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”?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.