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Examining False Choice in Game Design
by Josh Bycer on 06/04/14 03:06:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(Reprinted from

Over the weekend, I was bored and decided to go back into my backlog to finish a game, and the one I choose was Dante's Inferno for the PS3. Dante's Inferno was poorly rated for a number of reasons, but there is one major point that I want to talk about, as it made a classic mistake of not balancing game design with player choice.

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False Choice Fallacies:

Since the days of early CRPG titles, designers have allowed the player to make choices that can affect the gameplay in a number of ways: From deciding what equipment to buy, areas to explore or even their party composition.

However while choices are great and can lead to the player personalizing their experience, if not properly balanced they can do more harm than good.

A false choice can be defined as the following:

A choice the player can make that is across-the-board weaker than all others due to the game's design.

To put it another way: It is like saying that there are no wrong choices, but only two will allow you to finish a game.

One of the simplest examples goes back to old-school CRPG party composition. In these titles, the available player classes fit the Dungeons and Dragons paradigm of classes that were locked into their supposed roles. A warrior would never learn magic and a wizard won't wear plate mail for example.

The problem was that you must have a cleric or some healing class in your party to have any chance of surviving. The game obviously doesn't tell you this and lets you assume that you have complete freedom in party personalization.

While CRPG design has loosen up over the decades, other genres have grown and began to give the player more options in how they play. Unfortunately the more variables you throw into the equation, the more trouble can come back to bite you.

No Choice, Choices:

The more choices that you give the player, the more carefully the game has to be balanced to accommodate. If the designer fails then they can make the experience far worse or even unwinnable.

In Dante's Inferno, the player had two skill trees they could improve over the game: Holy and Unholy. You earn points for the respective trees by finishing off enemies in a specific manner. The former was about using ranged holy magic attacks, while the latter was about close ranged attacks.

As you went up in level in either tree, you would unlock more moves for the respective attacks and their general attack strength would improve.  Now given the nature of the trees, you realistically had to make a choice early on over which one to go up to reach the top level skills.

While the holy tree sounds like a safer option, if you go completely up the tree, you would find that the designers did not balance the game around it. Later enemies have a magic shield they would put up for all nearby enemies that negate all holy attacks.

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The bosses in Demon's Souls were designed to be handled in a number of ways, with some easier than others.

Even the final boss would punish the player for using holy attacks: by countering them and throwing them back at the player at greater strength.

Those two cases force the player to use melee attacks and render the holy tree attacks completely useless.

Interestingly, finding condemned souls and absolving or finishing them the holy way would yield more experience than punishing them. This little trick would further convince the player that going up the holy tree was better when it would come back to bite them for the final fight.

Now, if you were playing the game and reached the final boss and realized that all the choices you made were wrong, would you feel like replaying the entire game?

Another element of false choices is forcing the player to make permanent choices without future insight. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution (before the director's cut version,) everyone had talked ad-nauseum about the poor boss designs. When you give the player stealth and movement options that were locked to the player afterwards, to force the player into gun-fights was not good design.

Being able to respec -- or redistribute skill points is a quick fix for getting around false choices. If the player makes a choice that doesn't work, they won't have to restart the entire game to make new ones.

Now, there is an important distinction we have to talk about: the difference between sub-optimal choices and false choices.

When a designer gives the player a variety of options, weapons and tactics it's understandable that not every option is the absolute best at every situation, as long as the options are not completely shut out due to the design of the game.

In Demon's Souls, one of the final bosses was the super-strong knight: Garl Vinland. He wore magic proof armor; wielded a massive weapon and fought in a narrow corridor. For this battle, direct damage magic spells were useless and normal fighters would have had a hard time.

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However, the bosses of Human Revolution could only be beaten by using force.

Ranged or spellcaster characters however could ignore the fight and go after the person he was protecting easily and win the fight without fighting him.

In this case, several choices were harder for the player to use than others. However, none of the choices were made outright useless and a good player could adapt.

Now if there was a required boss that could only be defeated with fire magic and ignored everything else, that would be different.

