By Zach Lowrance  

It’s very attractive to game developers to offer choice to their players. If done right, it allows you to add a sense of agency to your actions and get you more invested in the story. Player choice is something that should be balanced very carefully against the linear narrative you want to tell, though. Open up too many paths, too early and you risk losing players before they fully explore your painstakingly crafted content. Or worse yet, you’ve put so many resources into the ancillary options in your game that the main story leaves the player wanting for more. The more choices you offer your player, the less likely they are to have similar experiences to other players.

Let’s take Oblivion for example(any ES game works here): I put a few hundred hours into Oblivion and I’d say the most memorable quest line for me was the Thieve’s guild. This questline is completely separate from the main story, and is 100% optional. I’d wager a good amount of players never started this line and even fewer completed it. The quests mainly revolved around breaking into peoples houses and stealing things the guild wanted, culminating in a huge heist with a fair amount of scripted events. I really loved that quest line and was sad when I had finished it. The main story of Oblivion, on the other hand, I never actually completed as it has you just following a map blip around the countryside closing Oblivion gates which all spawn the same enemies and have the same layout. If I had stuck to the main story I would have a much different take on that game then I do now.

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You can say, “oh that’s what makes the game great, it’s different for everyone!” There is some merit to that, but I think it’s better to focus your manpower on the things that will affect the most people playing your game. And that doesn’t mean I’m advocating removing player choice, you just might have to make some concessions in other areas.

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Heavy Rain for the PS3 is an example of a game with a lot of player choice, but with each narrative path being just as polished as the last. Heavy Rain featured LOTS of player choice, in fact it’s one of the only games I’ve played where it feels like my choices really matter. If a character dies, their story ends and you move on with the remaining characters. The trade off in this case, is game length. In order to offer so many compelling choices, the breadth and scope of the entire game had to come down substantially. You can expect to spend about 10 hours in a playthrough of Heavy Rain, but at the end of that time you will have worked your way through a complete story no matter what paths you chose.

I’m not trying to say every game needs to be a Heavy Rain, but just to do what makes sense. If you are not going to have the resources to fully flesh out the main paths in your game, maybe cut back a little bit on some of the side content. The hardcore players might get to the point where they wish they had more side content to do, but the majority of your player base will be following the path you set for them. And again, the more choices you offer your player, the less likely they are to have similar experiences to other players. That doesn’t mean that every player should have the same experience, just that every experience should be of the same quality.