Choice & consequence in RPGs

I’m going to write a bit about game design and pitch the choice & consequence mechanic in Dragon Commander today. As a heads up, I’ve got another piece coming in which I interviewed a royalty auditor who did audits at all of the top publishers, but it’s going to take my some time to write up the interview. She had interesting things to say however, with some of them requiring me to correct some of my statements on this blog. But as I’m off to Hamburg to meet plenty of German distributors at the Casual Connect thing, it’ll have to wait a bit.

Look, I know you don't believe a word I'm telling you, but really, that's what I'm trying to do - lots of choice and consequence, really, lots of it !

So, today, choice & consequence.

They are two words that’ve become must-haves on the back of the box for any modern RPG that wants to matter. If you look at the advertising done for some of the biggest RPGs of the moment, you can easily be fooled into thinking that here are games  that allow you to do anything you can think of.

The reality of course is quite different. When it comes to crafting stories, branching storylines, coupled to simple systemic gameplay elements, are still the state of the art for RPG developers. Essentially we use the same mechanic the “choose your own adventure” books used, with the nuance that the turning of the page can be accomplished by different means.

For instance, in a modern RPG, to turn to page 20, you’d engage in some stealth gameplay, whereas to turn to page 130, you’d kill everybody.  It makes the turning of the page more interesting, but in the end, it’s still, turn to page 20 or turn to page 130, meaning that the amount of true choices, those that cause real bifurcations in the story tree, necessarily needs to be very limited.

Some time ago I asked Octaaf, our lead QA to give me a rapid overview of the state of the art in choice and consequence gameplay, the idea behind my request being that I wanted to compare what we had planned for project E and Dragon Commander to what our competition was doing. Here’s what he told me:

  • Skyrim –244 quests, 300 points of interests, with about 150 dungeons. Most quests are of the “go do this” type and while there are different methods of doing things, the end result is usually the same. The game is divided in two major factions and your opening quest opens one faction tree and closes the other.
  • Dragon Age 2 – 49 main quests spread over 3 acts, 110 side quests categorized according to importance (secondary quests, side quests and companion quests). Companion mechanic allows for some non-linearity. Branching quest trees. When you finish an act, most quests of the previous act aren’t available anymore.
  • The Witcher 2 – 8 possible endings, subdivided in 2 main categories depending on whether or not a main character survivives, with further variation achieved via the survival or death of two lesser characters. 54 steps in main quest spread over three chapters. 42 side quests. Most quests are linear, with quest failure not having significant impact.

I don’t know how he got the numbers, nor did I check if they’re 100% accurate, but they were sufficient for me to do the comparison I wanted to do and more importantly, it told me the one thing I really needed to know – nihil novi sub sole, nothing newer under the sun.

The numbers of quests for these three games are low enough that you can immediately see that it’s impossible for them to have real choice and consequence in them, and that any claim to the contrary is just marketing.

That doesn’t demean them, because it’d be productionally insane to offer real branching storylines for every single choice you encounter in a game. Including just ten choices like that would lead to 1024 different endings, which in addition to be very expensive to make, would also be nearly impossible to QA.

So what to do if, like me, you want to make a game that presents you with plenty of real choices ? The answer of course is to make them indepedent of one another. After all, the branching problem only occurs if the option of making one particular choice is dependent on a previous decision being made.

Now if you make all of them independent of one another, that’s a bit lame. Because then you have a lot of choice, but you don’t get a lot of consequence, which kind of ruins the party.

So the trick is to present you with plenty of choice and somehow manage to limit the branching that causes. A way of doing this is the introduction of variable conditions in the branching story tree. Put simply, if a certain variable reaches a certain value, the story progresses in one direction, otherwise it progresses in the other direction.

This is a powerful mechanic, because it allows you put in a number of choice/consequence situations where the consequence is just the changing of the value of that variable, and the number of bifurcations is actually the number of points where a variable reaching a certain threshold really matters to the storyline.

That’s very theoretical so here’s an example. If the variable is, how angry is the girl at you, then you can put in several situations in which you can make her angry. If you made her angry enough, then the plot develops along the lines of her leaving you. Otherwise, it progresses along the track of you still being in a relation with her.

To make matters more interesting, you then make it so that the girl being angry at you is also used to drive forward another plotline, e.g. your relation with her father. This relation can also be affected by e.g. how much money you are making for him. If she leaves you, but you make tons of money for him, he’ll still be happy about you, progressing along his “I’m happy with you” track. But if you don’t make enough money for him and you leave his daughter, then you might go down the other track. Etc… etc… etc…

Needless to say, you end up with enormously complex story graphs when doing these kind of stunts, but it’s quite a powerful method for giving the player the illusion of there being really a lot of choice and consequence in a game.

You can hear this one come from miles in the distance, but it’s what we’re fooling around with in our next games, Dragon Commander and the mysterious project E.

