Breaking the Chains of Analysis Paralysis – The Paradox of Choice (Part 2 of 7)

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If you’re here, reading a game designer blog discussing analysis paralysis, then I’m pretty sure you probably have some idea of what I mean by the words “Analysis Paralysis” (hereafter referred to as AP). If you don’t, don’t fret! Jump back to Part 1 and read the “What is AP?” section for a primer on the subject.

This is the second article in a series of 7, each article in this series will go into depth on one potential cause of AP, examples of situations where it can be problematic, and present some solutions that can improve the situation.

  1. The Black Box
  2. The Paradox of Choice – this article
  3. The Prisoner’s Dilemma
  4. The Maze to Victory – Jan 3
  5. Relationship Status: It’s Complicated – Jan 10
  6. Sophie’s Choice – Jan 17
  7. Bigger vs Better – Jan 24

If you have any suggestions, examples, questions, or want to point out something I’ve missed, please do so in the comments. This is not a scientifically rigorous examination of AP, and I would be happy to include any contributions you have!

The Paradox of Choice

The problem of too many options.

Category: Quantity

Player Symptoms:

  1. Long pauses of intense consideration.

  2. Verbally or manually tracing out options for an extended period of time.

  3. False-starts, repeatedly starting play and stopping again before any action is taken.

  4. Consistently starting a turn, taking actions, then rolling back those actions to do something different.

  5. Keeping a hand on a piece while continuing to consider options if “hand comes off, move is final” rules are in effect.

  6. Verbal cues such as “There’s nothing I can do” or “I don’t know what to do” when many options are available.

Cause of Problem:

There is only one primary cause of too many options induced AP, but it manifests in two distinct ways. The first is, as stated, having too many options. The second is having too few constraints.

Problem 1: Too Many Options

The Paradox of Choice is a book on the psychology of decision making by Barry Schwartz that, although it has come under scrutiny in recent years for its correlation of choice and anxiety, is still useful to describe an effect that we see in games. The thesis that the Paradox of Choice relies upon is a concept that is far older and dates back to at least ancient Greece and that fabulous fabler Aesop. His tale of the Fox and the Cat is likely an original progenitor to the idea that an abundance of choice leads to a paralysis of action. The story tells of a Fox and a Cat discussing how many tricks they have to escape, the fox has many but the cat has but one. When the hunters arrive with their dogs, the cat uses its only means of escape and runs up a tree. But the fox considers its many options and is so busy trying to pick the correct one that it does nothing and is caught.

This tale gives us the very underpinnings of the idea of analysis paralysis, that a player when faced with a plethora of options, taking time to carefully consider each one can lead to a situation where they do not actually accomplish anything. This problem can be compounded exponentially – that is, considering not only current choices but future choices as well, can quickly become an unmanageable problem.

This problem thus has two dimensions to it, breadth and depth.

Breadth

Breadth of choice is when a player is faced with a single decision that they must make, but are presented with a vast array of options. A fine example of this that I have seen used is the problem of selecting a salad dressing at a supermarket. On the shelf of a well-stocked grocery store there are dozens if not hundreds of salad dressing options. You might need to consider creamy vs vinaigrette, sweet vs savoury, tartness, how well it compliments the salad being made, how well it pairs with the main course, and then you might want to consider brand, ingredients, nutritional information… If there are a hundred options available to you, there are ten thousand ways to evaluate them. But in the end it comes down to picking ONE.

Depths

Depth of choice is when a player is faced with making many decisions that cascade or depend on previous decisions. An overly simple example of this would be a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors that ends when one player has amassed X more victories than their opponent (where X is a fixed number, say… 10). Winning 1 round gets you a step closer to victory, losing gets you a step further away, and theoretically the game could go on forever. Every decision comes with the burden of evaluating both your own pattern of play, as well as your opponents, and attempting to outthink their choices. Each individual choice may be simple, but when it is compounded by history of play and strategy to deceive your opponent to gain future advantage results in infinite variety of choice.

When combined together, breadth and depth of choice quickly expands into an inconceivably large set of options that defies the ability for even computers to handle. This is the core problem behind solving games such as Chess and Go, and it is a problem that is compounded by placing value on the outcome such as in competitive play. The best players in the world are ones who not only understand the broad strokes of strategy and which moves are most valuable, but also have the foresight to look at what their opponent is doing, predict their likely moves, adapt to those moves while also playing a game of subterfuge by understanding their opponent is doing the same thing and attempt to disguise their moves.

This level of choice and decision making is also the reason why I am not very good at playing CCG’s such as Magic. The breadth of choice available and the depth of interactions between cards is exponential and that weight when trying to build a deck is overwhelming.

Problem 2: Too Few Constraints

It is often said that constraints fuel creativity, or that a writer’s biggest fear is a blank page. When presented with infinite possibilities and no limits, sometimes the hardest thing to do is figure out is what to do.

