Game Design: Player Choices

I’ve been working on a text-driven Choose Your Own Adventure project.

One of the things I’m reminded of in making a decision-driven story game like this, is the challenge of creating good binary choices.

I began my career as a designer of tabletop role-playing games. As a tabletop game designer, you can create interesting opportunities that are unobvious, and thus finding those choices and acting on them is rewarding for the player.

For example, the player has a staff. She meets a Limping Man. The player must, among the nearly-infinite choices she has, realize that the Limping Man might benefit from having a staff to help him walk, and then act on it.

This realization, and the action taken, make the player feel clever, and the reward feel earned.

But imagine the player meets a Limping Man, and is presented with two choices:

  1. [Give the Limping Man your staff]
  2. [Leave the Limping Man and walk on]

In this case the player is likely to see the “right” choice is to give the Limping Man the staff. The sense of accomplishment in reaching this decision to act is degraded.

This means the designer must do something more. There are many ways to accommodate this issue (game design is not a binary business), but I’ll cover the ones I consider most basic.

First, you can move the choice point away from the point where it becomes obvious. This is challenging from a game design standpoint, because we no longer have an imperative consequence sitting in front of the player when we ask them to make the choice. We still need to make this decision important, though.

For example, what if the player could only carry one thing, and had to choose between the Staff and the Sword before leaving home? She doesn’t know she will encounter the limping man, so she has to make this decision on some other criteria.

In this case the player would be deciding between a distinctly effective weapon, and something that could be a weapon, but could also be a tool.

What this does is change the choice from “Help or Don’t Help”, to a choice that does something interesting: it expresses the player’s sense of who they are and how they want to relate to the game world.

The player is still faced with the obviously-correct opportunity to help the limping man, but now the opportunity to help him feels earned, because the player made the decision to bring the staff.

As an aside, I’m a big fat cheater as a designer, and if the player were to choose the sword, the encounter would instead involve the old man being harassed by bandits, giving the player the option to intercede with her sword. All choices should lead to interesting and fun outcomes, because duh.

Another interesting strategy is to give the player a choice where they can see both options as correct. Again, the player loses the option to make the “correct” choice, and instead must make a choice based on their own personal vision of who they are in this game, and how they relate to the story.

An example is the situation of a surrendering enemy, especially an enemy the player considers to be evil. After defeating the Enemy Warrior that killed her parents, the player is faced with this choice:

“The Enemy Warrior has surrendered and offers to join your crew.”

  1. [Kill the Enemy Warrior]
  2. [Accept the Enemy Warrior into my crew]

It’s a clear choice, nothing is ambiguous or obscured. But the decision process for the player changes from “Which choice is correct?” (and thus presumably optimal) to “Which choice represents who I am?”

When the player is asking that question, a story is happening.

Understanding how to architect the framework of a game’s many possible narrative paths, to bring players to points that make them ask that question as often as possible, is one of the critical skills for a Narrative Game Designer.

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Mars needs Gamers!

Interplanetary spaceflight is a very exciting prospect, and one that many people are eager to see NASA get on with. However, there are a few issues, not the least of which is the lengthy flight time involved in reaching another world. While the moon is just days away, it will take hundreds of days to reach Mars.

On June 3rd the European Space Agency is scheduled to seal up a crew inside a module for a simulated Mars mission. They’ll spend 520 days sealed inside, pretending to go to Mars. That’s a long time to be stuck in a spacecraft with a small group of fellow humans, and so there’s some worry about how people will react.

The government’s psychological research has shown that spending such long periods in close quarters tends to drive astronauts a little buggy. But maybe it’s because they’re not selecting astronauts from the right population.

Astronaut John Herrington

Astronaut John Herrington at the end of a three-month cross-country bike trek.

NASA has a corps of astronauts to pick from, but look at the people they pick to be astronauts. Go check out their biographies on NASA’s web site.

Almost exclusively, they’re overachieving go-getters who love competitive sports and physical activities. They live to be active and outdoors. Their interests are scuba diving, skiing, hiking, camping, running, martial arts, weightlifting, hunting, surfing… No wonder they go crazy if you lock them up in a room for too long! This is exactly the kind of person you do NOT want to send on a long spaceflight!

Instead, send gamers.

Cast of The Guild

Mars-bound astronauts should be happy trading the real sky for a virtual one.

There’s plenty to do at the beginning and the end of the trip, but in between, there’s hundreds of days to explore limitless levels of video games, play electronic versions of boardgames, and you can get new stuff uploaded along the way. Incidentally, you can also read all the sci-fi you’ve had piling up (ebooks FTW), watch every show you missed (iPads are standard issue on this mission). Hell, if there’s a crew of 6 (like in the ESA simulation), you could start a D&D game on the way to Mars that would truly kick ass.