The infamous undead princess. This screenshot is really old, and I promise that this is the month in which we'll show new stuff. Bear with us, we've really been making a lot of progress, but we only want to show something when it all fits together.

Our idea is to market Dragon Commander as a game that gives you over 300 choice & consequence situations, with plenty of examples that clearly differentiate it from the rest of the pack. Of course we’re cheating a bit, because we’ve created the entire gameplay around this choice & consequence mechanic, but nonetheless, I’ll consider it quite a feat when we succeed in this.

In Dragon Commander the entire concept is built around a bunch of possible protagonists/antagonists, each having their own story trees that impact the story trees of the the other main characters, with the player being the one that decides in which direction the plot navigates by making a series of decisions. Several of these decisions affect relationship parameters, and once these go over a certain value, the story branches.

What’s really interesting about it all is how the different story trees for the characters interact with one another. It’s made the architecture for this a very complex mess and just the paper design took our design team over a year to complete, but I have good hopes that’ll give us a very rewarding result when the final game comes together. The thing I like the most is that each branch is guaranteed very different from the other branch.

To make it more concrete – take our infamous undead princess as an example. She has has 5 possible endings, but the path towards those endings is not only dependent on your interactions with her, but also on your interactions with the other characters, which themselves again have multiple endings, with the same complex dependency trees.

I’ll leave it to your imagination just how complex this all is, but in theory we have over 2,4 million possible endings using this mechanic, expressed as the combinations of possible end-situations our main characters can find themselves in. And because it’s a game of large-scale dragon warfare, you can multiply that by 2, because you also either win or lose the war.

We’ve never done it like this, so it’s a bit of an experiment for us, but as I mentioned, it sounds good on paper and I think we’ve been clever enough in our approach that we’ll actually manage to accomplish it decently, but of course, the verdict as always will come at the end.

If anybody can give me examples of other games that really exploit the mechanic described, I’d be very interested to hear about them. It’ll help me in convincing people that yes, we’re really doing this, and yes, it really can be pulled off. Right now my biggest problem with pitching Dragon Commander is that people think we’ve gone completely bananas 😉

  • Jay_k

    You are correct, what most companies (especially Bioware and Bethesda) are talking about are permutations, not perturbations. Permutations belong to the aforementioned area of marketing 101, as shown here:

    Multi-branching storylines can be pulled off quite nicely if C&C scaling is done right. For example, you could have lots of different solutions and consequences for just a bunch of quests in a single town which drastically changes the fate of that town. Overall, what’s happening to all the towns in the game could then be pooled into a managable set of variables which then determines the main plot or the endings (in the same way the antagonists/protagonists you mentioned). You could also introduce additional levels of abstraction. This is of course not new and was already brought to perfection in games like Arcanum but, as no major company seems to have taken interest in Troika’s legacy, you could very well bring something “new” to the table. The more you can improve on that, the better.

    • Swen Vincke

      We were discussing the other day how much has changed in RPGs over the last ten years, only to come to conclusion that if we discount the production values, there’s not a lot. We could name a whole lot of UI improvements but when it came to the actual meat of the game, it often feels like we’ve regressed rather than progressed.

  • Arne

    Never seen it before (except for The Sims), I’m very excited to see what you’ll have to offer. I do have some questions regarding dependencies though:

    *Will there be transitivity? e.g. interactions on person A influence consequences at person B (A->B), the same for (B->C), will this mean A->C as well? A->B ==> A->C
    *Will it be possible to have (A,B)->C while not A->C or B->C ?
    *Will there still be quests unavailable due to other quests? A->B ==> no quest B->C
    *Will some quests be determined by others? A->B ==> B->C or A->B ==> A->C

    Just want to know what degree of complexity you’re talking about.

    • Swen Vincke

      I need to check for the second case, but other than that, I think the answer is positive to all.

  • Peter

    I think the King Arthur: Roleplaying Wargame games come closest to what you’re trying to accomplish.

    • Swen Vincke

      Your not the first to mention that one to me, so  I guess I’ll have to give it a shot. It’s the King Arthur name that drove me away from playing it, having read just one too many book about Albion.

      • Farflame

        King Arthur developed by Neocore also came to my mind. Its original concept, whole world, RPG quests and strategic elements feels like coherent mix. Its world of historical Britannia after Romans retreat, religious conflict (christians vs old faith) some fantasy/magic elements and celtic/irish mythology – you meet Sidhe, Fomorians and other mythological beings in wilderness and Otherworld. And its presented in somewhat realistic, natural way. Each NPC, knight, monk, Sidhe have some allignment, goal, faith… its not black/white world, or best hero is best warrior, nor pathetic “big evil is coming, unite them all and kill the dragon” story. And there are interesting RPG quests presented like gamebooks with fine athmosphere. I think it can be interesting even for RPG veterans like you. 🙂

        There are many choices in quests. Few of them have direct consequence in next quest, most of them changes morality and/or faith of the king Arthur. So by gameply choices you can shape both immediate outcome of quests/story and at the same time character of your king and gameplay options presented later. For example if you act like tyrant, you may get access to some strong tyranica units, but will lose other options (for rightful king). So it will also change your gameplay options a little.

