Meaningful Choice


A set of alternatives that provides a good experience for the person making a choice, in terms of engagement and satisfaction.


Not every activity is based on participant's decisions, but designers of games where choices are important often put a lot of effort into making choices the most meaningful. That task is vastly different for games based on a scenario, where you provide players with a selection of controlled choices, and for emergence-based games where a range of possible choice situations is broader. In the second type of game, finding the way for choices to be on par is more time-consuming.

Horizon of intent — A set of desirable moves at the given stage of the game.

The term doesn't refer to what is chosen by the player, but to a situation of a choice (so it's related to a horizon of intent). There is no sure way of determining exactly what choices are meaningful and what aren't because that depends on the character of the game and its players. A few points of consideration will be provided below, but in general it often seems easier to spot a lack of quality within a choice, when it seems "fake" (not "actually" a choice) or otherwise leaves an unpleasant feeling in players. The key aspect is agency (true and perceived).

Qualities of a meaningful choice

Recognizable options. First and foremost, if your players have no way of discerning between alternatives given to them, their action is much closer to taking part in a randomizing procedure than to making a choice. It still may serve a function, for example, if a player "chooses" one of the cards in a shuffled deck, it adds some safety against forcing a specific card to the top by a skillful dealer. But the "choice" of this card will not be "meaningful", and may be considered an administrative downtime.

If the options are very similar, it might be that your core mechanic isn't about choice, but about perceptivity or other cognitive skills, the problem arises when you want to include meaningful choice into the mix, and different conditions work against each other. If choice is your focus, make options clear and let players focus on their choices too.

Range. A somewhat related matter is the amount of given options. This is a factor the most dependent on game specifics as you can have a meaningful gameplay in games ripe with options, but as well in those where every choice is binary. So here especially there might be no easy tips, but consider:

  • Is the range of choices in your game consistent? Is it diverse?
  • If there are few choices, do players feel too limited?
  • If there are many choices, can they be grouped for easier consideration?

One benchmark value worth remembering when you give your players a few distinct choices is that number 7 is considered a limit of items stored by humans in their working memory, which allows players to mentally manipulate information without retrieving it from another type of memory.1

Options character. It is worthy to recognize general playstyles present within your game, e.g. what is the range of accepted risk or levels of interaction with others. It's usually beneficial to have options supporting different (even if not all) player preferences included within a single choice and maybe even have them multiplied, to leave some choice also to players who will be very defined with their playstyle.

Balance. In analogy to the term's basic usage related to game as a whole, an imbalance within a choice is a situation when one option is so much better in the context of game's goals that virtually every player will take the only-sensible route, making their choice kind of forced. A rare defense of measured imbalance you may find is that giving players easy choices (from time to time) makes them feel good about themselves and speeds up the game. Your call!

Predictability. For another matter with no clear-cut solutions, consider to what extent players may predict the consequences of their choices. Assuming still, that you wish to provide quality choices, you'd rather avoid only the extremes of full certainty (which may often lead to imbalance) and no knowledge at all (randomization). This point translates to the targeted difficulty of the game, somewhere in-between stupid and stupidly hard there will be a sweet spot for you to find.

Consequences. The real effect on the game matters too. You should take care that player's decisions are indeed impactful, otherwise after a few moves, when it's clear that some previous choice actually didn't matter, you leave a player with a feeling of disappointment and wasted effort.

Music and time

Meaningful choice lets the players stay engaged and focused on their decisions, but an even more interesting result is that it is a direct way of making a gameplay expressive. Game players "assert their free will" over their path within the playthrough and negotiate a resulting pattern with each other (some improvising musicians do exactly the same in the context of their art).

For our field important aspects of a choice are found in real-time games. These usually add choices within a continuous range (as you may decide between any of the moments for making the action) while also adding pressure to a choice shifting all difficulty up. This is all important to consider in design, and real-time choices may be extremely satisfying for players, but it also takes the matter outside of the topic of "meaningful choice", and often might be more productively considered as a learning curve issue.

The performance situation of an improviser can also be considered in terms of meaningful choice. For example, genre conventions will determine the balance of options (desirability of solutions), instrument is crucial for range, and a situation within the ensemble will influence the consequences of the action. A worthy topic of further exploration for the articles section.

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