Theory: Make the Right Choice the Default, Part 2

Last time‘s post was about why having getting up slowly be the default in Street Fighter 4 is a problem. Briefly, making players input a special command to get up fast–which they will want to do virtually every time–is more a rote action than an interesting decision. It makes players feel bad when they know what they’re supposed to do but something goes wrong and they fail. New players are hurt especially badly, because they have to divide their energies between learning the strategy of the game and mastering this uninteresting-but-important skill.

Making the better choice–getting up quickly–the default resolves these issues. It removes the false choices that sound like they might be an opportunity for strategic decision-making but almost never are. It eliminates the “feel-bad” moments, since the game’s design now prevents the player from fouling up something basic. New players have one fewer hurdle to clear before they can get into the interesting aspects of the game.

This doesn’t mean that getting up slowly must or should be eliminated from the game entirely. To the contrary, giving players the choice to stay down in the unusual situations where that could be useful can lead to interesting gameplay. Making quick-standing the default, and slow-rising the special maneuver requiring extra player input, retains the strategic option for the rare situations where it’s intersting without the problems that slow-rising-as-the-default brings.

Seeing this rule applied in other contexts really brings home to me how important it is. For example, the League of Legends character Volibear has a special ability wherein, when he is near to being slain, he gets a second wind and regenerates a great deal of health. LoL is designed in such a way that Volibear will virtually always want to activate this ability when he is in a bad way; is is very, very unusual for Volibear to be in a situation where he would want to hover near death to save this ability for another moment. (Off the top of my head, if a teamfight just ended in an ace the Voli player might be happier backing with the passive intact and healing at the fountain–but it would probably still be better to use the passive and push for an objective. Sorry, back on topic.) If not activating this ability were the default, Volibear would suffer from the same problems as SF4’s slow-rising: false choices, player frustration, unnecessary burdens on new players.

Fortunately, League’s designers did it right: they made Volibear’s second wind completely automatic. When it’s available and called for, it just switches on. The opportunities for strategic choice about whether or not to regenerate were so limited that the faux decision was removed entirely, with a net positive effect.

Compare this with League’s “Barrier” ability. Barrier protects a player from some damage, but it can only be used once every few minutes. There is an actual decision to be made about whether or not to use it, even when one’s health is low: if a fight is going badly, it might be better to accept defeat and save the ability for later. Moreover, even if you know you plan to use Barrier the exact timing matters; since the Barrier only lasts for a few moments, you might want to hold off until you become the focus of enemy fire. Hence, it’s often better not to use Barrier–and indeed, that is the default.

SF4 and League of Legends demonstrate that it’s not enough to give players choices. It’s also important to think about how players interact with those choices. If the game makes it hard for players to choose correctly, it will be harder to play. It might even be aggravating! When there’s a consistent right choice, just make it the default so that players can move on to more engaging decisions.

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