The ability to plan ahead is at the very heart of what makes games fascinating. Thomas Grip of Frictional Games calls it the “core reason” for why gameplay feels good in the first place. That’s not too surprising once you consider the alternative. A game lacking the possibility to make plans is doomed to drown in random chaos. Instead of pondering over interesting decisions, you have to face powerlessness and apathy. Why play at all when what you’re doing has no meaningful impact anyways?
However, and as usual, the other extreme is just as problematic. An entirely predictable system doesn’t generate interesting decisions either, once the perfect plan has been found. At that point the game breaks down to merely following and efficiently executing the pre-calculated “correct path”.
It’s a balancing act. Ideally players will be making plans constantly, but are then regularly disturbed while executing them — in unpredictable, and yet carefully chosen ways. This back-and-forth of predictability and perceived arbitrariness is what can lead to a system that’s interesting in the long term.
Now, there are games that explicitly separate themselves into two phases: planning and execution. Decisions are often made in both, but the nature of those decisions is actually very different. The following sections will deal with the effects of this particular form of splitting up a game.
As examples, consider the character selection in an RPG or constructing your deck in a collectible card game. In these phases you’re exclusively thinking about how you will be playing the game in the future. You’re making a “game plan” without taking into account any information from a particular game state — cause there isn’t one yet.
This separate “meta planning” narrows down the decision-making space for the actual gameplay following it. In the worst case, this effect is so particularly strong that the gameplay is basically pre-determined. If you’re playing a “Face Hunter” deck in Hearthstone — a deck built entirely around aggression — you basically don’t have a choice besides following exactly this one-dimensional strategy. Depending on the deck of your opponent, it may work or it may not. Beyond a few micro-optimizations, you can’t really do much to influence that.
With Crimson Company, we followed a very different design philosophy. All decisions are made in the context of a concrete match. Players don’t build their own decks and go into the game on an equal footing. Starting from the first round of a match, plans are made and have to be adapted continuously to work against the opponent and the cards available to both players.
It’s not possible to go with pre-determined strategies. If anything, players can memorize a few well-working combinations of two or three cards. However, you can’t really wait for them to come up, because they always depend on the right situation.
In general our approach to “combos” was quite different from the typical CCG way of things. We didn’t want players to stall the match and hope that they would at some point have assembled all the pieces of their combo and then switch into an unstoppable “win mode”.
Instead, Crimson Company takes a more holistic stance. Players are not hoping for “fitting pieces”, but have to adapt on the fly every round to the changing game state, and try to combine a couple cards here and there to edge out small advantages over their opponent. The core gameplay system is tightly knit around rather complex effects beyond the usual and mathematical “deal X damage” or “buff a card by X”. This means most cards can indeed be combined with each other.
After all, it’s impossible to mindlessly follow a list of “good combos” anyway. The value of every card fluctuates a lot depending on the given game state and players have to re-evaluate cards — and thus combinations the card is a part of — constantly. This, in turn, is also part of the game’s focus on in-game decisions.
The “right” approach?
At least for competitive strategy games — and, for now, not considering the potential to monetize the whole thing — such a focus seems to be a natural fit. By minimizing “external” decisions, a maximum of fairness within any given match can be guaranteed. The players’ skill clearly is the primary factor when it comes to determining results, and distortions such as good or bad “match-ups” or someone randomly bringing a “counter deck” can be avoided.
Recently, the “auto battler” genre surrounding Auto Chess and the likes has also been pushing for in-game decisions. Players have to make the best of what’s offered to them every round and have to adapt their strategies and behaviors regularly, sometimes even change them completely in the middle of a match. If you go into the game with a pre-made “perfect build”, you’re not just reducing your flexibility and thus potential to do well, but you’re also playing a less interesting variant of the game with way fewer decisions.
On the other hand, the advantages of pre-game decisions are naturally to be found in the “meta game” possibilities they open up. Game elements can be “unlocked” over time and independently from a particular match or session. These unlocks can be used as extrinsic motivators to keep players in the game and keep them coming back to the game. Their effects on the gameplay may be unfair, incoherent and arbitrary sometimes, but their psychological impact cannot be denied.
An Unstable Compound
In the end, a focus on in-game decisions is closely tied to the implicit progress of players and their competence — thereby satisfying entirely different needs than an extrinsically motivating meta game.
Combining both sides is quite a risky endeavor. For example, the purely cosmetic rewards distributed by the Auto Chess “Battle Pass” work precisely because they are completely disconnected from the core gameplay. Pre-game decisions have audiovisual effects, but nothing more.
In games like Hearthstone though, the meta game has a direct and noticeable impact on the result of any given match. Consequently, potentially interesting in-game decisions are undermined by those match-external factors. Design compromises like this are still quite common throughout the whole industry and often come with hopes of increased potential for monetization. To push the medium forward from an artistic point of view however, we’ll have to start breaking away from them more and more.