In this guide, I’ll overview different types of player agency along with specific examples of how different well-known games focused on agency including Balder’s Gate 3, Minecraft, Elden Ring, Word of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps.
Feel free to use the table of contents to skip to the section that interests you 👇
What is player agency in game design?
Player agency is the degree of freedom the developer gives players to chart their own path through the game. It is composed of elements of gameplay, narrative and self-expression, resulting in meaningful differences in outcome based on their decisions.
Game designers create the bounds, defining what impact the players can have on the game world.
Delivering on the promises of choice is no small task: In order for agency to be real, players must have the time, space and resources to make those decisions and the game must showcase their consequences.
Why does it matter in the game world?
Games and culture perhaps worship the concept of immersion a bit too deeply.
What does matter though are players’ expectations and the sense of control over their own destinies. The freedom to make decisions must be linked with consequences so it feels like the varied and diverse choices they make have consequences.
The degree of recognition for player agency varies widely with budget, narrative structure and game mechanics.
Puzzle games have relatively limited agency, focusing on specific solutions to progress to the next level.
Physics-based games have arguably too much agency, allowing wild, wacky — yet memorable — solutions to problems, such as launching Link over a wall instead of handling a complex switch and rail puzzle.
However, both game designers and players win when the ability to take different paths and be recognized for doing so is possible inside the game.
Doing so shapes player expectations and rewards conscious decision-making.
The game world becomes richer, more alive and vibrant when it responds to the player’s actions – big or small.
This can be something as simple as grass responding as you move, or as major as the outcome of the game being decided by your actions.
What is the difference between character agency and player agency?
If you aren’t familiar with the term, character agency is basically the power that the writer has over the experience. It’s composed of the decisions the character makes and is most noticed when they are contradictory to the decisions the player would make.
For example, a friend of mine was playing Red Dead Redemption 2, and she would go out of her way to do kind errands for people. However, during the cinematics, Arthur would be crass, cruel and rude.
These types of separations between the player’s actions and the character’s attitude are an example of character agency.
Character agency is often a necessary tool to advance the plot, as many or most stories are linear, but the more aligned and in tune with the fantasy the player is trying to experience, the more it feels like they are in charge.
The elements of player agency
Player agency goes far beyond story beats, dialogue trees and witty text. At the most abstract level, agency is composed of:
- Challenging Situations
- Sufficient Communication
- Meaningful Decisions
- Significant Consequences
Note that I didn’t just say situations, communication, decisions and consequences. It’s not enough for situations to exist – they must put the player into a state of tension – concern about what’s in front of them.
It’s not enough to communicate that the situation is there – you need to have sufficient information that you understand both the decisions and the consequences. It’s not enough to have decisions, they must be connected to the player’s purposes in a way that matters.
It’s not enough to have consequences, they need to be substantial enough that the player’s decision mattered.
Furthermore, these branch out based upon the context in which the agency occurs:
- Narrative agency often has branching consequences, callbacks and perception rewards
- Gameplay agency leads to combat advantages, loss of resources, time and success
The first time I heard the term was at Riot Games by Ryan Scott, when discussing champions that were miserable to play against. The player’s sense of agency is violated when they are stun locked for a long time, or didn’t have the opportunity to evade the attack. This is why classic Sion (with a point and click stun) was egregiously frustrating, while Annie who only stuns once every four spells, was considered relatively fair.
With the game, the player’s ability to mentally keep track of Annie’s stun buildup allowed them to anticipate the stun and play more safely.
By comparison, Classic Sion’s point and click stun would simply just happen and they had no way to avoid or escape it.
The game’s competitive nature demanded decisions and choices that reinforced high agency gameplay.
Game mechanics and the power they grant over the world is often the secret sauce that makes game designers and players salivate over an incredibly designed experience.
Agency affects learning outcomes, by rewarding players who pay attention, master the rules and succeed. Randomness, by comparison, blurs the skill line and can undermine agency.
Common mistakes when designing player agency
When non-designers complain about games, they often cite lack of immersion, freedom or specific lack of a feature they prefer. However, often these are actually indicators of an agency problem, rather than a need for deeper immersion or freedom.
A linear game doesn’t need to become an open world game, just as a game with carefully designed weapons doesn’t need random stat generation, though both would lead to games with broader options. More options is not innately better, especially if the promise of those options is not delivered within the game.
During the Development of Ori 2, Chris McEntee and I designed 12 different weapons for Ori to discover during their adventure to find Ku. Three were cut before this list was created:
At the time of brainstorming, it seemed to fall nicely into that sense of freedom and power. However, as players know, only four of them made it to the final game: Sword, Bow, Hammer and Chakram.
