Monthly Archives: January 2005

Decision-Based Gameplay Design

(This article was originally published in Gamasutra Online Magazine)

In order to develop a useful understanding of a system, one must know how the system works internally, at the lowest level. Even an exhaustive memorization of every stimulus and response associated with that system is weak compared to an understanding of the underlying elements that cause a system to respond the way it does. One must fully understand the smaller elements that make up the system and how they interact before one can fully predict the overlying system. This is why chemists try to understand how atoms interact, instead of just listing what happens when you mix various chemicals. The designer of videogames needs to understand gaming in the same way.

In this article I’ll attempt to break down and expose one of the key elements that exists at the lowest level of most good videogame experiences. It is useful to break down our understanding of videogame fun to the most basic level because if we can achieve that, we gain a simpler, more generalized understanding of video gaming that transcends boundaries between genres or styles. Principles that apply at the lowest level aren’t confined to a genre. Thus, what made Half-Life fun was the same thing that made Bejeweled fun, which was also the same thing that made Starcraft fun. These games may seem totally different in play style, complexity, and theme, but all three were popular and very similar in one of the most fundamental aspects of interactive games. That is, they all presented the player with a continuous stream of difficult and interesting decisions.

Decisions are ultimately what make a game. The only thing that separates gaming from books, movies, plays, and music is the element of decision-making. None of these traditional entertainment forms afford the entertainee any capacity to make a decision about anything. Books, plays and movies are still unarguably superior to games in their ability to tell complex, interesting stories. Few videogames could even be reasonably argued to have come close to a good movie or book in terms of character development, plot and thematic development. In terms of visual eye candy, movies still blow videogames out of the water because of the power of prerendering, hand-optimized shot-by-shot composition, and custom-chosen viewing angles. The question becomes, if games are so inferior in story, and visuals, then why does anyone bother playing them? Continue reading