I was recently asked to elaborate on the difference between an “interesting” decision and a “satisfying” decision, which I mentioned briefly in my previous post on designing for satisfaction. Dear reader, thy will be done.
First to clarify: I’m only talking about design goals. You design differently when you try to maximize how interesting a decision is compared to other design goals. Of course strategy games should be interesting. Heck, entertainment in general should be interesting. We’re just talking about shifting the guiding light from making decisions maximally interesting (or fun, as in the previous post) and focusing on designing for maximally satisfying payoffs instead.
Interesting decisions are an ingredient in satisfaction for strategy games, but focusing primarily on increasing that ingredient at the expense of others can lead you in the wrong direction… Like drowning a burger in ketchup.
So what IS the difference between an interesting decision and a satisfying one? An “interesting” decision is usually a decision that is hard to solve. Usually making you choose A or B, and it’s not obvious which is better. The classic example is creating alternate costs. Imagine magic the gathering, but there are no lands (resource cards). Instead, you can play a red dragon as a mountain (provides necessary resources to play red cards), or else play it as the dragon it is once you have enough mountains to do so.
This sounds interesting. It’s going to give you difficult decisions, do you want to use your cool dragon as a resource card or do you want to keep it so you can play it? The odyssey block was built around this in MTG: trying to create situations where players would want to discard cards in their hand to pay for alternate costs or fulfill requirements like having a lot of cards in their graveyard. This was very interesting, and very popular with the narrow psychographic of players that most value brain-knotting puzzles.
It was very, very unsuccessful with everyone else. It doesn’t feel good to discard the cards you want to play to pay for the costs of other cards. You put this dragon in your deck to play a dragon, and you’re forced to ditch it to get the 7th card in your graveyard.
The main dichotomy is that a decision, like a puzzle, is only interesting while it’s unsolved. Designers (and players) tend to assume that the longer it takes to figure out the right move, or to solve the puzzle, the more interesting the problem is. Interesting becomes the opposite of obvious. If a decision is obvious, it’s not interesting is it?
But it often is very satisfying. A good puzzle isn’t one where the player can never solve it, a good puzzle is one in which the player enjoys solving it. They reach that satisfying “aha” moment at the end, and everything clicks into place. I’ve designed tons of puzzles for Faeria and they’re one of the most-loved features of the game. They’re not supposed to be unsolvable, they’re supposed to be satisfying to solve.
The same applies to turn-based strategy games. Often the decisions should not be very difficult, since you need to reach a satisfying decision (feel comfortable that you solved it) within 1-2 minutes. How hard can that decision be? Now it’s interesting FOR those 1-2 minutes until you hit your decision, or maybe even just 10-20 seconds, and the moment you solve it you pass the turn. Next turn the game’s factors and options should have changed, giving you a new satisfying short decision.
This is why interesting can be a problematic goal to shoot for. The design choices that maximize what most people think of as interesting take you in the wrong direction.