Some old sketches of various weapon concepts that were cut.
Ultimately, adding these weapons would have indeed increased the number of options available to the player, and that might make players feel that the game’s mechanics were deeper, but at its heart, combat in Ori was against relatively simple entities. The game world didn’t support enough depth that rewarded these additional weapon choices.
Instead, additional reinforcement of the weapons we had was put into place. Hammers shattered shields, while the bow drained mana in exchange for range and precise aim, the chakram allowed you to throw and kite, and the sword remained a baseline viable weapon for quick skirmishes. Each one clear and purposeful in its niche.
The added richness of more tools with different hitboxes, timings and additional features ultimately would not have added as much to the 8-12 hours experience. By comparison, additional weapons in Elden Ring can shape entire character builds, playthroughs and fits nicely into the world of highly elaborate enemies and failure driven content.
How much player agency your game has is deeply dependent on your ability to deliver on the player’s ability to make decisions.
The structures of player agency
While most people tend to think of role playing examples in the game’s narrative, such as the incredibly brute force narrative design of Baldur’s Gate 3, there are many different ways serious game designers afford such players agency.
Below is a table of these areas, and list of traits of high agency elements.
Gameplay – refers to the mechanics, tools and features which interact with the world.
Narrative – refers to the player’s journey, be it through the plot or a self-told open world tale.
World – refers to the game environment – it recognizes, respects or responds to player actions.
Identity – refers to the player’s sense of self and desired expression within the game world.
The scale of agency is broad, from game changing outcomes to small player interactions with the game’s environment to choice of play style. However, agency consistency has these three elements:
Choice – decisions that the players actually get to make, with branching possibilities
Control – the ability to act upon and follow through with their choices
Influence – the ripple effects of the above two elements together.
A player may have a decision, be put into a difficult situation and handle it poorly, resulting in a difficult battle, the loss of allies and items, or instead handle it skillfully, gaining reputation, power or mitigating substantial losses.
A moment in Baldur’s Gate 3, when I picked a fight with a goblin boss by accident is a great example – I had the choice to not do it, once I started it my ability and skill in gameplay determined the outcome – and my choice to fight him lead to the encampment turning hostile on me, forcing me to flee the area to survive and losing the chance to recruit them.
Ultimately, agency shows itself in:
- What players choose to pursue
- Where they spend their time
- How they engage
- What rewards they pick
- How they present themselves
How to design player agency within the game?
In the ideal case these moments are:
Foreseeable – the game gives enough information on how these experiences should work.
Achievable – the game gives time and space to actually accomplish what is promised.
Desirable – the game is composed of outcomes that players want. Good or bad.
Relatable – the game connects with the human player and who they want to be.
Keen eyed readers will notice a lot of parallels in the elements of player agency with the First Principles of Game Design course material, since it’s designed as a diagnostic toolkit to reveal quickly when agency violating patterns are established through clear, step-by-step questions.
Whether it’s the game’s ability to allow you to curb or encourage Astarion’s taste for blood and power, or the ability to complete the game with either a Divine Hammer or a large wooden club, games provide the expectations, outcomes and opportunities promised by the toolkit they make accessible to the player.
The players understand where they are in control of their journey through the game world and their expectations are met in the areas where they are not.
Ideally, the game designer clearly communicates how the game mechanics represent the player and the game play is fair within the systems.
Rating Player Agency
Because of the many different areas in which player agency can be evaluated, we have to score them separately. A game can offer immense player freedom of choice, but the games are incredibly shallow. Likewise, a game can offer immense story freedom, but very little in the way of gameplay options.
For the sake of evaluation, I’ll be using a simple 5 ⭐ system for these categories:
Strategic Agency: “You choose how you play”
Moment to Moment Agency: “Your execution is consequential”
Narrative Agency: “Your choices influence the outcome of the story”
World Agency: “The world responds and respects your freedom”
As a starting point, I’ll evaluate the games I’ve helped create first:
League of Legends player agency rating
|Moment to Moment Agency||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
League of Legends is a fantastic example of how some forms of agency can be strong while others are minimal or non-existent. The moment to moment combat creates a strong sense of agency for all players. Your choices AND your execution in lane or jungle immensely impact the final outcome of the game.
Strategically, your choice of champion will immensely shape how your experience of the game flows, as some champions work together better with or without other champions. However, the presence of counterpicks also means sometimes you do end up in a challenging or oppressive situation.
