've decided to spend today's column (as well as the one two weeks from now—next week is a theme week) talking about a design principle that I've been thinking a lot about recently. Then to explain how principles like this affect every level of design from micro to macro, I'm going to explore how it impacts Magic design at five different levels: the card level, the mechanics level, the set level, the block level, and the meta-rules level. If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, run away!
"Please Sir, I Want Some More."
The design principle we're going to be talking about today involves giving the players decisions. (For those of you that have cracked my clever column naming system—you might have already figured this out.) Is adding decisions to a game good? Do decisions increase a game's enjoyment? Are some decisions better than others? To cut to the chase: it can be, but not always; they can, but not always; and yes.
Decision creation is an important tool in a game designer's arsenal, but its use has just as much ability to hurt your game as to help it. I hope that with my column today (and two weeks from now) I can explain the different kinds of decisions that you can add and help you better differentiate the good decisions from the bad. This, by the way, flies in the face of a very popular game myth. Many players believe that decisions are pure upside for a game. The more decisions a designer adds, the better the game it becomes. The flipside of this is the belief that any decision taken out of a game is to that game's detriment. (Yes, I will be touching upon Magic 2010, but not until part II.)
For those of you who doubt my last claim—that removing decisions from a game do not automatically lead to the game's detriment—let me try the following. I'm going to introduce you to a game I call Googolplex. It's an amazing game; it just has more rules than there are atoms in the universe, a.k.a. googolplex rules. Other than a means to torture your friends (ask me one day to talk about my love of a game called Abstracts that every person I ever played with hated), there's really not much use for Googolplex as the game is, by definition, impossible to play.
Now let me introduce you to another game I call Ug. It's a one-person game. The player says the word "Ug" and then they win. Ug is not a really compelling game. I've won every game of it I've ever played save one. (I was experimenting with other win conditions.) Ug and Googolplex are the ends of the spectrum. Ug has only one rule while Googolplex has as many as its name: a numeral which is ten to the tenth to the hundredth. My point with these silly examples is that there is such a thing as not enough decisions and too many decisions. The caps basically seem to be this: A game has to have enough rules that its target audience doesn't get too bored of the game but not too many that they cannot understand how to play. In general, there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle of those two things.
What to Do, What to Do
As today is a design principle day, I'm going to define a bunch of terms to help clarify what I'm talking about. Let me stress that I'm going to twist the meaning of some of these words to get the connotation I need. While the English language is vast, it still can fail when you start talking in fine detail, so please pardon me as I whip a few words into the shape/definition that explains my point.
For today's lesson I am going to separate decisions into two different categories: options and choices. (One last time, I understand that from a strict dictionary definition, these two words are synonyms, but for my purposes today I am going to define them to represent distinctly different things.)
Options are additive decisions. That is, they are choices that give the player an additional ability that does not come into conflict with previous abilities. An easy way to think of this definition is like options for a car. If you opt to get a radio, you are not lessening any other feature to do so (leaving cost out of the equation). Your air conditioning, as an example, is not compromised in its ability to cool the car because you have a radio.
Choices are interactive decisions. That is, they are decisions that impact the use of other abilities in the game. Yes, you gain new functions, but at the cost of old functions. An easy way to think of this definition is like choices for a hair style. You could cut your hair short, but then that might prevent your ability to get a perm. Or if you dye it all one color, then you can't also have it be a different color.
Options and choices each present decisions, but they do so in very different ways. Options make you choose what you want to do while choices make you choose how you want to do it. Each has a role and purpose in games and as such a game designer will make use of both. That said, I don't believe these two types of decisions are of equal value to game design. It is my opinion that choices make for much better game play than options.
At first blush, a lot of people seem surprised when I say that. How are options not simply better than choices? They are, in life, when maximizing opportunities is a valuable thing. Would you rather have "a radio and air conditioning" or "a radio or air conditioning"? Obviously, you'd rather the former as it gives you, the person, more say in how you get to function. But games are not life; not even close.
Games are about making interesting decisions. Games are about mentally challenging yourself and finding solutions in the midst of obstacles. What makes games fun is the restrictions. I often talk in Making Magic about how "restrictions breed creativity." Well, it turns out that restrictions also breed good game play. (For those of you that want to ponder what that means about the correlation between creativity and good game play, go ahead, but I'll save that topic for another day.)
Too often, I think people forget why they play games when evaluating a game. I think this problem stems from the fact that games ask something of a person that they tend avoid everywhere else. As such, this causes players' natural instincts to be a little bit off. Why would you want to do something that seems completely impractical in other parts of your life?
A lot of game design is learning not just about the how of games but the why. The Timmy, Johnny, and Spike player psychographics, as an example, stemmed from my desire as a designer to understand why people played Magic. Today's principle came from a similar place.
Anyway, it's all fine and good for me to state that I think one thing is better than another. The proof though, is as they say, in the pudding. Let's jump into the five levels so that I can demonstrate what I'm talking about as it applies to the various levels of Magic design.
Level I – The Card Level
Many years ago I wrote a column called Design 101 (followed, of course by Design 102 and Design 103) where I examined the most common mistakes made by novice Magic designers. The number-one mistake was that designers wanted to stick too much stuff onto one card. Now I could talk about the bad aesthetics or the needless complication, but as this is a column about decisions, let me focus on that. The reason you don't want to crowd a card with numerous different abilities is that a stack of options is less interesting.
