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The Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! VIII
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The Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! VIII

September 4, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Dominant Strategies

"Dominant strategy" is a term from mathematical game theory. It refers to a state of affairs in which one particular course of action (a strategy) always produces the best outcome regardless of circumstances. A dominant strategy doesn't necessarily guarantee victory, but it is always the best choice available. As a result, there's never any reason to use a different strategy. A game with a dominant strategy is flawed, because it offers no meaningful decisions for the player to make.

Dominant strategies show up in ordinary games for entertainment, too. Joel Johnson writes,

Most games nowadays, be they action, adventure, RTS, or whatever, give the player a wide variety of options or methods of attacking enemy units. One of the bigger problems that I've noticed is that it is not uncommon for most of these [special moves/spells/units/etc.] to be completely useless, because one method is so overwhelmingly useful. For example, look at Halo. Pistol-sniping was the name of the game, at least for me and for most of the people that I played with. There was little incentive for me to use other methods of attack because I could kill someone across the level quite rapidly and easily. I had a lot of fun pistol sniping people who went for a sniper rifle. There was a certain ironic pleasure in that. At any rate, Bungie did their homework and nerfed the pistol something fierce for Halo 2. I was chagrined at first, but the game was a lot more interesting to play.

It's a perfect example of the problem. Choosing the pistol is a dominant strategy, or very nearly. Sometimes dominant strategies get into games because there just wasn't enough playtesting; sometimes because the designer was so in love with a particular feature that he couldn't bring himself to weaken it, even though that would bring the game into proper balance. Bottom line: there must be benefits and disadvantages to every possible choice that make them preferable at some times and not at others.

Many Halo players learned to dominate the game using the pistol

Amnesia at the Game's Beginning

Moving on from game balancing to storytelling, Andrew Stuart writes about games that begin:

"You wake up in a strange place. You don't know who you are or how you got here. You have amnesia and your objective is to find out who you are and what you are doing here." It's hard to believe but it seems every second game has me waking up with amnesia. It's okay after a night out on the booze, but in every second computer game? Enough!

Years ago I identified the Problem of Amnesia in a lecture at the Game Developers' Conference. The problem arises because the player doesn't know anything about the game world when she starts the game. In a lot of adventure games, the first thing she has to do is go through all the drawers in what is supposedly her own apartment to see what's in them -- which is ridiculous. A character in a real story doesn't have to do this, because the character already belongs to the game world. So in the game industry, we make a lot of games in which the player's character has amnesia to justify the player's own ignorance.

That's a cheesy solution to the problem, though. In reality, the viewers of a film don't know the film's world either, so movies have carefully crafted introductions that bring the audience up to speed gently. Occasionally, when the situation is really unfamiliar, movies resort to voiceover narration, but that's not necessary most of the time. Consider the following exchange at the beginning of the first episode of The Sandbaggers, the best spy TV show ever made:

Secretary: Wellingham rang. He wants to see you.

Burnside [starchily]: Do you mean the Permanent Undersecretary of the Foreign Office?

Secretary [equally starchily]: I mean your father-in-law.

Burnside: Ex-father-in-law.

In four lines, without even meeting him, we've been introduced to Wellingham, his job, and his relationship to the show's main character, Burnside. We've also learned that Burnside is divorced, but still has professional business with his former farther-in-law. Finally, we've noticed that Burnside is a bit formal about people's titles (not uncommon in 1978 Britain) and that his secretary can stand up to him. That's a lot of information in 10 seconds of dialog, and it beats the heck out of listening to some long-winded mentor character explain things in a video game. We need to study those film and TV introductions and learn how to do them too. In the mean time, no more amnesiac player characters!

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