Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Path of Least Resistance

Where I discover I was wrong to consider this a straight forward question of player choice/freedom versus designer dictat.

The Elite Dangerous Design Decision Forum is a forum system set up by Frontier Developments to capture the suggestions and feedback from the Kickstart project backers who pledged to that level.

Since becoming a member of the DDF I have become aware of a bit more detail surrounding the thoughts of the developers and some of the forum members. Much of it is very interesting, with regular new topics appealing for ideas and thoughts on different aspects of the game design.

A great deal of what gets posted is blue-sky thinking. Much of it is simply ideas, thrown out for others to consider. Some people go in to a bit more depth, really fleshing out their ideas and so give their fellow members something to really contemplate. Most of it is quite good!

One concept that has been described by the developers, and repeatedly referenced by fellow forum members is the path of least resistance. In the context of the forum and game development it has been used as the metaphor for the behaviour a game player exhibits when presented with multiple choices. Each choice has some value of resistance (effort required) and so the observation is that players (on average) tend to take the easiest route.

What we're talking about here is not some law of reality, but an observation which is supposedly supported by statistically significant data. What evidence there is for this I am not sure, but I am willing to accept it for the purposes of this post. If anybody does have some interesting research which relates specifically to games then I'd be interested in hearing about it.

Anybody who has read A Treatise of Human Nature will know that Hume identified a particularly egregious form of sloppy thinking and elucidated the is-ought problem (examples to follow, don't worry). There is striking parallel between the factual/moral non-sequitur in the naturalistic fallacy, for example, and the factual/aesthetic proclamations about about certain player behaviours (particularly the path of least resistance). So, in the absence of some newly discovered propositional logic we can move on from the idea that there is some inherent rule of game design hidden in there somewhere.

My first example would be the statement "in nature, animals to not give consent to copulation; therefore rape if morally acceptable". Most people would disagree with this. You may even say it's obviously a nonsense statement, but please considering my next example.

How about the statement "in nature, there are no homosexual animals; therefore homosexuality is morally wrong"? Ignoring the fact that there does exist strong evidence that there are gay animals, this has been a staple of irrational bigotry for as long as it has existed and has been taken very seriously, even though it's a non sequitur just as with the first example.

So back to our topic: what drives design decisions about features or mechanics in relation to the path of least resistance? As usual we find that it is subjective and value driven. In fact, two schools of thought emerged on the forum, one of them being championed by myself.

The first was a libertarian principle that valued player choice and freedom (as long as it didn't infringe on the gaming rights of others). I still hold this position in a very general sense. The second was an authoritarian principle which assumed the developer had an obligation to prescribe game play and players should submit to the designer's vision. However, I have come to the realisation that I was wrong to think that it is as black and white as I originally claimed. Both positions ignore real issues.

The authoritarian position is based on the assumption that something needs to be done about player behaviour and that the designer is the one who must take steps to prevent the existence of a path of least resistance. Why is this assumption made? The reason often cited is fun i.e. if players take the easy path then they miss out on fun.

The fun argument is weak and a thought experiment can show why. Imagine a top-down shooter where you had to kill hoards of Allen Stroud clones. We'll call it Allen Breed. The designer/developer decides that a mere 100 pixels from the starting point on level 1 is a portal which takes the player straight to the game's closing credits and an epic high score. Does this "feature" take the fun out of the game? In short, no, it can't. The player can simply restart the game and choose not to use the portal and then proceed in a more normal fashion. The amount of fun in the game is preserved.

You may try and object to this conclusion by saying that if you jump to the end then you've made the whole game meaningless. But this argument admits that the overriding value of the game is to complete it. It assumes that seeing the closing credits is more worthwhile than the journey and experience to get there. That would imply that playing the game is not fun or even un-fun (a chore). If playing the game is a chore then rationally the most fun thing to do is not play the game, or use the shortcut. It suggests the game is badly designed. The thought experiment works no matter what the destination of the shortcut: the end credits, just before the last boss, 50% through the game.

But the fun argument is even weaker because it is based upon the assertion that designers should be dictating what players should be doing to have fun because they know better (hence why they're in the job). This has been the prevailing attitude for most of the existence of video gaming. However, recently there has been a move towards empowering the player to find fun wherever they want and the open/sandbox game was born. When it comes to player demand, the likes of WoW, GTA and Minecraft are top dogs. Personally, I want to see Elite Dangerous as an open game where players can discover and make their own fun, without adversely effecting other players. Once you consider who it is that actually decides whether something is fun or not, you soon realise that perhaps the designer isn't as responsible as originally thought.

