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Fewer Options, More Meaningful Choices
by Evan Jones on 07/01/13 02:02:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown lately. The game’s emphasis on making hard choices with limited resources makes it stand out as an exemplar of a simple design principle - having fewer options tends to make a choice more meaningful.

The game's equipment mechanic is a fine illustration of this point. There are a wide variety of items and accessories a character can take into battle in XCOM, other than his main weapons and armor: healing kits, grenades, extra body armor, stim packs, and the like. The catch? The player can only choose one. Whatever the player chooses sacrifices the opportunity to choose anything else. This gives the designers the freedom to make each special item significant: if everyone could carry a healing kit at no penalty, healing kits would have to be significantly weakened in order to preserve the game balance. The restrictions on these items allow them to be powerful, and thus the choice of which item to take becomes incredibly meaningful.

Compare the tension created by this dynamic to that of the lack of drama inherent in the item system of most Final Fantasy titles. In those games, characters can suffer from a variety of status impairments that last for many battles (poison, blindness, silence, etc.) Each ailment has its own respective curative item that can cure no other ailments. Because the player is not limited by inventory space, she can always carry a wide selection of curative items at all times. Status ailments never feel particularly threatening: removing them is simply a chore to be dealt with rather than an interesting decision to be made. This also reduces the impact of items that can cure any ailment - why should a player be excited to gain access to these panaceas when she’s always had the ability to easily cure any ailment? The choice of what items to bring is rendered unimportant by the large amount of available inventory space.

We also see examples of this principle at work in multiplayer games. The mana system of Magic: the Gathering is designed to ensure that a single deck won’t be able to easily use any card in the game. A card in the player's hand is worthless unless the player also has played a resource card of the corresponding color. Every color has access to abilities other colors don’t, so hypothetically, the more colors a deck runs, the more versatile it can be. However, adding an additional color to a deck also forces the player to add resource cards of the chosen color - significantly reducing the likelihood that he draws both a given card and the resource card of that color in the same game. This is a soft restriction (there is no hard limit to how many colors a deck can run), but the hoops the player must jump through to make these complex decks playable often don’t justify the benefits from playing many colors. Cards can be balanced to be more powerful by virtue of the fact that not every deck will have the means to play them.

Conversely, the rune system in League of Legends features a large amount of false choice. In that game, runes are fixed stat modifiers that can be applied to any character and must be grinded for over a long period of time. Even assuming that all of the runes were freely available to every player, the game is chiefly balanced around the unmodified statistics of each character as well as the characters’ ability kits. Runes, therefore, tend to be relatively weak, as they are not intended to noticeably compensate for serious defects in the character’s capabilities. Further weakening this system is the fact that each player is given 30 rune slots, making the effect of an individual rune next to worthless. (There are actual runes in League with underwhelming effects like “+00.52% critical strike chance.” How many additional game wins do we expect that rune to get us?)

The next time you’re pondering over how to make a choice in your game more meaningful or a system more relevant, consider the potential advantages of limiting the player’s options.

Evan Jones is a San Francisco-based game designer and programmer. 
It would make him very happy if you followed him on Twitter @chardish.

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Michael Joseph
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"having fewer options tends to make a choice more meaningful."

I understand what the article is trying to say, but it's confusing because the above statement is logically false. Our own lives are examples where access to more options adds meaning. (eg. slaves have few options and lead rather meaningless lives)

What the article describes is having MORE options. When you have a massive inventory, optionality has no bearing because there are no trade offs for the player to consider. It becomes as you say a simple chore to select a particular item when you need it. Your second comparison even uses words that contradict your initial premise as well "more colors, more versatility... forces adding of more resource cards" vs "large amount of false choice" (fewer options is bad here.)

I'm sure at some point diminishing returns are reached when providing the player with varied game options, but that's not really what this article is talking about.

p.s. And we're talking specifically about game-y games where players seek mastery and not artsy games that seek the evocation of emotion.

K Gadd
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I think in this case he is expressing 'options' as the total sum of possibilities, not the number of values you can select from in a given category.