How much would it bother the typical gamer nerd to be told that they can’t go hiking, or surfing, or hunting, or skiing for a year or more? Like they were going to do that anyway? It’s not going to bother them at all.

Astronaut Food

Does this come in Nacho Cheese flavor?

NASA needs a population from which they can select highly-motivated, technically-competent individuals who love the idea of space travel, but hate the outdoors and won’t miss it.

Mars needs Gamers!

To Boldly Go

I’ve been playing a free trial of the new Star Trek Online MMO for the last 5 days. I come to this as a casual player of MMOs, having played a lot of both World of Warcraft and City of Heroes (made by the same design team as STO), but never to the point of raiding or having multiple top-level characters.

Also, I’m a hardcore Classic Star Trek fan. I did watch some TNG , Voyager, and DS9 and they were okay. Each had some real standout episodes, but they failed to hook me on a regular basis.

In this trial period I made it to the rank of Lieutenant Grade 9, which is roughly 19th level in a typical MMO.

So, how is Star Trek Online?

Creation and Customization

Star Trek Online Screenshot

Star Fleet Officer Lisa Dehner

The game is set in the established Trek Universe, some time after the last movies. It has a sleek look that’s right on the edge of being “Star Trek” in my view, but it does look cool and it’s executed well.

You can make your own Star Fleet Officer, customize their look, name them, and design a uniform from a rather limited set of options – necessarilly limited, because at the end of the day it still has to look like a Star Fleet uniform after all. Still, it feels like your own, and that’s nice.

Customization of crew members (when you get them later) is welcome. When you add an officer to your crew you can customize their name, appearance, and uniform for free (one time). There are some QoL issues here, as you can’t create a “standard” uniform for your crew or save one, so you have to make all the changes to each new crew member every time you add an officer to your crew. Also, “random” security guys who fill out your landing party won’t look like the rest of your crew. However, Cryptic has done a very nice job on this part of the game overall. The crew feels like my creation.

You can also customize your vaguely Reliant-esque ship as well. Giving it different struts or longer pylons or whatever. It still looks mostly the same, but you can tweak it enough to feel like it’s sort of your own. Naming your ship is the kicker, though, and when you’re tooling around in space, your ship’s name is right there on the hull, which is very cool.

Customization of ships is very straightforward, with inventory slots for weapons, consoles, and such. There’s no cost or penalty for swapping out weapons and gear on your ship, which makes it easy to experiment with different kinds of weapons, firing arcs, and so on. More customization options for the newbie ships would be a good investment of their team’s resources for the future, as you don’t get another ship until level 20 (Lt.Cmdr).

I like the mapping of levels to Ranks, with Ensign being level 1-9, Lieutenant 10-19, Lieutenant Commander 20-29, etc.

The Final (Dangerous) Frontier

Star Trek Online Screenshot

The U.S.S. Valkyrie visits a new world

Space combat is really well done, which surprised me, because I didn’t expect to like it. Tactical war games are not usually my thing, but I found myself enjoying space combat in STO. Encounter balance is sometimes an issue, since open space encounters can be entered by players of any level, and there’s no way to tell what you’ll be facing until you’re in there. I’ve blundered into a few deep space battles only to find myself obliterated in a single blast from an enemy ship.

The mechanics of space combat are relatively forgiving, in that you can take an equal opponent even if you’re not really fighting intelligently. However, with just basic good tactics (constantly turning to keep your weakest shield away from the enemy, slowing your speed for a tight turn, saving your torpedo for the moment the enemy’s shield is down) you can take on several enemies, and that’s where the game really shines.

Using your crew’s special abilities to divert power to shields, jam enemy targeting sensors, and overpower your torpedoes for a massive burst, makes these challenging engagements feel tense and very “Star Trek”. When the Klingon’s shield drops and you fire your torpedo into the breach, it’s super satisfying to see his ship explode in a cloud of flames.

Music for space combat is brilliantly utilized, evoking the right feeling at the right times. The score responds to events extremely well, and lends a sense of immersion that would be hard to achieve otherwise. Classic Star Trek musical cues are used in the game’s score, and they really sell it. Well done.

Beaming Down

Star Trek Online Screenshot

I prefer "Landing Party" to "Away Team"

Ground combat is where the game suffers, because it is here that I think the design team leaned too heavily on what they’d done for City of Heroes. When you beam down, you take up to four of your NPC Officers with you as an away team. Each member of your team has useful skills, but too often they behave like idiots.

My science officer loved to rush headlong into danger, getting herself incapacitated, and while exploring I constantly turned around to see that a couple of my officers were missing. Backtracking, I would inevitably find them stuck on the edge of a doorway or between two crates, unable to navigate their way out until I came back to lure them the correct direction. I could clearly see the same problems in the STO crew members as I’ve seen with NPC escort missions in City of Heroes, right down to the way they move when they get stuck. Cryptic has definitely recycled stuff there.

