When you’re offered a handful of powers that are highly coupled, and there’s no restriction on picking one over the other, the choice is obvious. If the powers are loosely coupled the choice will be random/arbitrary. In either case, it’s not going to be an interesting decision in my opinion.
If you missed it, over the last year I did a bunch of live game design talks on YouTube/Twitch, with a bunch of different guests. Today, some of what I want to talk about involves this game design concept of “coupling”, and you can watch a full YouTube video on that topic here. But for now, understand that coupling is more or less the amount of connection between rules in a ruleset. So, in a CCG, something like a card that says “This card deals 1 damage to an enemy player” has pretty low coupling; it only “connects with” the enemy player’s hit points. But a rule that says “anytime you play a card, activate one ability” or something might have a lot more coupling, because it could be interacting with many things in the game. Card games are also not the greatest example of coupling, usually. A much better examples of coupling are often found in games that have grids. Grids are sort of “inherently coupled”, in that every tile has a relationship to every other tile, so abilities that affect tiles tend to have far reaching consequences.
Coupling allows for games to achieve depth without an overwhelming amount of inherent complexity. You get the combinatoric power of game mechanics working together to multiply the possible number of game-states. That said, it’s definitely not the case that more coupling is always better. The downside of coupling is that it creates a lot more for players to have to think about in order to play. Games with extremely high coupling tend to be very “brain-burn-y”, or cause “analysis paralysis”. You also want to have a good amount of things that are less-coupled, because that makes it “easy” to do them. You want to have a balance between higher and lower coupling to create a good “rhythm”. This balancing act is one of the many reasons that game design is hard.
The “Pick One Of Three” Thing
Over the past five years in particular, I’ve found myself having a really negative reaction whenever a game pauses itself and pops up a new screen that has three (or some other number, although it’s very frequently three) arbitrary, disconnected “upgrades” that I can choose from. This is a pattern that I’ve seen in more and more newer indie-ish games recently: Dead Cells, Slay the Spire, Downwell, Hades, and many others. A lot of games also something like a “Boss Rush” mode where you play some increasingly hard looping iteration of the game, and each loop, you pick some new upgrades to add to your guy (I’m thinking of Fantasy Strike as an example of this here) via a Pick One of Three screen. It’s really just everywhere.
And it makes sense, right? It’s super easy to implement, and it fits into almost any design, anywhere. Since the Rogue-like revolution of the 2010s, a lot more 1P games want to give players variety in terms of the tools/powers/upgrades that are available to them—which is great to see! A Pick One of Three screen achieves that objective, and it makes it feel a little bit more fair than if you were just given one of the three options randomly. And it’s a big part of some extremely beloved games, so obviously I’m not saying it’s some truly heinous blight on game design or anything. I think the reason I have a negative reaction to it is partially just because I think we can do a lot better. The fact that it can be plopped into any game at any time means that it is kind of “the easy way out” design wise. This was what I sort of meant when I said this on Twitter:
My definition of "game design": the process by which a person develops a ruleset so as to avoid popping up a "pick one of three" screen.
— Keith Burgun (@keithburgun) September 9, 2021
When I see a pick-3 screen, I feel like “game design was not really done here”. Or at least, to be more specific, systems design wasn’t really done. We are given a non-specific, one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of how to distribute random drops in a way that feels more fair. Going back to the “coupling” topic, these screens that pop up have extremely low coupling with the rest of the game. How do you choose them? By clicking on some big arbitrary button that has nothing to do with whatever else is going on in the game. It’s almost like you just plugged in a Game Genie and are entering in some code to modify the game.
There could be something different there. Instead, we could have it be that there are randomly generated powers, but they’re placed on the map itself. Maybe Power 1 is up near the top of the level behind some force field that takes some time to get through, Power 2 is over on the left part and there’s a bunch of fire monsters, and Power 3 is close by and easily accessible. But Power 3, as a power, is less desirable for my current kit than Power 2. In a context-oriented situation like this, where the state information of the whole game (not just my stats/build) is informing the decision of which power to go for, we can see that it becomes a lot more of an interesting choice. Players will sometimes be lead to pick the non-optimal of the three powers and have to deal with that, which sure, sucks for the player from a strategic perspective, but from a game design perspective it’s actually GOOD if the player can’t always pick the optimal power.
I think this is part of my issue, too. It’s one thing to be randomly given arbitrary powers, as in a Rogue-like game. But it’s another to be given the free choice of three, because, let’s face it, it’s almost never hard to choose. There’s almost always one of the three that’s clearly the best one to pick, and now you can just freely pick it.