Games with RPG systems are not the only ones that can have false choices. In Bioshock Infinite, there were several weapons that due to their handling and general appearances in the game were poor choices to keep and upgrade. This is the danger you run into in titles with multiple weapon types when the situations themselves were balanced around one or two specific weapons.

Obviously the simplest solution to avoiding false choices is just not giving the player game-changing options. But unless you are creating a completely linear experience, this could make the game boring.

The more complicated solution is that there isn't one. As with most elements of game design, you have to examine every choice that is in the game to make sure that there isn't a penultimate one or choice that is always useless.

Sometimes less is more: it's better to have three integrated choices over a grab bag of choices. As chances are, the ones that weren't balanced would be the ones that players gravitate towards. And all it takes is one poor experience to ruin the whole game for them.

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Guillermo Aguilera
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imo, --Obviously the simplest solution is do not put finals bosses--

Fabian Fischer
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Yeah, that's why balancing the actions available to the player is so important. Every element of your design needs to have its place depending on the situation. If there's an element, that's universally weaker, then that element needs to be removed from the game. It's just noise in the system otherwise.

I think your definition of a "false choice" is lacking the flip-side, though. A choice that's too weak is bad and should be changed or removed, yes. But a choice that is universally the best (i.e. it's "overpowered") is even worse, because it renders ANY other choice that you could have completely worthless. So actions that are too strong also have to go.

That's why it's called "balancing". Because there are two sides to it.

Daniel Pang
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News just in: good game design is Hard!

The reason so many games are linear is because it's easier to design for when you're essentially making a very pretty corridor, and you can hash it out inside of a month or even weeks. Then you can spend the rest of the time pouring resources into expensive production assets.

Dane MacMahon
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You could trace most "innovations" over the last decade to decreasing design complexity. Regenerating health, cover systems, 2-gun limit, etc. etc.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Good points all around. Not sure if I`m comfortable with your labeling, though. In the cases you mention its more a kind of pseudo-equal choice.

You could even argue, that a perfectly balanced design would make for boring gameplay. Any experienced RPG Player will probably refuse to throw all of his eggs in one basket (your Dantes Inferno example) on a first playthrough, just to get the one overpowered ability on the end of the road.

Fabian Fischer
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Why would perfect balance make for boring gameplay?

It's worth noting that "perfectly balanced" doesn't mean: "Every action is equally valid in every situation." That wouldn't even be a game anymore. You could randomly do things and be as good as anyone else. It instead means: "Every action has its place inside the game system and, depending on the game state, can be a valid option."

Andreas Ahlborn
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@Fabian: From the 3 Examples the author gave of "bad choice design" I can only see one example that makes his criticizm valid: the case of DX:HR. I played all 3 games and got the feeling that the other two (Dantes Inferno, Demon Souls) are superbly balanced. He seems to have the notion that everytime a player gets stuck in a gameplaysituation the gamedesigner is to blame, because down the road he "tempted" the player to take a false route on the leveling path. So that is what I meant when I said: "Perfectly balanced". In his eyes "PErfectly balanced" seems to mean: the player can never encounter a terminal gamestate because of bad choices he made. I don`t agree.
It can be absoultely valid to educate the player about the gamesystem by leading him/her into a dead end.

David Bettencourt
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The flipside to the "false choice" is the "overpowered choice" -- which sometimes is less of a choice of selection and more of a choice of deselection. My example is from Final Fantasy Tactics. As the game gets tougher in the final chapter, the player unlocks Orlandu. He wields an extremely overpowered weapon that makes the game become "Easy Mode" once he's on your team.

For every player able to reach that point, Orlandu makes the game overly easy and the "choice" the player must make is to NOT use Orlandu on the team to balance out the difficulty once more.

Developers need to not only provide a balanced selection of choices, but also make sure not to "force" unbalanced selections on the player during the process. It's quite literally a tough balancing act.

Josh Bycer
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This is also part of what's been dubbed "The Chick Parabola" where the more you come to fully master and understand the game mechanics, the less enjoyment you get out of playing the game. As once you figure out the best option or break the game, what's left to keep you invested in playing? If you learn that choice X is the best option every time no matter what, the mystique of playing the game disappears and is replaced by following the same script every time.