For example, let's say I have the following card. (Quick note—I am not going to give the cards a variable cost. Please assume that whatever I do to the card that the mana cost is appropriately adjusted, so don't assume the card with more abilities costs the same as the card with fewer abilities.)
Guy with Spear
Creature – Human Warrior
1: CARDNAME gains first strike until end of turn.
It's interesting. The high power/low toughness has nice synergy with the activated first strike.
Now let's add a second activated ability.
Guy with Spear
Creature – Human Warrior
1: CARDNAME gains first strike until end of turn.
1: CARDNAME gains trample until end of turn.
Is that card better designed than the first? It can do more, but it has less focus. I think of the second card, design-wise, as a downgrade. It has extra words and complication for little added value. In addition, the two abilities seldom create interesting choices. If a creature blocks you that would destroy you with a toughness of 4 or less, you'll give Guy first strike. If you need to bust through for an extra point or two of damage, you'll give him trample. Sure, there is the outside chance that one day you'll have to choose between destroying a blocker and getting through with extra damage, but the odds of this happening are slight at best.
Now, let's try tweaking this card in a different direction.
Guy with Spear
Creature – Human Warrior
Put a -1/-1 counter on CARDNAME: CARDNAME gains first strike until end of turn.
In this version, rather than add something on, I added a choice for the player. Is first strike valuable enough that it's worth permanently shrinking your guy? From a design sense, I feel like this version is an upgrade from the first one. You pretty much always know when to activate first strike on the first card—do you have the mana, and are you in combat with something you could kill with the first strike damage? If that answer is yes, then you're going to activate it. True, there are some interesting choices to be made if you value that mana for something else (a reason you might want to raise the activation cost), but the game-play ramifications are somewhat limited.
The third card, on the other hand, creates many more moments with real decision for the player. It even allows the opponent to make interesting decisions as well. Options can increase a card's utility, but they don't as often lead to creating interesting game states.
Level II – The Mechanics Level
Let me start this section with a little quiz. Here's a card from Urza's Saga:
I consider this card a design failure. Why? It was a good card, worthy of a first pick in a draft (and I'm not even taking into account the fact that black was absolutely ridiculous in Urza's Saga draft—Pestilence in common, what were we thinking?). I think it saw some Constructed play. What's wrong with it? This.
So when exactly were you supposed to cycle this? I can only come up with three reasons:
#1) You're mana screwed at exactly two mana for multiple turns.
#2) You are playing against a deck of nothing but black and artifact creatures and you have enough knowledge of the deck to know this.
#3) You're playing a card such as Astral Slide that creates effects when you cycle a card.
From a design standpoint, you don't even get to count #3, as those cards didn't exist in Urza's Saga design. (They would wait until Onslaught.) And while the other two cases existed, they created a feel-bad moment as no one wants to throw away their creature destruction spell. Essentially the problem here boils down to the same issue. Adding cycling onto a card as good as Expunge is adding an option. Yeah, maybe it could matter, but it won't most of the time.
The lesson here is that just as you have to be careful what you layer onto a card, you also have to be careful what you layer onto a mechanic. The cycling mechanic was looking for cards where the choice to cycle was interesting. If the decision was to almost always cycle the card or almost never cycle it, then the card ability wasn't allowing cycling to shine.
The trick with designing effects for a mechanic is that you have to understand what interesting choices the mechanic can create. Where does the tension lie? Buyback made you want to question when you wanted to buy it back versus when you wanted to use it up. Morph made you constantly evaluate the creature it could become against the threat (from your opponent's perspective) of potentially becoming any creature. Retrace made you assess the cost of a land versus the impact of the spell. In each case, the designers had to pick cards that heightened the potency of the mechanic.
Let me now pull a step back. Not only are decisions important in crafting individual cards with a mechanic, they are also crucial in creating the mechanics in the first place. When evaluating a mechanic, one of the first things a designer will ask is will this lead to interesting choices? Does the mechanic at its core force the player to make interesting decisions? I think if you look back at our most successful mechanics, you'll find that they generate compelling questions for the player. They make him or her have to constantly reevaluate what he or she wants out of the card.
This is a common pitfall for novice designers when they start making mechanics. Instead of creating something that forces decisions, they tend to make things that have added universal value. Thing X is good. Wouldn't a permanent or a spell just be better with thing X? But Thing X doesn't force the players to have to evaluate. They just get added value. While added value is awesome in life, it tends to make games ho-hum.
Imagine you could fly. Pretty awesome. Imagine all creatures in Magic could fly. Not really to the game's benefit. As a designer, it's your job to throw the curve balls. That means giving the players more options is undermining your own task.
Peeling the Onion
When I began this column, I didn't expect it to take as many words as it did. One of the cool things about exploring design principles is that they tend to expand to whatever space they are given. As such, you'll have to wait for two weeks until I can continue pulling back on my focus. As you'll see, many of the decisions concerning Magic 2010 stemmed from the same principles that go into designing a single Magic card.
Next week is part two in a three-part theme week trilogy—you might say I'll be presenting a combo platter.
Until then, may you realize that when you stop and take the time to look, it really does all connect.