Think Design : The Paradox Of Choice

A New Series Begins

Welcome to the first in a new series here on the VFS Arcade! In Think Design, we’ll be taking a look at some cool theories in human psychology that can help us design better games. Some of the questions we’ll tackle in upcoming posts include:

  • Why are teams always so confident that their new game will be a hit?
  • Why is it good to play games you hate?
  • Why do some people spend thousands of dollars on free to play games?
  • Why, oh why, do we always have to cut features and still do overtime?
  • Plus many more!

Today, we’ll be looking at how to buy jam, why you seem to always have unused talent points in Skyrim, and why you probably didn’t love your last restaurant meal.


The Paradox Of Choice

Let’s start with the Paradox of Choice. If it sounds familiar, you may have seen this great TED Talk by Barry Schwartz.

The Paradox of Choice essentially says that humans like choice, but only up to a point. Past a certain number of choices (usually around 6), we become overwhelmed and can’t easily make decisions. Ever heard the expression ‘analysis paralysis’? It describes what happens when we are faced with too many choices: we become so overwhelmed with analyzing our decisions that it paralyzes us from actually making a choice. We get stuck in the analysis phase.

Good luck – at least 29 different cheesecakes available, plus other desserts!


So if too much variety is a bad thing, why do we want more choices? Because we equate choice with freedom. Choice gives us the possibility of getting exactly what we want. But with too much choice, we don’t get freedom – we become trapped in a prison of indecision.

In one experiment conducted by university researchers at a food store in California, experimenters set up a taste test, where customers could sample different types of jam. Sometimes, the table had just 6 varieties, while other times there were 24 flavors.

Unsurprisingly, people stopped when the table was set up with 24 jams to check out the options and enjoy a sample. But what is surprising is that more people bought jam when there were only 6 varieties. And not just a few more people, either. People were 10 times more likely to buy when the table had just 6 flavors.

Why would this happen? Because even though we are attracted by choice, we can’t decide when we are given so many options. We like to look at the different flavors on the table with 24 different jams, but we just can’t decide which one to buy. Give us only 6 choices, and we’ll be able to quickly pick one.

Ahh, much easier to choose something.


Maybe Variety Isn’t The Spice Of Life

Okay, so how does this help game design? Well, let’s say you’re designing your in-game Store. When designing your layout, keep the number of items displayed on each screen small – don’t overwhelm the player with choice. If the player only has 80HP, why bother showing the item that heals for 500HP? Just show her the 25HP and 100HP refill items for now. Display the 500HP item once the player levels up a few times and has 400+ HP.

Or maybe you’re designing a new MMO, and you’re proud of the 14 classes you’ve designed. Think of ways to break these up. An even split between good and evil would instantly get you down to 7 classes for each alignment. Restrict some classes to certain races, and you’ve made the options even more manageable for players.

If you’re designing a free to play game, consider only showing a few items at once, and having 6 or fewer price points for buying hard currency. I’ve seen games with as many as 10 options for users to buy hard currency. As we now know, with that many options the player will probably decide they need to digest the choices before making a decision. They click away without making the purchase, and possibly never come back.

Clear and limited choices make it easier for players to decide.


Think about the way Bethesda usually tackles character creation. They usually use some sort of fun quiz or in-game activity to determine initial character traits. But on the flip side, notice what happens when they stray from limiting choice. I don’t know about you, but I often find myself sitting on Talent Points because I can’t decide how to spend them, and I don’t want to make the ‘wrong’ choice.

Hmm, what should I get? I don’t know, I’ll just decide later.


I Should Have Ordered The Fish

This leads us to the second aspect of the paradox of choice: If there are many choices, you are more likely to regret any choice you make. Think about the last time you went to a restaurant with a big menu and got a meal that wasn’t perfect – you probably couldn’t help but think of all the better dishes you could have chosen, even though you have no idea if they would have been any good.

If you give the player a ton of choice, and the player nevertheless manages to make a decision, it is more likely that he will regret that decision. Why? Because he will notice any flaws in his choice, and imagine that there were other better possibilities.

Okay, if that happens, why should you care, right? Your classes are well-balanced, so the player still be able to solo as a Cleric. And hey, maybe this will even encourage multiple playthroughs. But the problem is this: if the player is questioning his decision, he will be preoccupied with the options he didn’t choose, and this will lead him to enjoy your game less. He might not even finish once, let alone play through a second time.

Now this is not to say that choice is bad. But when you offer choices, try to limit the number of options you offer to the player at once. And the more those choices contrast with one another, the less likely the player will suffer pangs of regret. Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that of course the complexity of the choice also matters – if a player is choosing from 20 character outfit colors, that’s a simpler decision than choosing from 20 stat-based weapons.


On Second Thought, Hold The Mustard

Now that you know about the Paradox of Choice, keep it in mind whenever you present players with choices in your next game. Spread out decisions so that players only have to choose from a few options at once. You’ll make it easier for players to decide, and they’ll suffer less regret when they do.

Seriously? I just want some plain ol’ mustard!


Hope you enjoyed this first installment of Think Design. In the coming weeks, we’ll be looking at a lot of powerful tools you can use to make your games even better. Just remember… with great power comes great responsibility!

Ryan Donaldson teaches the Business of Games at VFS Game Design