Moment to moment gameplay though is at its peak, with late game ambushes, smart plays and clever teamwork able to reverse games that are otherwise completely lost!
This aspect of league of legends is what sparked its permanent place as a competitive esport.
In fact, there are few other games that I think come close to the combination of these two factors. However, all of the narrative in the game, at least lore wise, is unchanging and players have zero impact on it.
(That said, the player stories shared and generated by this game are strong, memorable and create strong social glue, but I gave this category 0 stars to reinforce the point.)
The world agency would also be one star, if not for one specific aspect:
In a recent update, League of Legends added Elemental dragons, and the timing of when the players defeat the 2nd Elemental Dragon determines when the map changes in a very significant way.
However, since there isn’t much actual player choice aside from the timing, it’s still only a 2 star category.
World of Warcraft player agency rating
|Moment to Moment Agency||⭐⭐⭐⭐✖️|
World of Warcraft is a bit closer to the middle of the road in all factors related to agency. Its moment to moment agency is much lower than League of Legends, with things like unavoidable auto attacks, attrition based gameplay and emphasis on target-locked interactions.
Its strategic agency is similar, with your choice of class, spec, talents, gear and team composition coming together at the end game to make raiding matter. However, there’s usually an optimal set of these things and the amount of freedom is relatively marginal compared to say Elden Ring.
The narrative agency is a step closer to the midline, but being that the player is just one character among thousands on a server, players individually have relatively minimal impact on the game’s story. However, they do allow the player to change their experience of the game through choice of factions they ally with or against.
These choices, along with little details such as the game world recognizing players for their accomplishments, changes in dialogue, allied npc and what achievements they’ve completed being reflected in character by the games, as well as the freedom to choose what portions of the world the players can experience and in what order bump World of Warcraft’s world agency score up to three stars.
Ori & The Will of the Wisps player agency rating
|Moment to Moment Agency||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a cinematic and visual masterpiece. That said, it comes at the cost of the player having power over the story. The roughly 80 person team didn’t have the time, resource or objective of creating a narrative where players determine the outcome. As a result, all of the cinematics, art and gameplay are strongly aligned around the core narrative of finding Ku and the Wisps.
The strategic agency is solidly middle of the road – with weapon and spell choices being significant, but fixable on the fly if the player equips the wrong thing midfight. Likewise, the order of doing the major zones and their side-effects up on the world are highly predefined, but you have some choice. However, the integration of the town and visual landmarks for completing sidequests are solid.
Its strongest point is the immense freedom to use any tool combination you want to beat the game, including using bash to avoid most enemies. And the weakest area of agency is of course your inability to affect the narrative’s predefined outcome.
However, because the nature of the game is transparently linear, few players come into the game with any expectations of narrative choice.
It is worth noting that the game world did a great job of responding in a physical, albeit mostly visual, way to the player character’s presence, spells and attacks.
Video games with broad player agency:
Baldur’s Gate 3 player agency rating
|Moment to Moment Agency||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
Easily the fan favorite of 2023, the reasons for Baldur’s Gate 3 success are fairly clear.
Rarely does a game so strongly consider and respect all of the reasonable (and many unreasonable) actions the players might take within the game. Called the “best brute force game design in the industry”, Larian Studios created a masterpiece of decision-making.
The choice of team members, classes, equipment, consumable items and spells, on top of multiple ways of instigating or bypassing battle creates immense strategic depth.
Furthermore, these are greatly respected by the world, reflected in environmental and behavioral changes from npcs and enemy groups.
You have a great deal of moment to moment power in how you play, from wildly roaming the wilderness to sticking to just the major events.
Finally, your decisions have snowballing effects throughout the game, including the ultimate fate of Baldur’s Gate and yourself. The game even goes further, creating additional depth with the Dark Urge campaign, which takes some choices away from you to force you down a rarely seen path.
Ultimately, you do have to stick to the tracks the designers setup for you, and except for the reliance on dice rolls (which can be save/loaded around if you REALLY refuse to accept a particular option), you have a substantial amount of narrative agency.
Minecraft player agency rating
|Moment to Moment Agency||⭐⭐⭐⭐✖️|
Mojang collectively created this generative open world exploration masterpiece many years ago. However, for those of you who just read the Baldur’s Gate section might be justifiably confused at the higher score in the narrative agency column.
The goals of the Minecraft narrative is/was mostly one crafted and directed by the player themselves.
