds is that in the absence of a phenomena explained by the game’s setting and lore (e.g. the use of magic to teleport), immersive worlds must keep to the laws of our world. “If I jump without magic boots it should be similar to jumping in the real world.” Any time there is a break with the conformity of our real world laws that isn’t explained through the lore and setting of the fantasy, immersion is broken. And that’s why you see players continue to ask on forums why they’re able to carry eighteen warhammers of destruction in their regular, old backpack.
H1Z1 gains both an advantage and a challenge in setting their game in a near-future mirror of our own – it’s easier to come to design decisions that will benefit immersion, but less capacity to explain away designs that don’t – via magic or otherwise. Luckily, for participants in H1Z1’s Anytown, USA, this hasn’t been a major issue, since the game systems have been carefully crafted to reinforce immersion – the choices a player must make are so similar to a real world+ that immersion is furthered and the suspension of disbelief continues. Smart design.
Choices in H1Z1 must spur further interaction among the players
For all multiplayer games, but particularly for those that seek to create interactive worlds, choices are best designed when they have a direct impact on the choices other players make, creating both a domino-effect and a butterfly effect that enriches both the immersion and interactivity of the world. And the more interactivity triggered by the choices a player makes the better. That’s one of the reasons behind the success of MOBAs and, more recently, Hearthstone. There are larger game-impacting choices a player must respond to (their team composition is x, so I should choose y) and then thousands of micro-choices as well (they moved to tower q, I should move to z).
Take a look back to the list of choices made by the player in our H1Z1 example – nearly every one of them creates a space for other players in the vicinity to respond with a counter choice, be they friend or foe.
“My buddy picked up an axe, so I won’t need one and can take this pistol instead.”
“I heard a shot in the distance. I should retreat back to the woods.”
“There’s a dozen zombies chasing that guy, should I help him – potentially gaining more power in the form of a new ally – or should I run in self-preservation?”
As even more choices are added to the game, it’s likely they’ll be made with this same sense of spurring interaction with the players, creating a web of choices that influence and spur each other. Smart design.
This isn’t to say that H1Z1 has a perfect record on how they’ve embraced player choice in their design – and some of these we’ll talk about in the coming weeks (keep a look out for “The Blackberry Rant”), but overall the design team’s work has done more than craft choices that enhance the playability of the game – they’ve crafted choices that create an immersive, interactive world.
If you’ve enjoyed this, stop by tomorrow for another round. Next up: Why H1Z1 Needs a Creative Director.