  • Haba

    I think the most interesting kind of C&C is seamlessly integrated into the gameplay. So instead of having arbitrary decision points (where the story branches), it happens on the background – as natural result of the player’s actions.

    Fahrenheit did this on the first part of the game – you could miss clues and come to a different conclusion. In Dark Sun you had different allies in the final battle, depending on the way you resolved quests. In some war games you could fail missions and end up in different scenarios.

    C&C on this level makes the game much more complex to develop, but it is also what makes them memorable. Not to mention the replayability.

  • melianos

    I’ll only talk about the game I know, which is Skyrim. There is not really two major factions that you choose in the beginning (those have no impact on story). Or you can ignore those factions entirely, as I did on my first game.

    It’s more that there is the main story arc, and beside it other faction oriented arcs (with something like 6 or 7 factions, and choosing one faction in some cases closes off access to another).
    But most factions completely ignore other factions (what does the “warrior” faction care about the “mage” faction ?).

  • Finnishguy

    I’ll post Alpha Protocol in here as an example of C&C done right. The endings weren’t vastly different, but the game itself came off as quite dynamic in regard to character relationships and story progression. If the world had been slightly more open and the technical aspects somewhat more refined, it could have become a classic.

    Suboptimal management, a lack of clear direction and publisher pressure were supposedly factors that made it
    become a shadow of what it could have been. I did enjoy it a whole lot, though, and I have no problems recommending it at its current price point.

  • TL

    I would suggest you look at Planescape: torment and the expansion of Neverwinter Night 2: Mask of the Betrayer. I really think C&C is done beautifully in the two games. 

  • Ethan Sherr-Ziarko

    This is going to sound a bit banal, but the mechanic you are describing here is almost exactly what has been used in Japanese visual novel games for many years. I can’t in good conscience recommend playing any of them, but they implement what you described, albeit on a much smaller scale.

  • Sergei Klimov

    Hey Swensky, we know you’ve been busy this week – with Casual Connect Hamburg among other happenings – but do we get an entry some time tonight or tomorrow, please? In the previous update, you wrote about the Little Green Dragon fairy tale… well, heck, I want a sequel here 🙂

    Business is business but can you maybe explain to me, why in the world so often a good idea ends up as a bad game? I mean, all these people at THQ, wherever, they don’t start off by saying “let’s make a lame game and push it to the market”, they all want success – which implies quality product – so how come, there’s tons of shit (still!) out there?

    It’s the same thing with the movies, actually. A hundred-million dollar movie with a dumb plot and bad acting… now, that’s nothing new. So what’s the reason, where’s the corrupt element – is this the complexity of design? Is this having a whole lot of people involved? Do we typically see better games coming out from smaller teams?

    • Lar

      Good topic – just need to find time – time is most definitely not on my side for the moment.

  • Smiley face

    Hello, I know it’s been 10 months since your post, but maybe you’ll still read this post somehow .
    There is a little game called “princess maker 2″(its the only one in english), it’s not an rpg, it more like a sim, I remember loving it back in the day (it’s quite an antique from ’93) I believe it has more than 100 different endings alongside with other consequences, and I think it uses a mechanic similar to what you are describing.
    Here is the first youtube link that popped on my search results to one of the endings:

    It’s the one where apparently she was raised for marriage to satan LOL.
    God, that game is still awesome, I think I’m going to play it soon…

    • Swen Vincke

      Yep, that indeed pretty much sums up the idea – I think the first instance of this type of gameplay was a game called Altered Ego from Activision.

      • smiley face

        Oh, you saw my response.

        Thx for the reply.

        And thank you for the reference, I played with Altered Ego right now and it seems like a nifty little game. Not the most comfortable of presentations (or maybe its just the online version), nor that captivating, but definitely the type of things that tickle my fancy.

        BTW it could be the same thing, but I remember an interview I heard a couple of months ago with some doctorants from USCU who supposedly developed some engine for social simulation in their game… I think it is also based on this principle but instead of quests it’s applied for interactions…

        Anyway, I don’t know if it may interest you, but I’m writing this for the off chance that it might. 😛

        (I know that I had some creative thoughts after hearing about it)…

        I haven’t actually played this game, it’s called “Prom Week”:

        And the interview was on Geekspeak podcast.

  • Shane

    I think the only way we are ever going to see a real RPG with choice and consequence, is when AI can code the different story arcs giving you thousands upon thousands of different situations.

    • Shane

      Also when the tech advances enough, AI will code in convo and dialogue instead of having people write it, so you can have hours of unique convo with an NPC in game.