Analysis Paralysis

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Game design is a discipline that involves balancing a number of obvious problems – for example, character progression speed, or optimal number of inventory slots – with several other not so obvious problems.

One of these not-so-obvious problems is ameliorating what is called analysis paralysis.

What is “analysis paralysis”?

Analysis paralysis:
The state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.

A decision can be treated as over-complicated, with too many detailed options, so that a choice is never made, rather than try something and change if a major problem arises.

A person might be seeking the optimal or “perfect” solution upfront, and fear making any decision which could lead to erroneous results, when on the way to a better solution.

Wikipedia

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There are a lot places where this kind of issue can crop up in a game:

  • Character Class
  • Skill Point Allocation
  • Faction Alignment
  • Zone Options (opportunity cost)
  • Player Guild Membership
  • …And so on

In other words, anywhere in a game where the player is presented with a genuine choice with real consequences.

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So, what determines whether a choice is “good” or “bad”, and by bad in this case I mean falling prey to analysis paralysis?

First, and arguably most importantly, what information if available to the player? If a player doesn’t have – and, it should be noted, have in a readily digestible format – the data to make a reasoned choice, then the choice defaults to one based on aesthetic or random selection.

Second, how permanent is the choice? Is it retractable? If it is retractable, what is the mechanism – that is, how expensive to the player is retracting the choice? Respecs for character allocations of points in many games centers around this, and some games such as World of Warcraft allow you to, for a fee of real money, change otherwise permanent decisions such as race and gender.

Third, what is the inherent exclusivity of the choice? Meaning, if you choose option A, does that preclude also choosing option B such that both are operable simultaneously? If I choose to be allied to faction A, can I also be allied to faction B?

Fourth, how easy is it for a player to make an unambiguously bad choice? If none of the choices are bad, then it’s much less of an issue, but if a player can easily gimp themselves by making a certain choice, that can ratchet up the stress and general unpleasantness of the choice tree.

It’s important to note that while all of these impact the likelihood of a player experiencing analysis paralysis, that doesn’t mean that the inevitable answer is to minimize these; permanent, semi-permanent, and exclusive choices all increase the import of a player’s decision, inclining the player to invest a greater amount of emotion to the choice. Which is, obviously, a good thing, from the point of view of a game design.

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This brings us a to a usually implicit, but sometimes explicit, philosophy of game design called The Rule of Four (not to be confused with the Supreme Court process rule by the same name).

At its simplest, the Rule of Four is a usability rule of thumb that says where possible, a player should be presented with no more than four choices at any one time.

Obviously, there are times where this isn’t possible, such as selecting duty officers for an assignment in Star Trek Online, or city planting sites in Shadowbane, but you might be surprised at how often it is possible.

Sometimes this is done through sleight-of-hand. For example, there are a lot more than four raids available to players in World of Warcraft, but because raid progression has other raids as prerequisites, in actuality the real choice is quite small – and usually four or under.

Over the years, games have tended a lot more to auto-assignment of stats based on your class and level banding as ways to give an illusion of a multitude of choice, while the number of genuine choices is actually quite small.

One would think that more choices would inevitably lead to players being happier, but psychological research has depressingly shown that it is actually the opposite that is the case.

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So what is a game designer to do?

Analysis paralysis is a very important thing to be aware of, particularly because it is a sneaky effect on a game’s churn numbers (that is, the number of players who leave a game in any specified slice of time). Players who are presented with more information than they can make good choices on can readily become frustrated, then unhappy, then leave the game, all the while with no conscious understanding of why they became frustrated in the first place. A game’s exit interview asking why a player left will virtually never result in any player saying they left because of analysis paralysis, but that may well be the reason.

Going the other direction is just as pernicious, though. Players and gaming communities thrive on choices, empowerment, and player agency, so turning a game into a railroad can have a similarly degenerative effect on a game’s churn numbers.

The answer is, of course, a balance between these two extremes, but this provides a useful tool to a designer building a system. Where a decision tree emerges in a system, the designer can look at it and ask questions like, “What are the real, tangible decisions here? Are some of these decisions not distinct enough? Are the consequences of these choices clear to the player? Are there enough choices? Too many?”

Analysis paralysis is a sneaky fun killer, but it’s one that it pays to be aware of so as to minimize the very real dangers that may emerge in its wake.

Discarded Things

There beneath the concrete veil I found them
Those lucky few of the numinous kin
My entreaties on deaf ears sat condemned
No appeal to them to wed soul and skin

Abandoned there within that stony tomb
My apotheotic path there uncoiled;
From whence came those curs from what ancient womb
That First, immaculate and unspoiled?

So: Moon, Moon! Golden horns! Melt the bullet,
Blunt the knife, rot the cudgel! Fear, strike fear!
Human flesh consigned to wolfen gibbet
Mortal defect dies to the lunule spear

And turnskinned flesh feasts on broken design
As bone and meat and mind there recombine.

Note: Slightly inspired by the very strange history of Russian werewolf folklore as reported on my other blog, Pretty Awful Things.

Designing Nations

Lately I have been talking a fair bit about a side project I am involved in called Org, an asynchronous tablet/web logistical game where each player controls an organization in a 25th century solar system, accumulating and exercising power in a wide array of manners including both cultural domination, political lobbying, privateering against established national polities, and commercial enterprise.

One of the latest exercises I have been working on seems simple on the outset – the devision of flags for the national polities of the 25th century solar system.

As you peel back the layers of the process, however, some very interesting design considerations begin to show through, in the process making for a worthwhile discussion.

