How do you ensure that every branch is likely to be visited?
I don’t. I tend to take it from the angle of “What options are my character likely to consider at this point, and which ones do I wish to prioritise in my choices?” (Having a strongly characterised main character makes this easier to do - a self-insert with a role a la Zork would have to take into account a huge range of players, making for a lot of choices at some points. There’s one reason it’s a parser game). Those could be large differences in action or subtle differences in phrasing - the idea is that the question looks interesting, even if it turns out every player picks the same choice in the end.
Also, some of the choices I use are there for reasons other than to have strong attraction. Some paths are intended to be there to make sure the player is paying attention (Budacanta has a game-ending one in one early scene, which is game-ending precisely because selecting it only makes sense if everything stated in the section preceding the choice was ignored).
Some are there primarily because such thoughts would be in the main character’s mind, and thus revealing the choice informs the player of this. (I have a bad habit of over-explaining by also writing about that thought before the choice appears, which is something I need to do less often as the introduction flows into the early mid-game).
Some choices are unequal because they change countable variables (such as money or attempts to input a password). Which variables are more important tends to change through the course of a game, meaning that there are likely to be times when the choice is obvious for the majority of playstyles. Sometimes it’s possible to lean into this, perhaps to help teach gameplay or make a narrative point.
Being able to use choices of different weight is a useful artistic tool. So is being able to use choices that are all (or mostly) valid, but for different reasons (this is probably the closest I get to aiming to have branches that are equally attractive).
I also try to put a difference in each choice that has some sort of significance, even if it has zero impact on the long term, so that replayers have a motive to explore the choices and nobody clicks on a choice the first time and thinks, “Well that was clearly the dull choice out of this lot” - unless I’ve got a strong plot/character reason to induce that feeling. (For example, if you make it clear that in a particular section, taking the exciting-looking option every time will lead to disaster, the dull choices are doing some work in increasing the tension involved in the section. Namely, what’s the best compromise between excitement and averting disaster?)
On the other hand, I want any given pathway to make enough sense that nobody feels forced to replay simply to understand the plot or have fun. There are entire sub-genres of IF built that way, but it takes a lot of skill to make them satisfying and I don’t think I’m there yet.
CAN you ensure that?
I can’t. No author can do so. Players are simply too varied to be able to say “Well, choices X, Y and Z are equally attractive”. What authors can do is help the player who chooses to try every pathway (or indeed replayers who aren’t as exhaustive as completionists) feel like this was a good use of their time. If a player trusts that this has happened, the player is in turn more likely to give more of the options a try. If the player feels that initial exploration of those alternatives was enjoyable, they may well do more.
My testers tend to give me feedback on a path only if it’s germane to a particular point the tester wants to give me about it (be that a bug report on a specific path or a feeling that one particular path evokes a different emotional response than another). Testers who believe their discussion points cover the whole work don’t tell me what path(s) they took to get that impression. I also have translators, who by the nature of the job look through everything.
Do any of you have areas of games that nobody explores because no one picks those options?
I wouldn’t know if I was one of these people (short of getting a bug report that made it impossible to reach part of the interactive fiction), because the software I use (Ren’Py) has no tracking tools of that type out of the box.
Due to the views of some of my playtesters regarding trackers (one in particular refuses to use any site with cookies unless they can tell exactly who has control of the cookies, what they are doing and absolute assurance that no third party will get that information), I do not want to incorporate any sort of non-voluntary or automated transmission of such information. I’m happy to incorporate tools that enable individuals to choose to send their choice selections to me (although I currently don’t have a history system implemented, let alone a contact system), because that’s voluntary and can have the choice and its consequences clearly demarcated. This will definitely have consequences on other parts of development.
What general ideas do you have about designing choices so that they are equally attractive?
Think about which parts of the game would be stronger for having choices in the first place. If a choice IF is to have multiple choices in one place, that feel equally important, the character and player both need a reason to select either option. If an author is trying to portray a main character as curious and adventurous, a choice of “Go on the adventure or don’t” won’t get an equal number of players, even if the circumstances described would strongly appeal to the sense of loyalty to home and hearth that the author also carefully built up during the interactive prologue.
Dilemmas are your friend. Look for conflicts that have been built up, which lend themselves to equal amounts of subsequent content.
If you are trying to accommodate different play philosophies through different ways of playing an interactive fiction, it is necessary to plot through the entire game with each of those philosophies in mind. At each decision, you need precisely one choice that is optimal for each philosophy. The choices at each point need to make sense to both player and character.
Be careful with any choice involving countable variables, especially ones that can be exhausted in the course of the interactive fiction (or intuitively can be expended in the outside world). Either reassure people that you start the game with enough money to buy everything or make sure everything that is at the same price point is equally useful and looks equally interesting.
Consider cosmetic choices. These are probably the easiest to make options equally-attractive. An example of this is selecting a different favourite colour (which can be particularly useful if the game remembers and uses it somewhere that makes sense, without requiring much extra writing work). A game made purely of cosmetic choices is going to be linear, but having some well-timed purely cosmetic choices can help with player engagement and encouraging attention.
Have different reasons for selecting each choice. If picking one path sounds like it could accommodate the other path as well, it’s going to pick up some people who might otherwise have picked the other one.
Make sure that expectations built up are met within choices. If the player clicks on a choice and it feels like their decision got cancelled, that’s going to cause people to go for whichever choice appears to be the one the author intended, as the interactive fiction gets treated as a genteel railroad.
Have consequences that are equally rewarding to read (they don’t have to be of equal size), if the options in a given choice are intended to be equal.
Build up all choices that make sense to build. It’s OK to be brief with options that don’t warrant much explanation, but for larger sections, a similar length and interest in all paths intended “equal”.
Beware: the first choice in particular tends to get picked more than others, when no other metric to make the decision exists. Also, few choices truly are without a selection metric: while left/right is the classic “guess-the-answer” choice, but the one that’s presented first will almost certainly get more clicks (it’s called the primacy effect but it’s not clear how being interactive fiction specifically affects this).
Does it feel awful to spend so much time on a branch that doesn’t get a lot of traffic?
I would have no idea if I wrote a branch that got no traffic (unless it had a bug preventing that traffic), so I can’t say I’d get any particular emotion from it. Bugs are part of a developer’s life and best tackled with reason rather than emotion, and people don’t tend to get emotional about things they don’t know about.
On the other hand, it would feel awful to spend time on a branch that got traffic and was considered awful on grounds that made it clear I’d completely messed up the intent of the branch and those reasons were ones I should reasonably have addressed before it was released to the public.
Edit: Ren’Py has rollback and save-anywhere as standard, so it lends itself to exploring alternatives. Budacanta has an option to return to the last valid point when picking a game-ending option and extends the rollback to “every screen except the very first choice for technical reasons”. Eventually it will also have a history and a modular ending (that is, instead of having a single ending per major pathway, the ending will be divided into vignettes, each affected by different aspects of the player’s run, that will hopefully help give clues as to what to change to get different ending “snapshots”.