The worse part is if you figure out the overpowered choice before you finish the game and then you run into that question of: Do I break the game or not? I did that in the game Blue Dragon where I found a section that was broken in the sense that I could stay there and get almost infinite exp and after I did it, I lost any desire to keep playing.

Michael DeFazio
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Hmm, I own, played and finished Dante's Inferno, and did not experience what you describe as "False Choice" in that game... (I leveled up the holy path and thought it was easy to cheese the final boss, I used ranged attacks quite a bit at the end:

Much as I think the game deserves criticism, I don't think you can say that going the "Holy" route or "Unholy" route is bad "Across the board" as you say. (Perhaps it made the ending harder, but other things in the game are easier) I thought (at least mechanically) the powerups were useful and interesting (even if the grab-throw attack was overpowered... but thats another topic)

I think what you're talking about isn't just "choice" perse... but rather a "Bad Investment" (i.e. I pursue a path and ultimately it ends up making certain situations difficult). I get that (along the way) you are making a choices... but the choices do yield benefits... (they aren't "false" choices)

Also it may relate to a cognitive bias called Escalation of Commitment:

where you continue to "invest" in a choice because of the effort exerted previously

I kinda thought you were going to talk about the "illusion of choice" from the title's_choice

anyways good read. thanks

Josh Bycer
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Well that's interesting, apparently the developers made another critical mistake: Imbalancing the game on the higher difficulty level. When I played through the game, I did it on the highest setting and during that entire Lucifer fight once he comes out of the titan, any use of holy attacks was instantly reflected back at me doing double damage.

Maria Jayne
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I was hoping this might have also covered dialogue trees that go nowhere but back on themselves or end up with the same "one response fits all" tree. Where you start off looking like you actually have things to say and then slowly discover most of those things end up funneled back to the same response anyway.

It's not really a false choice though, more an unbalanced one. You're still making a choice, it just isn't as effective as the one you didn't favor. In my limited experience if you can make a choice without regretting the option you didn't take, the chances are that choice was meaningless. You have to see the benefits of all the choices and it has to be hard to choose.

Whenever you look at talent builds in mmos or rpgs, weapon loadouts in fps etc what you have to look for are people who disagree on what is best. If a large proportion of people can find the "best" formula for whatever and agree, then there isn't a choice being made....people are just waiting for it to be made for them.

Lewis Pulsipher
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The hidden assumption in this article is that you’re creating a game as an “experience,” akin to an interactive movie or novel. Here the objective is for the player to succeed (often fairly comfortably) and a “perfect balance”, where every choice is a good one in the long run, makes sense.

But if you’re designing a game as a competition, more like games have been designed for centuries before the advent of computers, then you want there to be some plausible choices that look like they might work out but in practice do not help you succeed. The game designer wants to put the player “on the horns of a dilemma” and require the player to make the best choice in order to have the best chance of success. Of course, in traditional games you can learn the best choices over the course of several plays of the game, whereas in an experience you often only play once, learn the story, and move on to the next game. In this case it may be desirable to reduce the number of plausible choices so that players are more likely to choose a viable choice, that is, one that will ultimately lead to success.

The big difference here is that in an experience the player often has too little information to make an informed choice, whereas in a traditional board or card game, especially the former, the player usually has a lot more information about what’s going on, and has a better chance of making an informed choice. So in an experience you don’t want to punish the player for making a poor choice when he didn’t have sufficient information to make an informed choice, and when he will rarely if ever be presented with the decision again.

I Tt can only be a “false choice” in the context of “an experience” not in the context of games in general. Where perfect balance means that every choice leads to success, is it a game any longer? Perhaps it is in terms of certain kinds of video games but not in terms of games in general.

A game that has a dominant strategy, one choice that's the only viable one or clearly the best choice, is a puzzle. Many single-player video games are much more puzzles than they are traditional games.

John Flush
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Another good example to look at for this sort of choice compare is XCOM. Every type of soldier has its own upgrade tree with a fair number of 50/50 picks. Unfortunately there are also a lot of 0/100 picks because of how over powered some of the 'choices' were compared to the alternatives. However, it was still a fun game.

I don't think this problem is as "game breaking" as some will make it out to be, but yes good design does make it that much better.