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The Frequency of Meaningful Choice

April 18, 2008

Game designers talk a lot about meaningful choices, meaningful play and series of interesting decisions. This is what games really are at their core. What’s not talked about as often, however, is the frequency of those choices and the perception of choice in the first place.


Forcing players to make a decision is an easy thing to do – go left or right, build unit A or unit B, what should your sim do next? However, it’s the frequency of these choices, the ability to act on these choices as well as the quality of the choices that affect game play.

The Sims and the Civilization series are excellent examples of ideal frequency of decision. The player is always wondering what thing he or she should do next and has the consistent ability to act on these decisions. Sometimes games delay the input of those decisions through narrative tension. Consider elevators in FPSs or long hallways that lead up to a boss’ lair. Though the player is prohibited from making decisions at that point, the anticipation of the decision and the mental replay of what decision they will ultimately make when they make it can easily produce a similar result.

This pattern of constant interesting and meaningful decisions is discussed at length in the seminal book on the subject, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

One Comment leave one →
  1. miwi permalink
    April 18, 2008 2:18 pm

    It’s correct that a game with few meaningful choices is probably a boring one, but what about the opposite? I mean, what if there are so many choices that the player just feels confused and forgets about the importance of those decisions because he doesn’t have time to think about them? Games like Civilization are a good example of how it’s supposed to be done: there are a lot of decisions to be made, but the player can feel the impact of those decisions and set levels of priorities.

    My guess is that, when you want your game to have many meaningful decisions, you also have to design it in a way the player can give priorities to his actions. It’s bad if he doesn’t know if it’s more important to buy a school or a park.

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