Enemies in ground combat also behaved poorly sometimes, though some of this is simply the way MMOs are as a genre. I’d be fighting a group of klingons, while nearby another group of klingons stood oblivious, unable to see me until I finished this group and attacked them. The enemies often rush to get into melee combat with you, so you end up shooting a guy at point blank range with your rifle over and over again while he hits you with a big sword, which just looked dumb.

On the positive side, Cryptic’s animators have done a superb job on weapons fire and movement, as you can be moving backward or sidestepping and still firing your rifle in what looks like a military fashion. You don’t get rooted to the ground when you take a shot, which is nice. Also, props to whoever decided to assign the “disintegrate” effect to special hits. When you phaser a guy and he vanishes into thin air, that’s satisfying.

Ground-based level design borrows the worst from City of Heroes, where no building has an elevator that goes more than one floor, and vast exterior spaces are populated with a few hard-to-find objects you must locate and click.

None of the problems was enough to make ground action truly unfun, though, and I was able to successfully complete missions without being defeated too many times.

Orders from Star Fleet Command…

Star Trek Online Screenshot

The U.S.S. Valkyrie scans an anomaly

This is where Star Trek Online really had to come through for me, and Cryptic delivered. Mission-story flow is good, with many missions mixing space and ground action, pulling you along like a Star Trek story. You fight some guys in space, beam down, deal with some planetside stuff, then get the call that there’s trouble in orbit, so you beam up and fight more ships, and find a clue in the debris that leads you to warp to another system, where you fight in space, then beam into the enemy base and do more ground combat. Whew! I was impressed at the length of some of the the mission adventures.

You can also accept missions to explore strange new worlds, generating new random mission content, as much as you like. It worked surprisingly well in my trial experience. I can see the procedural nature in some of them, but others are complex, and there’s a good variety of types. As a designer, I would guess they’ve got some kind of modular mission generator working there and it’s well done. I’m a fan of that particular methodology, and I’d like to get a look under the hood at that system one day. They should be able to add more pieces to it as they go forward, making it an even better experience.

The writers have done an admirable job with the dialog and the mission stories, making it feel very much like Star Trek in both style and jargon. If anything, they might have gone too far in their references, as it seems that almost everything is a callback to the canon, from meeting Admiral Akira Sulu, to delivering supplies to the medical ship U.S.S. McCoy. But since my own character’s name is a reference to the second original series pilot, it would be silly of me to complain too much about this, so instead I’ll simply tip my hat to the writing team. Well done.

Premium Content
I’m very disappointed with the publisher’s decision to carve up clothing content into the premium pre-order packages, so nobody actually has all the uniform options in their game. There are so few uniform options, it really hurts the product. That’s such a big part of the Star Trek experience, I think it’s a mistake to choke your potential subscribers off from that content.

But the premium content costume packages in City of Heroes have done well, and it’s hard to argue with success. I’ve bought the CoH packages for their modest $10 price and enjoyed them at least that much.

And of course, if they make the “Captain Pike” era landing party uniforms from the original pilot “The Cage” available as premium content, I will have my credit card out at warp speed.

“We are all one big happy fleet.”

I teamed up with my friend Ed, another hardcore Star Trek nerd, and we had a great time battling in space against foes as a team. When we beamed down, I brought one crewman, and Ed brought two, so our away team was 5 characters. If we had more players, the NPCs would be displaced accordingly.

We used Skype, and like many MMOs I think voice chat is critical for teaming in STO. You simply can’t take the time to type while engaged in combat.

“Where’s the override?! The overrride!”

The UI is a bit complex and not very intuitive. There are too many tiny buttons with unclear purpose, and drag/drop functionality only works in certain windows. My friend had been playing since launch without figuring out how to holster his weapon.

Hard to say if it could be done better, though. There’s just a lot of stuff you have to manage. The learning curve is there for sure, but most of the features work well once you figure them out.

Star Trek Online desperately needs expanded hotbar menus, as there’s not enough room for all your commands in the 8 slots provided on the default hotbar.

By Any Other Name
During character generation you are asked for a First, Middle, and Last name, but also for a “Name”, for which their example is “Bones”. Unfortunately, this name is used differently than they indicate; mainly it is displayed above your ship to other players, and it is used by NPCs in the format of addressing you as [Rank] [Name].

I put my character’s first name there, and found my ship in space labeled “Lisa, U.S.S. Valkyrie” and NPCs addressed me as “Lieutenant Lisa”. This is strange, since there’s a last name field specifically called out in character generation. I have no idea why they’d not use variables [Rank] [LastName] when addressing a player. Odd.

