Interesting Choices versus Optimal Choices

“A game is a series of interesting choices.” – Sid Meier
This statement drives, this statement damns, this statement creates. Games are, no matter how you look at them, a series of decisions. Interaction, no matter how it is integrated, is offering decisions to the user. To move left, to move right, to jump, to walk, to run.
Interesting choices as Sid Meier explains are choices that the player frequently makes different decisions on in the same or similar situation(s). Interesting choices enable players to express their personal style and force them to think about their actions. Interesting choices are almost always choices that involve a tradeoff of some sort. One thing for another thing. Interesting choices are the cornerstone of RPS style gameplay and without them, tactics and strategy as a concept is impossible.
Opposing interesting choices are Optimal Choices. Optimal Choices are choices where one option is better than others. Games that feature optimal choices over interesting choices tend towards a centralized metagame where the best options dominate over worse options and gameplay involves repetition instead of exploration and thought. Simple examples of games with optimal choices are Batman Arkham Asylum, Rhythm games as a category, Racing games, and Chess, Tic Tac Toe, or Connect4 as played by AI. However from seemingly optimal choices, interesting choices can also arise.
In games such as Quake 3, Virtua Fighter, the combo systems of many fighting games, Yomi, and Mahjong, there are some decisions that are outright better than others. These relate to my concepts of integrating efficiency races into RPS style games, but ultimately each of these seemingly optimal choices make the game better overall.
In Quake 3 a vitally important part of winning matches is controlling item spawns. The Red Armor, Yellow Armor, and Megahealth, are items that each increase the defenses of the character picking them up. By grabbing these items as they spawn and smaller armor shards, one can maintain a lead over their opponents and bully them out of a lot of situations. In addition to this, there is a style of movement, strafe jumping, that is the absolute fastest way to move around the map. Naturally this means that for every map, there is a fastest way to pick up all the items in sequence as they spawn. However I can tell you right now that merely figuring this out and mastering it doesn’t dominate the metagame. The reason for this is that by making the optimal choice, by grabbing weapons and armor exactly when they pop up, you are not only required to devote attention to one area of the map, but you become predictable. The opponent can counter this on the basis of simply knowing where you will be before you’re there, and spring an ambush. For this reason, counter tactics have evolved such as delaying the timing on armor and health spawns to make movements more unpredictable and making controlling them more difficult. Beyond that, every time a character in Quake jumps, they grunt. This grunting, how loud it is, and what direction it is coming from, is a subtle hint towards where the enemy is, and moving at the fastest speed possible isn’t always the best idea, especially for ambushes and escapes.
In a similar vein, in Virtua Fighter, there are a few different types of throws, but a general rule is that the forward throw is the most powerful. In response to the different types of throws, there are different types of throw breaks. Knowing that the forward throw is the best throw, this is generally the best choice that one can make. However your opponent knows this of course and if you’re dumb enough to always go for forward throws, then they’re not gonna let you do that and will throw break you every time. The end result is that people end up using a lot of different throws because of that.
A similar example in Marvel Versus Capcom 3 is the way Team Aerial Combos pass off enemies between team mates. When pressing the S button to do a TAC, you press a direction at the same time. This direction determines if the combo victim is tossed up, wallbounced, or ground bounced. The defending player however is also capable of inputting a direction and S, and if you both choose the same one, the defending player will escape the combo, and the repelled player will take damage as punishment. The thing about the TAC is though, wall bounces and ground bounces have effects on the players’ hyper meters, and the upwards toss doesn’t. If wallbounced, the enemy will lose a bar meter and if groundbounced, you will gain a bar of meter. In this way, you can stymie the enemy out of hypers and bolster your own ability to use hypers, which can reduce their damage potential or increase yours. This in of itself is an interesting choice, but choosing either of those is an optimal choice over simply bouncing the opponent. A big reason why someone might choose to simply bounce the opponent over doing either of the meter sapping or gaining options is simply because it is unexpected and therefore has a lower risk of getting punished, enabling one to get more damage out of the combo with less risk of taking damage. However the opponent can also anticipate this and counter upwards if they anticipate it, bringing things full circle.
The combo systems of a lot of fighting games and other games are at first glance a huge matter of optimizing damage counts, this has arisen the (moronic) criticism that fighting games are all just memorization and involve no other skills or strategic thinking. Of course this ignores that frequently combos are a matter of what is possible from the starting position, the desired end position, and sometimes other factors. A combo off a crouching MK at a far distance in the center of the stage is going to have different possibilities than a launcher in the corner, obviously. Combos in a game like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta frequently have the important rule of not getting interrupted by the other enemies you’re dealing with in addition to environmental concerns. Frequently a goal with combos is also to position the enemy in such a way that they can be set up for more damage, like stuffing them in the corner or going for hard or soft knockdown. Combos are also interesting choices with regards to how difficult they are to execute, and Bread and Butter combos are usually compiled on the basis of being relatively simple to perform and not requiring special positioning. Using longer combos often means risking dropping the combo, which can lead to punishment, a famous example being the 2012 EVO SFIV competition where Human Bomb playing Sakura lost to PR Balrog playing Balrog due to dropping a lot of one frame links and eating retaliatory headbutts.
