As the game industry ages, more and more complex games with greater budgets and larger development teams hit the shelves. A not-so-surprising trend is that with each new game more customization is offered. Whether it be character creation, ability specialization, non-linearity progression, or whatever other options designers dream up, these choices are presented to the players because the players have explicitly asked for them and the designers are relying on the intuition that "more choice is better".
Unfortunately, too much choice can be a bad thing. Several years ago at TED, Barry Schwartz gave a talk on the Paradox of Choice. He argues that choice actually makes people miserable. Schwartz explains: choice counter-intuitively creates paralysis rather than liberation. We are less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be with fewer options to choose from. Here's why:
- Regret and anticipated regret.
It is easy to imagine a different choice that would have been better; we experience regret and this detracts from the satisfaction resulted from the choice.
- Opportunity costs.
It is easy to imagine attractive features of the alternatives that we've given up.
- Escalation of expectations.
With all the options available, expectations of how good the final decision will be be increases. We have no expectations when presented with no choice. When confronted with 100 choices, we feel that one should be perfect.
With no choice, if we are dissatisfied, then the world could have done better. With much choice, we personally feel that we could have done better. The responsibility falls on the person. There are no excuses.
There is obviously a threshold. Some choice is good, but more choice is not better. Do we really need 50 guns in that new FPS? How about 70 class abilities in that MMORPG? How often do you make an RPG character, only to be unhappy with its appearance 20 minutes later? "Oh man, I could have had that hairstyle!" Have you really ever been satisfied with a game that had 10 alternative endings? (think about BioShock and Fable 2)
Dan Gilbert also gave a talk on Why are we happy. His talk is about synthesized happiness, but he claims that in the presence of choice, happiness cannot be synthesized (Freedom of choice chapter [14:20]), and therefore we become unhappy.
This only applies to choices which are mutually exclusive and final. How unhappy would you be if you could only make a single WoW character? FFXI uses a job system to give players access to all the options without having to make a final decision.
Perhaps we should be asking designers for fewer choices. At least development costs would go down.