Back in 2014, I had just graduated college with a degree in astrophysics. I completed a 3 month contractor position with NASA and was trying to find a way to get into video games. With me knowing little of how to go about it, I decided I’d figure it out along the way, making games in my spare time as I worked as a tutor. I began putting a game together, Shadows of the Heart (dev name, Shadow Quest), which was an top down adventure rpg with turn based battling and quite a bit of grinding. I spent days, months, nearly up to a year, working on the game, and half way through my development of the game, I got a call from Riot Games. I ended up interviewing for a position and, although I made it to the final onsite interview, did not get the job. I was fairly distraught, and lost a lot of direction in my life. However, about a month after, I got back to working on my game. That break actually let me approach the game with an entirely new perspective, and I realized something exceedingly important when messing with the game – decisions are extremely important.
I think at its core a game should remove people from reality. In the same way a great book or movie utterly transports a person out of their reality (think of a scary movie you’ve watched, or your favorite book you’ve ever read), people should be so completely engaged in the game that they shouldn’t realize time is passing. Decisions are the driver behind this. The decisions allow us to take on the role of someone or something we otherwise couldn’t – whether that be a questing barbarian or a hopping plumber. Players get to assume the role of the character in the game and approach the game in whatever manner they want. They get to shape their reality through each of the decisions they make, and that makes games special. For me, in Shadows of the Heart, I realized I needed to simplify the control scheme and provide alternative methods for progressing through a battle, over having one option as optimal each and every time. This realization was also integral for my following interview at Riot, which allowed me to make my first trip into the world of video games.
In Pug Life I applied a lot of these concepts, and, initially, it was a bit of struggle to make sure those decisions were meaningful. Because you have limited information through the game of what someone is going to play, I needed to find a way to give players a way to make informed decisions. Implementing the ability to bury cards through the burying system was my solution. This allowed players to make decisions about cards they wanted to store and decide on moments when they wanted to reveal the card. Pug abilities and adventure cards also came into play in the same way; laying out cards for everyone to see as each player picks a card allows players to determine who might want to pick what and figuring out the best way to make sure you are most helped and your opponents are most hindered. The Smart Pug and Mischief Pug (my favorite and Savannah’s favorite) are also confronted with a wealth of decisions. The Smart Pug gets to analyze the current game state and figure out the best cards to keep, and also controls whether they want to retain treat cards to obtain a better hand, or discard them to earn points and keep them away from other players. The Mischief Pug tugs on everyone – anyone gaining points must now give them to someone else. Deciding who might benefit the most and least from your given points matters, deciding who you like or don’t, or choosing a person who has had rotten luck that you feel bad for versus refusing to give points to someone that’s losing just because they played a disaster on you – these are all fantastic decisions every player gets to make.
Additionally, the end goal allows players to make meaningful decisions as well. I believe the root of a challenging games comes from increased decision making over the course of the game. The decisions should be more complex and more meaningful, adding to tension and difficulty, while also allowing higher variance and big play ability for all players. A game that has deeper decisions as it progresses gives players the chance to warm up to the game and get a feel for how others are playing. Using that warm up period then allows the player to make more complex decisions – they’ve learned a bit from the early game and now have an idea of what they want to do, without necessarily being horribly hindered through that early game. The end game then rolls in, and this is where decisions get extremely complex – reading the state well can lead to a quick victory, but reading it poorly can turn a game around or allow for come from behind victories. This variability forces the player to recognize the flaws in what led up to a loss and gives them a chance to learn and improve for the next game – encouraging the player to keep playing and try a different approach in the next game. Pug Life has these concepts applied across the board.
That’s all I’ve got on decisions for the day. Tell me in the comments about a game you think uses decisions well and makes you think, or about game you think falls flat in this regard!