This problem isn’t quite so challenging from the perspective of a player, there seldom exists a situation where there are no limits on what you can do… role-playing games perhaps being an exception where a framework is provided but there are no limitations placed on the story.

Aside from participant-generated story-based games, the structured game model that comes closest to the problem of infinite possibilities are heavy-weight war or miniature games. These games have an inclination towards simulating reality (or A reality) and reducing levels of abstraction. They also typically have high-level goals (destroy the enemy!) coupled with fine-grained control of the moving parts of the game, this provides an enormous space for players to approach the game creatively and rewards a fine-grained attention to detail while also applying those in pursuit of grander objectives.

From the perspective of a game designer, this is a bigger challenge when it comes to design in general. Whether you are starting a new project, or are even working to improve an existing one, deciding what to do or how to change can be incredibly daunting.

Solutions:

If your players are struggling with information obscurity, there are a few simple ways to make their decision-making process easier.

Reduction:

The most obvious answer to the problem of too many choices, is to simply reduce the number of choices available. The challenge with this approach is that the more complex the game, the more difficult it is to reduce the number of options and maintain an established game balance.

A prime example of an intractably broad and deep game where this idea of reduction is applied is the game of Go. The game plays equally well on a large board as it does on a small board, and playing it on a small board is ideal for beginners to learn the concepts and tactics of the game before applying those to the game on a full-size 19x19 grid.

More complicated, rules-heavy games can sometimes suffer from a variation of this problem, but where the number of choices is a compounding factor on top of other AP problems (which we will explore in more detail in later articles). Reducing the number of options may need to be combined with other solutions to overcome the challenge, such as:

Diversification:

when a game is challenged by having too many choices, sometimes the problem does not lie in the sheer number of choices, but in the differentiation between those choices. Having many choices that are similar can be more difficult to decide between than having the same number with a larger variation between them. Consider the salad dressing problem, where your goal is to make a nice light summer raspberry vinaigrette salad  - and your available options at the grocer are fourteen varieties of Ranch. Diversifying the available selection to include a wide variety of types, styles, and tastes makes it much easier to pick an option that is close to what you want even if it’s not a perfect match.

This is also one of the challenges that I have with long-running collectible card games. Over time due to the motivation to produce more new cards in order to maintain an income stream, this produces an enormous back-catalog of cards that begin to look very similar – or are even mechanically identical. Choosing between a half-dozen variations that are nearly the same can be more difficult to choose the ‘best’ option than a selection of widely different cards. Among collectible card games such as Magic, resolving this growing problem can be done through diversifying new cards (new mechanics, new play styles, etc), or more commonly can be resolve through:

Constraining:

The Standard tournament format for Magic is an example where new blocks of cards are regularly introduced, and old ones removed. This limits the pool of cards that need to be considered when building a deck for competition, and reduces the uptake cost for new players.

But constraining can be implemented within single standalone games as well as a way to reduce the problem of too much choice. Many trick-taking games for example have a follow mechanic, whereby a player must follow and play the same suit as the first card played if they are able to. This constraint serves to reduce the complexity space of the possibility of all card plays, while also introducing new strategic options.

Introducing constraints is intentionally limiting the number of available choices to a subset of all available possibilities. If done well, adding constraints can focus a player’s attention and decision making and streamline the gameplay process. A prime example of this is Charades or Pictionary. Both games use a deck of cards to constrain the goals of the players, as well as providing a more balanced playing-field. These games can be played without, by having each actor or drawer think of their own subject, writing it on a piece of paper, and then implementing it. By constraining the subjects to a predetermined set and constraining the actor or drawer by selecting a random subject, the decision making and thought required to come up with a subject is eliminated.

The risk with implementing constraints however, is the possibility of implementing too many. Adding constraints to a game reduces the number and range of decisions that a player can make. It requires balance to add constraints and yet maintain an interesting and diverse set of choices for a player. Constraining a game too far by removing all reasonable alternative choices can reduce a game to the level of an activity.

Templating:

An alternative to adding constraints to a game is to add templates. Templates are examples, guidelines, or pre-generated options or recommendations for players that provide a solid, quality option to follow but doesn’t restrict a player from choosing to pursue a different path.

Templating can be found among most role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Setting information, flavour text, pre-generated characters, stat arrays, books of monster listings, and published adventures are all ways that role-playing games provide templates for players to follow if they choose.

Synergy:

A variant on templating, synergy adds beneficial mechanics to a game if a player chooses a matching option. This can be in the form of bonus points, to additional actions, or anything else that provides an in-game benefit for following a proscribed set of choices.

One game that implements this concept particularly well is Star Realms. Each faction of ship provides a synergy bonus if played together with another ship of from that same faction, either by granting additional damage, additional purchasing power, card draw, or any number of additional effects. The game rewards players who focus on selecting ships from the same faction rather than choosing whichever ship appears to be the best available.

Next Week

If you have any comments, suggestions, or examples that you would like to share about this week’s topic, please tell us about them in the comments.

Next week we will be looking at the Prisoner’s Dilemma.