Note: I know, I missed Wednesday’s update. I’ll try to make it up with a supergood post today.

Okay, if you’re here, it’s because you’re interested in good game design. While I’ve talked about many games that I feel have good design, I haven’t yet started to delve into what I think good design actually is. It’s time to do so now.

Good game design, in my opinion, can be boiled down to a single maxim: Give the player interesting, meaningful choices.

Let’s break down that sentence.

Give – You are the GameMaker. You have willingly taken it upon yourself to attempt to create an enjoyable experience for your players. Take that seriously.

The Player – Lots of game designers think of the player as a passive consumers for the designer’s content. This line of thought gives us games like Metal Gear Solid 2. Know the truth: the Player is not your student, your recepticle or (God forbid, but some designers do think like this) your adversary. The Player is your partner. It is together that you make a great play experience.

Interesting, Meaningful Choices – The player must be able to make choices that alter the outcome of the game. He needs to make these choices often (or else he’s simply watching and not playing) and making those choices needs to both interest the player and have a meaningful consequence within the game.

And now for some examples. Let’s start with the bad.

Metal Gear Solid 2 – While the early parts of this game are not terribly egregious, as the game goes on the cutscenes get longer and more confusing and the actual gameplay portions get shorter and less interesting, until you’re literally ending a cutscene, running down a hall, and starting another cutscene. Metal Gear Solid 2 simply takes too many decisions away from the player in favor of presenting the story Hideo Kojima wants to tell.

Dragon Warrior – This game has the most egregious violation of the “make the choices meaningful” rule I’ve ever seen. At the end, when you rescue the princess, she asks “Dost thou love me?”. If the player answers no, she responds, “But thou must. Dost thou love me?” And she’ll continue to ask the question until the player gives the “right” answer.

Now, I’m picking on Dragon Warrior a bit here – it’s not a bad game, but this is a classic case of giving the player a choice that means nothing. Reminds me of that Animaniacs short where Yakko, Wakko and Dot are running an Italian restaurant: “Marinara or red sauce? Calamari or squid? Ham or prosciutto?” They’re all the same.

In fact, this is something console RPGs in general tend to do – you get choices, but they don’t mean much, if anything. Pick the insulting conversation choice and either the person you’re talking to will blow it off or you’ll get to try the choice again until you get it right.

Anachronox – Okay, I really liked Anachronox. I thought it was a well-done game beginning to end (or rather, beginning to Rictus’ ship, which is where I’m currently stuck). But in the game you have these rocks called Mystech that give your characters magical powers. About halfway through the game, you gain the ability to customize your Mystech by putting bugs of various colors on them (no, I’m not kidding).

There are several million bug-color combinations, and most of them don’t have any real helpful effect – they don’t make the Mystech more powerful overall. There are a few payoffs, but finding them takes a lot of effort and the game tells you up-front that while customizing your Mystech may be helpful, it’s not necessary to complete the game.

So this system gives the player many, many choices – it’s just that the system isn’t interesting enough and doesn’t have enough meaningful outcomes. It didn’t even inspire anyone enough to write an FAQ for it. (Side note: Designers, if you really want to know how popular your game is, check how many FAQs it has on GameFAQs.) Fortunately, the player is given the choice of whether or not to fiddle with this system at all, which prevents it from ruining the whole game.

Okay, now let’s move on to the good:

Grandia II – Grandia II combat is a delectible menu of choice options, each of which have immediate, visible results. The game also gives the player all the information he needs to make his choices intelligently – where each player and monster is on the action bar, how much mana and special points spells and special abilities cost, and how many hit points each monster has and what elemental effects they are vulnerable to. Note that Final Fantasy combat hides a great deal of this information from you…Final Fantasy X combat felt very stilted and procedural after Grandia II’s exciting, free-flowing melees.

System Shock 2 – I’ve got a whole article about System Shock 2’s RPG system, but what I wanted to point out again is how things perceptibly changed for me after I upgraded my character. That’s very important – a change that isn’t perceptible to the player is no real change at all.

And now, the grand mama:

Tetris – There’s a reason this game is as popular and pervasive as it is. The player has all the information he needs, his every decision is vital and changes the game board in an obvious and predictable way. Players respond to this, it gives them a feeling of control, which makes them want to play the game.

And now you know the fundamental root of my design philosophy.

Soon: More on the Player as your partner.