Friday, June 12, 2009

Choice is a buzzkill

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:
  1. 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.

  2. Opportunity costs.
    It is easy to imagine attractive features of the alternatives that we've given up.

  3. 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.

  4. Self-blame.
    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.


evizaer said...

I don't think that the problem is that there is too much choice. I think it's the kind of choices players are presented with and how they are presented. The choices that annoy me in games generally annoy me because I don't have sufficient information to make an intelligent decision or the decision really won't have any effect on the game.

Sure, character creation is nice, but do we really have to have sixteen thousand options for nose length? It's good to have enough choice to make your character somewhat distinctive, but it shouldn't take more than a couple minutes.

If there is a decision for the player to make in a game but there is only one viable option, what's the point of making the player decide in the first place?

If games presented information about choices more effectively, I think the niggling choices will be greatly diminished. If you give me a decision between two appealing options and explain to me what each means and what the effects of each will be in a precise and concise way, I will enjoy making the decision and look forward to harnessing the results. If you hide information from me or spring a surprise on me later that I could not have foreseen that would have changed the decision I I made, I will be annoyed.

Alan Labouseur said...

Halflife 2 has been mildly criticized for being "too linear". In other words, there are fewer choices as compared to similar games. Yet HL2 has been consistently ranked as one of the best games ever. I think the "choice" is clear.

motstandet said...

A more recent FPS in which the term "non-linearity" was tossed around was BioShock. The devs claimed that the player would have all these combat options with guns and plasmids, spending months balancing out all the combinations.

But in reality, combat wasn't a choice. You had to fight. It wasn't like Deus Ex where you could talk your way out of situations. All the weapons presented illusions of choice. You could freeze an enemy and smash it with a wrench, or you could electrify it and smash it with a wrench, or you can empty a dozen shotgun shells into it and smash it with a wrench. All in all, you were killing that enemy, and you loved every minute of it, no matter what your weapons of choice were.

Story was linear. World progression was linear. The player didn't have a choice. In fact, the very back story of the game was that you didn't have freewill!

The multiple endings I am talking about have to do with how many Little Sisters you saved--which was a bogus moral decision tied to game resources. (The typical: hedonistically receive the goods now by killing the innocent, or egoistically save them to delay receiving slightly more goods later.)

I should make a distinction about choices in games. Tactic choices are made by weighing all the options and choosing the most rational decision. If there are too many options here, then the player can get overwhelmed at the possibilities. But if he wins, then there isn't an issue. Most of the time, the payoffs are pretty easy to discern.

But what about choices where payoffs aren't readily apparent or the payoff isn't in game terms--it's in human happiness. These choices typically find themselves in MMOGs, where there isn't really a "win" condition. MMOGs are better categorized as "toys" rather than "games" for this very reason. The player creates goals for himself (either heavily influenced by the mechanics in a theme-park MMO or through their own devices in a sandbox) and then devises ways to reach these goals. If there are multiple paths, and the player wants to experience the "journey", then which one is the most "fun" and brings the greatest amount of "happiness"? I don't know. The player probably doesn't know either. Here is where the choice paradox comes into play.

Tesh said...

Games are all about choice. Otherwise, we'd watch a movie or read a book.

Evizaer is spot on; make interesting choices and give the player enough information to make them, and that would go a long way to making "choice" better in games. As Mike Darga also notes, give players the ability to revisit and change choices that don't work out, like a class change in an MMO. Being locked into a choice that is irreversible and was made with little knowledge of what it meant is a huge detriment to a game.

There's also the tangent of what makes a choice "meaningful". Some think that a decision has to be permanent to be meaningful, which is where most MMO designs come down. I strongly disagree that such is the only way to make choices meaningful. I think that meaningful decisions can be those that substantially change how you approach the game, whether or not they are permanent.