The incomparable depth of rock, scissors, paper, lizard, Spock…

Calculations vs. Choices

Another Penny Arcade episode that got me thinking is Choice and Conflict. What I liked about this was the way that they distinguish choices from calculations. The way PA lay it out, both are decisions, but calculations have correct, or rather, optimal answers. Choices on the other hand make you decide between incomparables – things that cannot be evaluated by a common factor.

A quick example from BioShock, one of my favourite games: When you decide whether to spend your money on snacks or medi packs, this is a calculation of how much health will be restored for a given amount of cash. Compare this to the choice you make when you get the opportunity to upgrade a weapon at a Power to the People machine. How do you compare a larger magazine size with more stopping power in the pistol? Increased range with reduced chemical consumption in the chemical thrower? You can’t. And that makes it a very interesting decision (NB my previous post on game balancing is in hindsight more about how you hide calculations, rather than create choices).

Depth from vulnerability loops

Several of the PA episodes talk about making gameplay interesting by providing multiple solutions to the same problem. This is a closely linked concept. A lot of combat strategy games create their fun by having different sorts of units with varying strengths and weaknesses. How many games have you seen where infantry are outgunned tanks, which are outgunned by airpower, itself vulnerable to infantry? The fact that you need all three types of units, and need to use tactics to make sure your units attack the right opponents makes the games interesting.

Now, to start an analogy that I’ll continue, just imagine:

  • Infantry = scissors
  • Tanks = rock
  • Aircraft = paper

You’ll see that actually the combat mechanics of most strategy games are simply games of rock, paper, scissors, but with better graphics . Ok, ok, you can also play more than one unit at a time. But still…

Where these games frequently go wrong is where they fail to complete the loop, and make infantry vulnerable to everything. Infantry are then obsolete units as soon as a player unlocks airpower. Similarly, and getting back to my original point about choices, the games that are *great*combatstrategies are the ones that are not simple three point loops. In Starcraft and Command & Conquer the units are specifically designed so that they are incomparable. This creates more of a rock, scissors, paper, lizard, Spock dynamic than rock, scissors, paper.

Increasing depth

If you want a balanced attack force in a simple combat game, you need each of infantry, tanks and airpower. Skipping any one point in the loop leaves you vulnerable to something else. In C&C however, there are multiple solutions to having a balanced force. To explain this in the RPSLS example, think about a situation where you have to choose 3 options from rock, scissors, paper, lizard, Spock. For example:

  • Rock, Paper, Scissors
  • Lizard, Spock, Scissors
  • Rock, Paper , Spock

Each of these combinations has an element that can beat any of the five individual options, but none of them are the same. This is an example of even deeper gameplay, generated by incomparable decisions. Lizard is not better or worse than rock or Spock, but once you choose lizard, certain options are more attractive than others to create balance. Players have a huge variety of different combinations that they can put together to be successful with, which gives the situation long lasting depth.  This becomes even clearer if you go a step further and imagine you could upgrade each option at a cost. You probably wouldn’t upgrade everything. You would choose 2 or 3 options to specialize in, and your decisions here would match your personal playing style and preference.

Invisible Attributes

Finally, before I get to the wrap up, I’d like to make it clear that this principle isn’t solely applicable to combat games or hard core RPGs with loads of different stats. SimCity was a great game because your building choices balanced a lot of different things (income, pollution, congestion, crime…). Go back to the BioShock example and the reason that choices about weapon upgrades are so great is because many of the upgrades are unquantifiable – reducing machine gun kick back or chemical consumption has no quantified metric. Because there are no figures, players never even attempt to calculate the trade-offs of different options.

Wrap Up

What I’ve hopefully communicated here is that creating choices between incomparables often goes hand in hand with giving players multiple solutions to the same problems. By thinking about the components of a game in this way, whether it’s combat stats or building attributes, you start to generate deep, hugely rewarding gameplay that each player can approach in their own way. This doesn’t mean that you need to overload players with multiple figures however – and in fact it’s best not to – some of the best choices are between attributes that cannot be quantified.