Stardock's Jon Shafer, who previously led development of Civilization V at Firaxis, explains how it's possible to create a game full of "very interesting and very difficult decisions."
Knowledge is power. Game designers ignore this old adage at their own peril. As developers we want our games to empower people to live out their fantasies, but all too often the games themselves get in the way.
Whether in games or in life, we've all experienced that uncomfortable feeling of having no idea what to do. Most games require players to make a vast number of decisions, and if they're not provided enough information to make those choices confidently, the end result is nearly always frustration.
In this article we'll examine in detail the role of information in games, why meaningful choices require context and the consequences of omitting it. We'll also look at a few examples of how, in unique cases, hiding some things can actually make a game better.
A designer's goal is always to make every decision the player faces interesting. An "interesting decision" is when a player has two or more options which are (roughly) equal in value over the long term. Conversely, there are two main factors which can make decisions uninteresting: when one option is clearly better than all others, and when the consequences of the options are unclear.
If someone is confused by a decision, their feelings toward the choice will range from ambivalent to annoyed. With no context, they'll simply choose the option that is easiest, sounds coolest, or (gulp) is first in the list. It's impossible to be heavily invested in such arbitrary decisions, and if the excrement hits the fan later on, they're much more likely to blame the game than themselves.
After people fail, the goal should be for them to think, "Dang, I really should have chosen X back there instead of Y. Let me try again and see if I can do better." This only happens if players feel like the game was fair and sufficiently prepared them for what was to come.
If you want players to really be making strategic decisions, then the mechanics of the game need to be laid bare. For example, a game with upgradeable equipment needs to fully explain the consequences of equipping a weapon.
Knowing how much more damage you'll be doing is much more useful than being told the player's mysterious and arbitrary attack value is increased by 5. Five what? It's not a big deal if all you're dealing with are weapons with a single attack value, but what if you have to choose between a +5 attack weapon and a +7 defense shield? How does one compare their value without a full understanding of what these stats actually mean?
Another major issue with making uneducated choices is that it's hard to get excited about them. You feel a real sense of progress knowing your old weapon did 10 damage per swing and could kill those monsters with four hits, but that new one you bought does 16 per hit and can kill them with only two swings. Just knowing that now you'll do "more damage" doesn't provide quite the same thrill.
When you know exactly what's going on, that's the point at which a game really takes off. This provides the opportunity to start making plans, and the trade-off between short-term and long-term interests becomes a very tough call. If players are able to reach this level of comfort, they're likely to stick with a game for the long haul.