We could simply just build off of what looks good, but let’s be honest – a lot of flags in the real world aren’t exactly works of art. But then, they aren’t supposed to; flags are intended to be symbolic representatives of the national polities they represent. The stripes of the United States flag represent something very specific – the original thirteen colonies. The colors of many of Africa’s flags were chosen deliberately because they refer back to colors symbolizing dreams of African unity. The symbol on India’s flag, the Ashoka Chakra, a 24-spoke wheel, is rife with spiritual import.

So, instead, we decided to build flags kind of the way they are built in real life – from the ground up, with an eye to the symbolism. We also do a couple of cheaty design things intended to make your lives easier.

What we mean by “making your lives easier” is recognizing that with over thirty distinct polities, it’s hard to keep track of which is which, even if most players will only be dealing with the polities immediately around them. One thing we have done is to put in recognizable – or at least familiar – symbols to remind the player what the polity is.

For example, the Democratic Republic of Triton (shown to left) has Neptune’s giant fish hook – a triton – on it, as a sneaky reminder that the polity is in Neptune’s orbit.

Similarly, the two Mars polities both favor red (albeit different shades of red) and both use the very familiar symbol for Mars. The Oceanic League’s flag features stylized waves. The Iapetus Coalition has a shielded “I” at the center of its banner. The Collaborated Union of the Hildas Triangle has a stylized triple-triangle at its heart. All of these things are, of course, done in the real world, though we decided to be a little more aggressive about using that as a mechanic.

The second thing we did was to try not to replicate color choices within an orbit more than necessary (obviously, black and white get a free pass on this), so there is less chance of confusion when you are trying to remember if it’s the Republic of Titan’s blue-and-gold that you were running raids on or the Amalgamated Calpultin of Dione’s red-and-black.

Another consideration was to leverage both the future histories of the (mostly) off-Earth polities along with their namesakes’ mythologies, where such were notable. The constellation of the Little Dipper and the bear of the Commonwealth of Callisto refer to the mythology of the original Callisto, a Greek nymph who was transformed into a bear and set among the stars.

The Amalgamated Calupultin of Dione feature the Aztec glyph for a burning town and the number “8” in Nahuatl to represent the original eight settlements on Dione, as well as the moon’s original Mesoamerican colonizers.

The flags of Earth are slyer, making references to the original states that the 25th century polities emerged out of; the Eastern Federation has elements of the old imperial flag of Russia along with the Yin-Yang symbol, tying the constituent elements of 21st century Russia and China into the modern 25th century state of the Eastern Federation.

Union has elements of the old European Union flag (though it is not the European Union itself – that disintegrated in the latter half of the 21st century). State bears elements of the old United States, though the modern State encompasses a much broader domain governed from the capitol of Havana on the island of Cuba. The Southern Bloc is a mixture of colors and symbology of the African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian states that came together in the 22nd century as a response to persistent abuse at the hands of metanational corporations from Union and State.

Ultimately, the point is that the flags are not merely background lore elements, but actual UI (user interface) elements serving a specific function of making the player’s navigation of the game easier and more intuitive. They do, as well, all feature in the tasks by the org of the player, and represent a consistent faux-future historical and cultural basis for those tasks to play out upon.

They’re also, of course, cool. I mean, come on, when else in your career do you get to design the flag of a group of xenophobic religious isolationists as of the forlorn asteroid colony of the Exalted Sanctuary of the Triforce Supremacy in the Belt?

Interested in checking out the flags made so far in this exercise? Check them out here on the Jubal site for Org.

Interested in the game Org itself? You can find that here.

Flags of Org. Just Because.

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I credit Eddie Izzard with my inspiration to start making flags for all 30+ national polities in Org.

The universe of Org contains not only the powerful orgs controlled by players, but also the decadent and corrupt nations that are ultimately puppets on the strings of the player’s orgs.

Despite this, the national polities of Org are potent and particular in their own ways. Some of these ways are brutally economic in the form of what resources are available to each, some manifest in the tasks available due to the petty political rivalries or cultural idiosyncrasies of each.

Check out the other flags (at least the first handful of the 30+ to be done) at Flags of the Solar System over on the Jubal site, the home of my side project Org, an in-progress tablet/web game.

Org: Early User Interface Screenshot

Many of you have probably heard about the tablet/web side project I have been pursuing on my spare time with the help of several other game industry folks. I am very pleased to be able to start showing more of what we’ve been working on in a format that is more evident than the mountains of spreadsheets and reams of code that, well, don’t really impress most people as much.

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The development process for working up the user interface works by first putting together a set of wireframes that define the logic and decision-making tree; for Org, this consists of several dozen different screens, each one individually discussed, debated, and analyzed for issues of ease of use, data association, and game logic.

The next step is to give these wireframes real art – that’s the stage we’re on now. Like the first stage, we’re going to go through a lot of iterations on this before it gets to where we want it to be, and what works for tablet may not work for the web version, so we’re likely going to see some bifurcation of that as well. The first draft is rough, but will become increasingly refined with every draft as we finalize the individual art elements, make real icons, move things around and so on.

In the mean time, the image above is the first example of this part of the process, specifically an initial draft of the starting page of the game for the tablet (you may note the colors are very bright on a computer monitor, though on a tablet they will appear much more muted).

At this point, tons of things remain to nail down:

  • Color palette and scheme
  • Structural organization and layout
  • Finalize art and icons
  • Develop the map, exploring options such as vectored rather than photorealistic style
  • Agent treatment, rank indications, information
  • …and lots more

There is a ton of more work to do, but I am always very interested to hear about what people liked about previous systems I have worked on, how this system is shaking out, and suggestions, observations and thoughts on both, so feel very welcome to comment either here or (probably better) on the forums over on the Org site.

Check out the full dev diary post on the main Jubal Online Games site.