And speaking of names, they solved the problem of unique names, but in a way that has its own problems. You can have the same name as another player, because the game requires you to have a unique global handle, and it is this handle that uniquely identifies you. During registration, the game asks you to choose a login name or user name or some such, and I often use my real name for that stuff. However, it turns out that this name is displayed along with your character name any time you’re referenced in the chat box: e.g. “Lisa@Brannon fires her phaser and hits the Gorn Commander for 52 energy damage.”

This has three main issues for me. First is privacy. I asked Cryptic Support to change mine and they say they will, though they’ve not actually done it yet. Second is that it makes the chat box fill up really fast, as some people’s character name plus global handle name is an entire line all by itself. Third, it ruins immersion when mission chat displays “Riker@HotPantsShaggolicious69 scans the area.”

Continuing Voyages
Overall I liked Star Trek Online way more than I expected to, especially space combat, which I didn’t think I’d like at all but is perhaps my favorite part. It has a few bothersome warts, but overall the experience is engaging, fun, and enough like Star Trek for even my hardcore Trekkie tastes.

Final Verdict: They sold me. My free trial ran out this morning, and I’ve put the game on my “to buy” list.

Is the iPad a solution in search of a problem?

I’ve had a number of conversations about the upcoming Apple iPad lately. Most often it begins with someone expressing surprise that I’m so excited about the device.

These people aren’t dummies; for the most part they’re more technically savvy than I am. Surely they’re better equipped to decide whether the iPad is a worthwhile tech investment?

Maybe not.

“Other devices do these things already, and better. The iPad is a solution without a problem.”

Naysayers are very puzzled about why the iPad is getting so much attention. After all, it provides nothing that isn’t already done (and probably better) by another device.

And that’s true, but…

By that logic, there should only be one kind of TV, one model of car, one cell phone. After all, each new one that comes out is addressing a “problem” that has already been solved.

The iPhone doesn’t do anything that another smartphone can’t do. In fact, I admit it’s less capable than some other smartphones. But I enjoy the way my iPhone does things. I love the experience of interacting with it. The iPhone does those same things in a way that no other phone does, which is the way I personally like best.

The iPad is not offering the ability to do something you can’t do on another device. It doesn’t claim to. It offers a different experience. Doing those same things on the iPad is intrinsically different from doing them on a netbook, smartphone, or laptop, and if you think it’s a better experience, you will want an iPad.

“The iPad is an in-between device. Nobody needs one.”

Something I find interesting is the idea that the iPad is a device that you might have along with your desktop and your laptop computer. A lot of critics are crying foul on that. Do you need an iPad if you already own a great laptop?

Maybe not.

If you love your laptop and it goes everywhere with you and you’re totally happy, then Hooray! But I think the real market for the iPad is going to be people who just never had enough need for portable computing to buy a laptop, or whose mobile computing needs don’t justify hauling their laptop with them everywhere they go.

Sure the iPad isn’t as full-featured or as capable as a netbook or laptop, but by definition these are people whose mobile computing needs are very modest. If they had lofty needs in that area they’d already have a laptop with them. The iPad will probably serve them nicely.

It will for me.

“It isn’t as durable as a book. What if I drop it or spill soda on it?”

This argument against eReaders isn’t new, and it isn’t entirely unjustified, but really, come on. Stone tablets are more durable than paper, but I don’t see you chiseling your notes in class. There’s a point at which function and convenience outweigh the dangers of using a more vulnerable media (paper vs. stone, electronics vs. paper).

And frankly, if I subjected every purchase to this test, I couldn’t buy very many things. Wine glasses, electronic devices, new leather jacket, a nice sofa… all things that could be ruined by carelessness. Do I forego them? No. Instead I choose to exercise proper caution in their use.

Might an accident happen? Sure, but it’s a risk I am willing to accept.

“Nobody wants to read an entire book from a screen for hours.”

Really? Because I read off my computer screen for more than 8 hours every single day, and my iPhone in the times between. I like being able to read in low light on an illuminated screen.

What I don’t like is sitting up in my chair at my desk for hours on end staring straight ahead at the monitor. The iPad offers me the chance to take the screen over to the couch and sit down with it comfortably, or sit in the comfy chair at Starbucks instead of at a table with a laptop, and to be free of the need to sit near a power outlet at the airport.

That sounds awesome.

“People are way too excited about this device. It’s not really revolutionary!”

Why are people so ga-ga over the iPad? Is it just Steve’s reality-distortion field?

No, it’s not. The bright, technically-educated, and well-intentioned people pooh-poohing the iPad universally misunderstand the attraction it holds for people like myself.

The iPad is not a computer.

It is not a laptop.

It is not a portable media device.

It is THE FUTURE.

Star Trek’s PAD is probably the best known of the science fiction versions of the iPad, but there are plenty more. People walking around with slabs featuring a screen and some blinking lights, effortlessly retrieving information or issuing orders… it’s what people in the future do.

And now we can do it too.