Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The UnPublished Game Designer's Blog: Choice Paralysis

Greeting friends!

Have you ever been to a restaurant and everything looked so good you just couldn't decide what to order?

You found that no matter what you looked at there were always two, maybe three other great choices right next to it?

In the end rather than going for the amazing looking and sounding alternative you settled for 'old faithful', the dish you always have because you know that while it's not amazing, it's safe?

That's choice paralysis right there, and on occasion the result is you picking to walk away with nothing. An even worse outcome than 'old faithful'.


In games, be them table top or video, there are always choices to be made. Some if these choices are necessary; "do I want to make a DPS character or a Tank?" Others are less necessary and can be resolved by group decisions or by passing the decision to someone else; "shall we go left , or right?"

Now in my experiences I have found a number of different types of choice issues, from the friends who struggle to pick from a choice of Chinese meals, to picking if I want my character to carry two single handed swords, or a single two handed sword. But one thing is certain; choice paralysis is not the same for everyone in regards to what causes it and the severity of what is experienced.


So what is choice paralysis?

Choice Paralysis or CP from now on is when you find yourself unable to make a decision between two or more options, the end result is often vetoing to choose neither option, sometimes doing so to spite yourself out of frustration.

You see, CP has it's roots in anxiety. You are anxious of making the wrong choice, so anxious in fact that you either annoy others into taking the choice away from you or you begin to actively avoid making those sort of choices as to avoid that anxiety.

This is a problem that I am all to familiar with, especially in tabletop games.

Back in the day of Second Edition Warhammer 40,000 by Games Workshop, I used to play a small number of armies, my largest force being that of the Tyranid swarm.

Within this army I had a number of character units who could all be upgraded using upgrades called 'Biomorphs'. I remember that every single night before a game I would plan my army, out Camden the pencil and paper, I'd gather my models into piles, dig out the army book and begin calculating the points.

Once I had established what I needed to include in the army, I then would turn my attention to the upgrades, the before mentioned 'biomorphs'.

I would agonise over which upgrades to take for which character model, knowing that if I picked one it would force the character to perform in one way, but if I went with another upgrade it would make the character act differently.

There were occasions, when I knew the army I was facing exactly that I knew what to take, but if I was unfamiliar at all then I wouldn't know what to expect. Without knowing what to expect I felt that I couldn't decide on what upgrades to use as I had no idea what function I needed to direct the character in.

As a result of this I almost always decided to save the points on upgrades and reinvest them into more units. What this meant was that I had more models at my disposal, but nothing was particularly specialised. The moment my big hitter was attacked by the opponents big hitter, mine would be squashed flat because he was the base unit with no upgrades.

This is my case of CP and how in a competitive environment turning something that should be a pleasure into a purely un enjoyable experience.


So what can be done about it?

The most commonly cited response is for the player to research. Find out what is the current best 'net list' and use that. You can also look up recommended counters; "If opponent is taking X army, take Y upgrade" or personal buffs; "if you want to take X unit, take Y upgrade to buff said unit".

What you never hear is; "remove or reduce the need to make such choices".

There's a reason why you never hear this, and that is because to do so would require changing the game itself. Yes you and your friends can create homebrew rules and rule packs for established games, but that's never quite the same.

But right now we're not talking about changing the rules around established games, we're talking about the work you're doing on your game as an UnPublished Game Designer.


So you've got your game working, you have your narrative and everything is great, but you are finding some people experiencing CP. Not everyone mind, in fact out of your circle of 20 testers, maybe only one person is having the problem, maybe they can't decide which of the 6 available upgrades they can take they want to use. They're struggling so much that they are no longer enjoying the game. What do you do?

1). You write it off. It's just not the game for them, they clearly don't have the mind for it.

2). You talk them through it, try and guide them into making the 'right' choice while making a mental note to include a similar walk through in the rules.

3). You change the rules to alleviate their burden.

Now depending on your style any of these choices are suitable. Personally, I go with option number 3.


So what's the best way to alleviate their burden?

As unlikely as it might sound, I find the best example is to look at World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment.

Now let's start off by looking at what a max level character in the game's UI (User Interface) may look like:

This is just as example that I pulled off Google. Notice all the icons along the bottom and right hand side? All the blocks in the middle? All of these are buttons that should be pushed in the right order at the right time.
-note, this is a modified UI.

If you were to give this to someone who had never played with that set up and those abilities before, they'd stare at the screen and do one of two things:

A). They would figure out what to do, read guides and lists and find out how to use that.
B). They'd give up and walk away feeling very frustrated with the game.

To counter this, let's have a look at what a UI looks like when you create a new character:

Notice the absence of icons and blocks of information?

In fact if you look close enough you will see this starter character only has a single ability!

Why? So that as you play the game, as you 'level up' you unlock more and more abilities allowing you to learn on a very graceful curve with little to no sudden increase.

This is one of the greatest tools I have found at removing CP, as you are actually doing Option 2 (talking the player through the choices and aiding them with making the right choice, but it is happening ingame as part of the actual game's process.


Now if we look at my game; CRYPTS: A Weird West Dungeon Crawler, how have I implemented this within my game?

For me it is the introduction of both numbered and optional expansions.

The base game gives you a character and a very small selection of equipment to pick from, but should you struggle with this you also have per generated characters that can either be selected or allocated at random. As your character progresses they pick up more equipment as they go, but the drop rate is low enough that the player gets plenty of experience of their new items and spells before the next lot comes along.

Then we have the first optional expansion; CRYPTS: Trinity giving each character access to up to three more abilities. It is recommended that these are allocated to players who are familiar with the base rules.

Following on from Trinity we have the second optional expansion; CRYPTS: Paths Entwined, which unlocks the paths system allowing players access to a further 5 abilities, but each one unlocked after 'X' amount of time.

At every stage the player is given more than enough opportunities to fully understand what they currently have, and what they are getting that is new so they can test it at a leisurely pace, not feel overwhelmed, and with hope not suffer from Choice Paralysis.


I hope this has been an interesting chat, is greatly appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Until next time; stay safe and I'll see you Cryptside!

- Your friendly neighbourhood Doctor Loxley

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