The powers themselves
I’ve been playing a lot of MTGA over the last few months and I think the popularity of Magic over the last 30 years has really influenced how people think about game design in a profound way. One of the design tropes of Magic, is a sort of “anything goes” with regards to the things that card powers can do. Basically they just write it in text, what the card does, so it’s extremely arbitrary.
What would it mean for a game to have “non arbitrary” powers? I think a lot of Euro games have some good examples of that. In Race for the Galaxy, the number of *kinds* of actions you can take is pretty limited: you can “explore”, you can “settle”, you can “develop”, and so on (I think there’s about 5-6 of them). There’s a few cards that have exceptional, arbitrary rules, but for the most part, you basically have these 5-6 supporting mechanisms that interact and interlock with each other in a bunch of ways. In other words, they’re pretty highly coupled. This is kind of nice because it makes decisions more ambiguous, since things connect to more other things.
I mean, think through every time you’ve experienced one of these screens. Almost every time, the decision is obvious if it’s not highly coupled (like an arbitrary power that triggers a lot with your kit or goes well against the main enemy I’m up against). If it IS highly coupled, like say +1 Attack / +1 Defense, it’ll be either an arbitrary pick on the part of the player because they all sound good, or, more often than not, it will still be obvious.
So actually, the coupling has nothing to do with it. The problem is the screen itself. The problem is pausing the game, and giving players a screen that has three options on it. There’s no way that you can make that into an interesting decision.
When you’re offered a handful of powers that are highly coupled, and there’s no restriction on picking one over the other, the choice is obvious. If the powers are loosely coupled the choice will be random/arbitrary. In either case, it’s not going to be an interesting decision.
Looking at this the wrong way
So far in this article, I have been looking at this the wrong way, probably. I’ve been looking at it like these are strategy-ish games, which, to be fair, some of the games that do this do market themselves this way. But really what is going on here, is just plain old gambling. Yes, there is one correct answer most of the time, but what’s actually going on is “how good a hand did you pull”? This is also depressing to me, but for a different reason. I think the line between games (even strategy games) and gambling is getting fuzzier all of the time, and Pick One of Three is actually “gambling dressed up as strategic decision-making”.
In other words: it’s not even supposed to be an interesting decision. It’s supposed to be just a random drop, and the “choice” is just there to make sure you don’t get something too terrible for your current situation.
Going back to the MTG example, I’ve enjoyed the game a lot, but holy cow is it really random. I know everyone loves to bring up that you *can* play a deck that massively minimizes randomness, but, in practice, most people aren’t doing that. People are playing all kinds of decks, and from the mana system, to the SIXTY card deck, to the fact that you don’t know what’s in your opponent’s deck at the start of the game… it’s just like holy-hell random. And yet this is kind of one of the pillars of game design thought, particularly in the strategy game world.
These are all reasons that these Pick One of Three screens anger me so much. It’s just reflective of this very arbitrary, card-game/gambling oriented design aesthetic. I believe that games can be a lot more than you drawing three cards and hoping you got a good hand, and when I see this pattern popping up over and over and over again, I feel pretty alienated, like it is being asserted that NO, games can’t really be more than that.
As you maybe know, I’m not against randomness. For me, randomness is CRUCIAL – I do not want to play a perfect information game, and my latest game Gem Wizards Tactics relies heavily on procedural generation and other forms of randomness. I just want to see more new, novel and interesting ways to give players randomized powers throughout a game. Maybe enemies hold the powers and you get them when you kill them (somewhat like Kirby, perhaps). Simply taking these Pick 3 screens and putting the powerups on the actual game space itself already is a big improvement because now it won’t always be easy to get the best one. There are tons of other possibilities out there for how to do it – even the old-school traditional Rogue-like method of giving the player an inventory and they’re slowly gaining new random powers over time and it’s a question of when to use them, seems preferable to this.
ADDENDUM: I think some of why I don’t like the Pick 3 screens is somewhat aesthetic. Because it’s something that you can just slap into any game, when I see it, it makes the thing I’m doing seem less special, less specific and interlocking and elegant. It makes the game feel less like some unique discipline that I’m learning, and more like just some videogame. It makes me sad! I thought I should talk a bit about the aesthetic/emotional bit a little, because before I even read any of the powers or upgrades or anything, when that screen pops up, I’m already depressed.
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