In my previous post ‘Decisions, decisions‘, I talked about… decisions, and how important they are are to a game.  But thats a bit like saying “The most important thing about wine is what it tastes like”.  Yes, thank you, Sherlock Holmes, but how do I make it taste good?  What factors affect the taste?

One of the most important contexts for making a decision is in pursuit of a goal.  Once a player commits to attaining a goal they will eagerly play your little game to achieve that outcome.  It’s a ‘human’ thing, I suppose.  Anyone who has played Civilization can attest to the siren song of ‘I’ll just keep playing until I…” Build that thing.  Conquer that city.  Discover that stuff.  And the fiendish game keeps tempting you with new goals before you have managed to complete your current ones, and suddenly it’s three o’clock in the morning.

As with decisions, balance is key for goals.  It must be the decisions the player makes that are the biggest factor in whether or not they achieve their goal.  If the goal is too easy, or too hard, or too random, then the decisions the player makes won’t matter, and you will be cursed for your “stupid game”.

And again, its best that the goals be consequential within the context of the game.  Sure, players might have all sorts of reasons for setting a goal that doesn’t have consequences within the game itself — one example is the concept of a score.  Getting a high score is a valid goal and can drive some players.  They get to be at the top of the score table.  Not only did they beat a game, but the score gives a quantifiable measure of how well they beat it.  But its not as good a goal as the consequential type that Civilization is littered with:  if I build that farmer, then I can grow my population.  If I conquer that port city, then my coast will be safe from raids.  These types of goals are more likely to keep you up until 3am than trying to beat the current high score.  Spelunky is a brilliant game.  In Spelunky, the money you exit the cave with is your score, yet money is useful for buying things that help you exit the cave.

Which brings us to the most delicious decision of all – choosing between mutually exclusive goals.  In story-telling, that is the seed of all drama.  If you can consistently offer your player mutually-exclusive, consequential goals, then you have hit game-design gold.  Do I spend these resources on building farmers to get more population or on military units to protect my coast from raids?  Purest gold.

So maybe goals are the most important factor in game design?  No.  Only insofar as they provide a context for players to make decisions.  Goals can be achieved in a mindless, un-fun fashion.  Want that shiny new magic sword?  You can grind for pennies a throw until you save up enough to buy it.  Goals are powerful enough that players will do that sort of thing.   It is far better to offer a way to get the sword that involves consequential decision making on the part of the player.  Or in other words – fun.  Imagine an RPG that didn’t have money.  You couldn’t grind to save up to buy a shiny new sword from an impersonal shop.  You could only get stuff by performing quests, or taking or trading it from someone who already had it.

In summary, another weapon in your game’s arsenal is laying out “goal mines” for the player to step on or avoid.  Consistently offer your player the choice between mutually-exclusive, consequential goals.


  1. Love your insights on this. On the surface I snarl and profess to hate it when games force me to make these kinds of decisions, but I love the game for forcing me to make it, and secretly relish the prospect of going back and playing it again later to make a different decision. I always used to have three or four fingers keeping different pages open when reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book as a kid—hedging my bets!

  2. “Getting a high score is a valid goal and can drive some players. They get to be at the top of the score table.”

    There are goals, and then there’s recognition for achieving them. That’s a separate factor.

    You can see it at work particularly on Xbox and Playstation where achievements/trophies become a cumulative driving factor towards game play. Not just for a specific game, but further games thereafter. The world seems to have moved beyond “you got the goal, but no-one will ever know”.

    Apple is obviously trying to replicate this Microsoft & Sony’s feature with “Game Center”. Does Android have an equivalent?

    In terms of mutually-exclusive goal seeking, there have been a lot of games that pretend to do this, but only a few that don’t actually funnel you down a specific path at various plot choke-points.

    “Deus Ex” was one that seemed to allow you to take different paths, but brought you back to a common point before the climax, after which you could choose one of three different endings.

    “Knights Of The Old Republic” allowed you to play the light side or dark side all the way through, with two different endings. It’s “morality” choice, and dialog trees made it a bit of a landmark in its day.

    “Mass Effect” – especially over three instalments – goes further. Bioware’s experience with KotOR shows.

    “Alpha Protocol” is one of the more open-ended games I’ve played where there were several different outcomes. There must be hours of voice-acting I’ll never hear even after two play-throughs.

    Of course then there is the question of dynamic goal generation, where the game designer is replaced by an in-game AI setting goals for the player. That’s a whole ‘nuther ball game, that conflicts with apparent industry trends of motion-capture and voice-acting, not to mention good old story-telling.

  3. In fact, I’m not ok with you.
    You say that mutually exclusive goals are the gold of games. I say it can also be their doom.

    You take the example of building military forces to protect yourself or use resources to develop your empire. At first glance, this is not a real choice, as there is a better solution : Building enough military forces to fulfill your attacks/defenses goals and use all the remaining resources in development.
    If there is no good solution, either because the resources are lacking or because you can’t distribute them, you’ll find yourself going military or development. And if the player likes both aspects of the game, he is basicaly screwed. It’s for example the case for games letting you choose for a military victory or a political victory or a research victory (a good example is Master of Orion II). All victories are mutually exclusive (you can only win once, you better have to maximize your chances for victory by allocating all resources to one area), so you can’t play any hybrid type of play. It’s frustrating.

    So, I’m not saying that you’re wrong, I’m just saying that it may be more complicated than what you describe.

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