Think Design : Alternative Blindness


Okay, pop quiz. You just inherited $50,000. Do you:

a)    Invest the money and spend it later.

b)    Spend most of it now on stuff you’ve wanted for a while.

Congratulations to anyone who invented their own option c) and chose that instead.

When we are presented with either/or choices, we often fail to think outside the box and look for other alternatives. This is called Alternative Blindness, and it can make us miss some great ideas in favor of ones that are just so-so.

You may have heard of a little challenge called the candle test: You’re at a table in the corner of a small room. On the table, there’s an ordinary candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks. Your challenge is to light the candle so that it can burn down without dripping wax onto the table.

Figured it out? Here’s the answer:

Often the best solutions come from thinking outside the box (or using it as a tray to catch the wax).

Okay, let’s look at a situation we’re more likely to encounter. You go out to a restaurant and order a burger. The server asks if you’d like fries or a salad with it. You quickly try to figure out which one you’d like more and choose one, forcing down the fear that you’ve made the wrong choice (now might be a good time to check out the previous article on the Fear of Regret). But why not ask for a bit of both? You’d be surprised at how often the server will gladly bring you a bit of each instead of either/or. Try it next time you go out to eat!

The same alternative blindness can crop up in our game design process. Let’s say you’re planning your game’s difficulty settings. The meeting might go something like this:

Designer A: I think we should have Easy, Medium, Hard.

Designer B: No, I think Casual, Normal, Expert would be better.

Designer A: What about Cuddles, Bloodbath, Massacre?

Designer B: Hahaha, totally. OMG being a designer is so awesome.

Producer (sighing): Okay, well you need to nail something down today so I can update the schedule and ask you how it’s going every two hours until we ship.

But what about other alternatives? Maybe a dynamic difficulty system is possible. Or a multiple path level design with different degrees of challenge down each path so that players can choose the difficulty they want on the fly. Of course, some of these options may not be possible given the scope, budget, or schedule, but the important thing is to think of new alternatives that haven’t been put on the table.

On the flipside, it’s important not to reinvent everything just for its own sake. There are plenty of conventions that work well in games. Some of them work well because they are conventions. If we pick up a first-person shooter on console, most of us can quickly get a handle on the controls without reading a manual or playing through a tutorial, because most FPS’s follow similar control schemes. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about how to improve those conventions, but keep in mind that if you remap everything, you will create a steeper learning curve – one that some players might not get over.

Remember the controls in this game? The steering was backwards!

One of the things that can cause alternative blindness is a simple lack of awareness – we don’t know what we don’t know. In fact, there’s a famous saying that if the only tool we have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. The more tools we have, the greater our ability to solve problems using the most effective tool possible.

As a designer, one of the best ways to combat this problem is to expose yourself (wait, no! keep reading!) to as many different things as possible – games yes, but movies, music, books, travel, cultures, languages, history, furniture, food… well, you get the idea. The more variations you’ve seen, the more you can pull together ideas from different places for inspiration.

Of course, as a designer you can intentionally use alternative blindness to your advantage, because your players have the same tendency to miss alternatives. I was playing Killzone: Shadow Fall recently, and there was a mission where an AI squad mate gave me a few options: I could either smash through a skylight guns blazing or sneak in via the stairs. At the time, I didn’t even bother to think of alternate possibilities (take out enemies with a sniper rifle from a nearby building, rappel down the side of the building and smash through the window there, enter the air conditioning ducts and infiltrate with stealth, etc.). I couldn’t have done any of these, of course, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out on them at the time, because the game didn’t put them on the table for me.

If you’ve played GTA V, you’ve probably done at least one of the heist missions. In these missions, you get to choose between two approaches that usually boil down to boldness vs. subtlety. For example, in one of the missions you can either disguise yourself as a janitor and subtly plant bombs throughout an office building while pretending to clean floors, or you can jump out of a helicopter and get into the building via the roof, guns blazing. Because we’re given only two choices, we tend not to think of other ways of doing it that could be cooler, and we just move on.

Hmm, guns now, or guns later?

By presenting us with a set of choices in the form of an either/or decision, designers can limit the possibility space without making it seem like they’re taking too much away, because we still get a choice. Plus, reducing choices can be a good thing!

The producer in the exchange above does have a valid point, though. There comes a time when we need to make a decision and move on; we can’t explore alternatives forever. But before that time comes, before making your next design decision, really challenge yourself to think outside the box, and come up with some cool new ways to catch the wax.

Ryan Donaldson teaches the Business of Games at VFS Game Design