In Yomi, a card game designed by David Sirlin, there are frequently situations where you can set up something that tips the odds heavily in your favor, such as DeGray’s ability Troublesome Rhetoric, which essentially outlaws one option (Attack, Throw, Block, or Dodge) to their opponents, forcing them to play RPS without one option frequently. In other situations, one can narrow down what they expect their opponent to do and play a card that beats out multiple possibilities. I love playing Kings as Rook against beginners on the first turn because they have a tendency to start with a defensive option, and Rook’s King is faster than nearly every throw, and beats both blocks and dodges outright. However even in this situations, with a bit of anticipation, an opponent can overcome an optimal choice by simply choosing the counter to it.
In Mahjong, there is a lot of probability behind what tiles will be drawn or other opponents have based upon what you are holding, other people have discarded, or otherwise. A smart player can easily work out the probabilities behind what will produce the most effective results, like which tiles are safe to discard and which are risky, however a more clever player can figure out the intentions of their opponents and force that opponent to deal into their hand or otherwise. The anime Akagi gives a number of great examples of Mahjong strategy and probability versus mindgames in the arc featuring the fake Akagi Shigeru. Playing it safe means winning a bit more consistently, but it also prevents one from being able to game their opponents and ultimately pulling out larger victories.
Ultimately, interesting choices exist to give rise to variation and to create surprises. No one likes repetition except in a general sense. The magic of games is they change every time you play them, enabling a wide range of possible experiences. Every time I play fighting games, although many similar situations emerge, none of them are completely identical and I experience many new upsets and learn new and better methods of play. Fighting games I get sick of tend to be those where the game is so centralized on a specific concept that it dominates over all others, like reducing one set of matches in Garou with a friend to just Butt versus Butt with just jumping hard kicks and crouching light kicks and sweeps. Though I admit that I had a lot of fun there for so completely pissing off my friend by forcing the whole game to revolve around just jumping high or low and kicking.
In a lot of ways, choices are made interesting to help reinforce the central idea of the game and methodology and to prevent any one tactic from centralizing as the best tactic. If there is a section of the game that is ignored by players, then it should be made more powerful so as to entice players into using it, removed completely, or replaced with something better. If there are features in your game that players are not using, this is an indication that they are not interesting features, or rewarding features. And while it’s almost always a good idea to use everything you can, sometimes that’s perfectly alright
The Instant Kill attacks in Guilty Gear require the user to go into a special instant kill mode that drains meter, and health if they are not careful and have long activation times that are easily interrupted and cannot be combo’d into. Worse, if they fail, you are denied use of your meter for the rest of the round, and meter is very critical in Guilty Gear for Roman Cancels. This means that IKs are generally pretty silly and go unused in tournaments. However they are perfectly fine occupying that slot. Having them there, despite all the drawbacks making them inviable, still adds depth and a sense of aesthetic to the system that despite them not being exercised much, is made up for when they occasionally do actually work by someone insane enough to actually try them and succeed.
Kusoru is a famous Guilty Gear player who is known for having tremendous success for using crazy options with Sol Badguy that a player with a firmer grip on mental health would never consider. Through his crazy tactics and an ultra strong sense of fighting game fundamentals, he managed to dominate both a US Guilty Gear and Marvel Versus Capcom 3 tournament at the same event, using a number of techniques that were previously unseen. Between using frequently moves that experts shun (Such as Riot Stomp, Dragon Install, and forward high slash), and ridiculous tactics (spending an entire meter to cancel two sweeps then tick command throw) Kusoru is an embodiment of the interesting choices possible in Guilty Gear.
Of course, all of these examples are from multiplayer games, mostly because in games with RPS type interactions, optimal choices can never truly exist, while in a single player game, one set of choices dominates over all others simply because of their static nature. There is technically always a perfect option because there is no human on the other side to predict you and counterpick. However this isn’t to say that interesting choices cannot exist in a single player game too (just I like multiplayer examples better).
In Vanquish, the guns you choose matter a lot more than in any other game I’ve played that restricted you to 3 guns at a time. Every weapon is varied in its range, killing power, effective radius, ammo, total damage output, and sometimes other effects, meaning that every weapon has its time and place and choosing weapons for the situation is a big deal. Vanquish adds further interesting choices by having weapons get upgraded if you pick them up when you are already carrying that weapon at full ammo, for bonuses such as increased firepower or ammo. Beyond this, there is the interesting/optimal choice of picking up a weapon when you find it and that weapon has nearly full ammo, versus waiting to pick it up when you have less or run out. On the one hand, you get more total shots with the latter method, but that means backtracking to the weapon’s spot when you need it, which in the heat of battle can sometimes be a very costly decision. In the sniping “stealth” mission you are directly handed 3 sniper rifles to use. You can decide to immediately upgrade your sniper rifle 2 or 3 times, but considering that you need more than 10 shots to complete the mission, and may require even more if you miss, this is a terrible choice.
Sometimes games are entirely about optimal choices, such as racing games. There is a definitive fastest way to clear every track. In these cases, the game is closer to a puzzle or a test, even in multiplayer, than a game proper, and the best that can be done is to provide lots of options and to make it a difficult and kinesthetically pleasing puzzle to solve, similar to snaking in F-Zero or Bunny Hopping in Quake Defrag. It could be argued that all single player games are in a way like this, except only Racers and Rhythm games test optimization so perfectly. Most games leave a lot of room for interpretation, enabling variance and depth in play, which is frankly a lot more satisfying to most players than being based entirely on replication of the perfect method. Games such as this usually prevent repetition through having more wide and varied outcomes based on choices made with analog information and less discrete choices. The degree to which humans are even capable of being consistent results in a vast number of outcomes for individual players with such design.

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