I still vividly remember stacking dirt blocks around me to survive my first night in a hovel, later going on to build vast underwater tunnel structures out of glass with friends The type of narrative created by Minecraft is a different kind than Baldur’s Gate, and so unlocks a different degree of freedom.
It is vastly simpler than any other example in this article, with minimal tools to interact with game world, yet the world itself is 100% malleable. If you do not like a mountain, you could conceivably dedicate your life to removing it.
… or just cheat
Likewise, the combat gameplay is so sloppy and loose, you have complete freedom to avoid any and all damage whatsoever by playing sufficiently carefully. The freedom to make decisions is incredibly high in Minecraft, coupled with the challenge of also needing to set your own goals.
Elden Ring player agency rating
|Moment to Moment Agency||⭐⭐⭐⭐✖️|
Elden Ring is one of those times where you play the game and only later realize just how much freedom you actually had, if only you had the skill to access it earlier. For that reason, the strategic and moment to moment agency within the game are incredibly high.
While other games might offer more forgiving evasion, games like Elden Ring consistently grant players the time and space to make choices and overcome every challenge, even if they feel like they are constantly overwhelmed to start.
Recent twitch streamers who have beaten the game with dance pads, guitar controllers and even mind control caps showcase just how forgiving the game can be. Player agency is remarkably high, though ultimately there are only a few paths with mostly cosmetic differences in the final outcome of the game.
Likewise, while the players can kill just about everyone in the game and complete it, the world doesn’t recognize your behavior outside of its combat rules.
Video games with restricted player agency:
You Have To Burn The Rope player agency rating
|Moment to Moment Agency||✖️✖️✖️✖️✖️|
There is perhaps no stronger example of a game without agency than “You Have To Burn The Rope” by Mazapan.
In this artistic commentary on overly hand-held game design, you literally cannot do anything except grab a torch and burn the rope.
There is no strategy, there’s not even the realization of what you need to do – the game’s name guarantees you know the solution before seeing the problem.
There is no moment-to-moment agency or consequences for poor execution, power over narrative and it gets a single star only because the rope actually disappears when you burn it.
For the remainder of this section, it’s incredibly difficult to find a game which has low marks in all of these areas without intent. So rather than critique linear games for being linear or table top games for being limited to dice, tokens and cards, I will instead highlight multiple examples of poor agency in games and culture.
So let’s take the different categories and talk about examples from well-known games which are weak in those areas: (even if the game might be fine in that category in other ways)
“Did I choose how I played?”
- Metroid Dread – ⭐✖️✖️✖️✖️
- While a fun game, all of the levels, missions, encounters and even the order of zones were heavily linear, with virtually no freedom or creativity to problem solve.
- Destiny 2 Raiding – ⭐⭐✖️✖️✖️
- The introduction of a failure countdown when a party member died was intended to provide an upper limit on how long players could be locked in, but meant some heroic moments and close-calls were thrown away, since players couldn’t opt-in to remaining.
- Hob – ⭐✖️✖️✖️✖️
- While a beautiful game with reasonable gameplay, the player and their toolkit were extremely limited and you were pigeonholed into puzzle solving and beating the game in a very specific way.
“Did the quality of my execution matter?”
- What Remains of Edith Finch – ⭐✖️✖️✖️✖️
- Keeping in mind that this is more interactive narrative entertainment than traditional game, the game was in no way about how you make decisions, nor did the outcomes within the game reflect the quality of your execution.
- Final Fantasy 7 (First battle against Ruby Weapon) – ⭐✖️✖️✖️✖️
- There is simply no way you can possibly defeat it, and the game forces failure to hit the note they wanted. This was a striking contrast to victory mattering in other places.
- The Order 1886 – ⭐⭐✖️✖️✖️
- This game was extremely restrictive of player actions. In general, instead of looking at how to make the game cool, they pushed too far into the hard realistic space, while simultaneously taking way player agency over things like choosing when to replenish health by auto-healing at landmarks.
- World of Warcraft Classic (PvP Crowd Control) – ⭐✖️✖️✖️✖️
- CC Effects, in particular Fear and Polymorph, not only disrupt the player’s control of their character, but also disrupt their camera. The end result is disorienting, inconsistent and frustrating to experience.
“Did my actions change the story?”
- Dragon Age 2 – ⭐✖️✖️✖️✖️
- Every path you take in the game leads to the same outcome.
- Ultimately, it created an illusion of a choice-based RPG, where there wasn’t one.
- Mass Effect 3 (Kai Leng) – ⭐✖️✖️✖️✖️
- Similar to the previous example, you can wipe the floor with him in gameplay and the game still treats it as defeat.