So, if fun can't tell us what to do about the path of least resistance then what can? I'm leaning towards popular vote. If players like it then keep it. If they don't then cut it. This includes features that allow some players to adversely affect or ruin other players' games. However, the fact some players don't like a shortcut or think it morally objectionable doesn't warrant cutting it if they have the option not to employ it. That would be some players enforcing their ideology on others like the Saudi Arabian morality police enforcing a strict dress code on women.

There exists an argument that a feature that benefits a player and gives them an advantage necessarily hurts other players' games unless they make same use of that feature. But this is less enlightening than you may think because it is a truism. Having multiple monitors conveys an advantage, a certain controller will have an edge over others, young people have faster reflexes, unemployed or retired people have more time on their hands. There is always going to be inequality; that's a fact of reality. The question for the designer is therefore one of degree. I'm not so sure the Saudi Arabian morality police are really put out by having to deal with sexual urges brought on by seeing women's hair. But I'm sure that greedy and careless short selling of stock can harm our pension funds. You may disagree.

At the end of the day, given that modern multiplayer games are extremely complex and inherently asymmetric, we need to consider that removing any and all paths of least resistance may be impossible. I'm reminded of competitive Street Fighter players who would converge on optimal strategies which would be employed to such an extent that battles became those of physical stamina rather than competing styles. This was until somebody discovered a more optimal strategy and dominated until everybody else adopted. Check out Episode 7 of Game Developer's Radio for an interesting discussion on asymmetric design and balance, plus some interesting links.

The only recommendation I could give to a game designer is to be wary of using the path of least resistance as shorthand for good game design. It would be futile and sometimes even harmful to pursue the extermination of easy routes; sacrificing interesting and useful features on the alter of fairness, a cruel and elusive goddess.


  1. Interesting arguments John. Wish I had access to the DDF to see this in action.

    Surely the path of least resistance (plr) argument is valid, if there is only one (or very few) over-arching plr? The aim is surely to even out the differences? The Japanese have a saying that goes something like, "To maintain harmony, a nail that sticks out needs to be hammered in." I think this an argument against individualism normally, but I think it applies here too.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for the comment.

    I believe the citing of path of least resistance has spilled over in to the general forum. You can find it if you search for it.

    The point I was trying to make is that the path of least resistance is not actually an argument. It is just an observation. Any arguments made around it are based on people's own value judgements (opinion).

    I'm not saying that designers and developers shouldn't be looking for instances of poor design making for poor player experience. I just think it's very easy to get carried away when using a blunt instrument :)

  3. An ex housemate of mine did a masters about reward in game.

    Basically if you make it interesting enough you can guide people to where you want them while giving them a "free" choice.

    His name was James Chenery and was at Teesside Uni around 2000.

  4. Nick Yee has done a lot of research in to the psychology of MMORPGs, including rewards

  5. I think it is fair to say you blew my mind a little bit with this blurb of yours. Can't say I understood all of it, but good reading. Thanks John

  6. Thanks John. If you can't understand it then that's a failure on my behalf to communicate. Is there something specific I wasn't clear on? Or was the whole thing a rambling mess? ;)

    1. I'm sure if I read through it again slower and applied more brain power to it I would have been fine. Its more a mark against me that my head is dealing with a million things right now.

      I understood the general concepts, there were just a lot of big words for my base intelligence. I'm just an ignorant antepodean remember!

  7. An extremely important point, very well put John.

    An issue that is far more important in sand-box games than any other I think. Personally my ideal game would be all gameplay (no storyline needed), they are probably the hardest type of game to create too.

    I am not saying I don't enjoy procedural missions or main storylines because I do, but when I don't have the time (or the patience) to roll through the storyline, I like a game that I can lose myself in. So very few (none perhaps) games I have played offline and online really cater for freeplay. Massive amounts of cutscenes, voiceovers (never ending dialogues) work really well if you have a big purse and a large media development team but designing a game that plays well all by itself takes real ability, imagination and above all courage. The latter two missing from most games today.

    Isn't having a game built upon a storyline (like most RPG's and MMO's) a path of least resistance in itself?