- Mass Effect 3 (Ending) – ⭐✖️✖️✖️✖️
- Mass Effect 3 gets a second bullet point here specifically, not because the red/blue-green ending structure on its own was so bad, but rather because the previous games and the cross-character interactions were so rich and consequential, that the ending felt both rushed and failed to cash out on the myriad choices the players had made leading up to it.
- Red Dead Redemption – ⭐⭐✖️✖️✖️
- The open world structure creates a promise of freedom, exploration and choice of approach, but the scripted missions relied on a myriad of hard-failure conditions to keep players playing the way mission designers wanted.
Credit: Mass Effect Anonymous
“Did the world acknowledge what I did?”
- RPG Dialogue Wheels (Mixed games) – ⭐⭐✖️✖️✖️
- Many RPGs let you choose different responses to NPCs, but ultimately provoke no reaction, repeating the same line for any response or otherwise being completely ceremonial.
- High on Life (Time Bubble) – ⭐✖️✖️✖️✖️
- One of the weapons grants you a time bubble that slows down enemies and allows you to stop spinning fans to pass through them. But only some fans. Not all fans. Only those fans that the game wants you to pass.
- High on Life (Watch the Bike) – ⭐⭐⭐⭐✖️ or ⭐⭐✖️✖️✖️
- In one little event an npc asks you to watch their bike. When you pan your camera away, the bike vanishes. This was a really cute comedy hit. However, if you DID watch the bike, you were simply locked in place. The game didn’t let you wait long enough… despite this exact thing (waiting for an hour / half hour) was used as a viable solution elsewhere in the game.
How to improve player agency within the game?
So, as a video game designer how do you make decisions that are better for the game?
Well, first off remember that game design is the art of tradeoffs, problem solving and decision making. What is correct in one scenario might not be applicable in another.
We begin playing games not understanding anything about video games or video game worlds. It’s only by seeing other game players engage with the world that we see how they approach and experience things differently.
Playtesting and witnessing what players do in practice, not just in theory, and deciding what you will support is at the heart of great player agency. Likewise, choosing to empower the victim in the case of PvP games will often lead to better agency in the entire experience.
However, as a start here are a few concepts to keep in mind:
- Your job as a designer is to facilitate choices.
- If you don’t reward making smart use of a tool, they won’t use it
- Your job is not to ensure every tool can work in every situation
- Maintaining balance is the art of tension
- There needs to be reasons to change up your patterns of play
- Without resistance, there is no engagement.
- An example of this is Fable – the games are so easy it doesn’t matter if you’re a fighter, a ranger or a wizard – they all work in all situations.
- Be proactive in engaging the player
- Setup moments where they will anticipate using skills and abilities in the future
- Create consequences
- Both beneficial outcomes and setbacks add to the overall player sense of investment in the game and their decisions.
- Be adaptable
- What you expect from the player isn’t necessarily what they will do
- Reward what makes sense and make it clear what isn’t working
- Encourage in-character decisions
- A rogue pickpocketing everyone and having to cleverly escape the consequences with her stealth skills is a sequence of events that’s more fun than everyone pickpocketing because it’s the most efficient way to get coins
Watch out for traps such as falsifying choices, where you undermine their decision such as overt railroading, or illusion of choice where you promise impact that doesn’t exist.l
You can learn more about how to explore the player’s psychology and create more rewarding decision trees in the First Principles of Game Design course (specifically the Response module) and its follow-up Mastering Mechanics course (currently in development).
You can get notified when Mastering Game Mechanics course is live here ↓
Player agency final thoughts
A successful game does not need absolute game design agency, and most games cannot afford to make their video game world support every possible conceivable option.
However, as long as it forms player expectations that match the experience of that one game, you will be alright.
On the other hand, role-playing games heavy with player interaction need to be conscious of artificially limiting the player’s actions, as the overly formal game structures can create a challenging and strained relationship between the game systems and game narrative.
Remember from character creation to the game finale, game design affects the narrative and shapes players’ expectations. Many games can get away with a simple game world, with strong player freedom, or a rich game world with simpler player freedom.
Either way, the game designer needs to create scenarios that reward their creativity or respond to their actions and choices.
In combat and gameplay agency, player interaction is queen, and you can simultaneously limit player actions and increase their agency as long as the game system is foreseeable, the challenges achievable and the best outcomes desirable.
The trick is not a trick at all – but rather a series of well-defined and sharply shaped forks in the road, each route asking for a different set of skills and insights.