The LoL rune system is a great example of this; with 30 rune slots and the runes all doing relatively insignificant things by themselves, there are millions of possible rune builds and they are all basically the same.

Michael Joseph
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@Kevin Gadd

If you're trying to be clear and precise you cannot even say that the total sum of possible items made available to the user has on it's own anything to do with whether there are meaningful choices.

I'm saying in the examples cited, the author is attributing whether choice is meaningful or not to the wrong thing. It's not about total number of options it's about imposing resource management on the user. Limited resource access is what creates meaningful choices. Indeed, it can force the player to make MORE choices as they decide what to keep and what to drop. But if you have access to unlimited resources at all times then you just have obvious no brain responses to perform.

Borderlands has a ton of weapons. It doesn't seem to detract from the game. In fact people seem to like it.... but they can't carry them all.

Lincoln Thurber
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I think your logic is in error too. You'd at least have to explain what is "meaningful" and how options add meaning?

Does a slave have a less meaningful life, or a more meaningful life? How would you judge the meaning of a life or a choice really?

Michael Joseph
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choosing decks in a game like magic, picking your squad/party loadouts, configuring your starships in Stars! or VGAP, are meta games that are full of choices. Lots of choices. The permutations can be huge. More choice is great.

The rules of the game that make it interesting revolve around access restrictions... that even though there's a ton of items and configurations, the game makes you choose a narrow slice with which to play with.

Bart Stewart
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This was bothering me as well.

It seems right -- fewer choices must make each choice more valuable. But the logical conclusion is that if fewer choices is better, having no choice at all must be best.

Wait, that can't be right....

I kept thinking back to the Looking Glass type games (System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex). Those games are all about having multiple choices for solving gameplay challenges in physically-simulated dynamic worlds. They're generally regarded as fun -- but how can that be if less choice is better?

Say you need to get past some sentry. In most games, you have one option: shoot it. There might be a few tactical options (which target first? headshot vs. center-of-mass?), but "destroy it" is basically your only choice.

In a Looking Glass type game, you almost always have multiple choices:

Destroy it (guns, grenades)
Disable it (hacking)
Distract it (noisemakers)
Evade it (stealth, air ducts, sewers)
Persuade it (conversation)

Not every choice will apply to every challenge... and I think that is the key to this riddle.

Evan is not wrong that having fewer choices makes each choice more valuable. But having more choices makes each _context_ for action more valuable. When there are more kinds of interactions possible with the world, the world gets more interesting. That's good gameplay, too.

So choosing the number and kind of choices is not a one-way, "as few as possible" optimization. It's a balance, a tension between the available actions (what the player can do) and the space of possibilities for action (what the world allows and can react to).

A good design, I suspect, finds the sweet spot between both of those valid interests.

Darren Tomlyn
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The basic promise underlying a lot of what you are talking about, is the difference between choice and power/ability.

Not fully recognising the existence and role of the latter, (by merely focusing on choice, instead), is a problem for games, because it severely limits our understanding and perception of how and why they function. Since choice, in itself, is not fully consistent with what games are, perceiving them in such a limited manner also inconsistently affects people's understanding and definitions of game, too.

Michael Joseph
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double post

Attila Szigeti
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The paradox of choice TED talk by Barry Scwartz.

Michael Joseph
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I did not find this extremely cynical (and frankly dangerous) talk at all convincing. It is full of logical inversions, generalizations, addenda, scant evidence and frivolous example scenarios that I think undermine his conclusions.

Further, he should stop making the terms option and choice synonymous. They are not and it is dishonest to do so.

The problems he talks about have nothing to do with choice. They have to do with fear, ignorance and irrationality all of which dis-empower people. If you're presented with 100 different hammers, the fear is perhaps that the hammer you've chosen is somehow inferior because you lack the knowledge to evaluate them properly.

In an honest game where the designers are NOT trying to game the player, the player is presented with options that matter. That does not automatically suggest you have to limit the quantity of options. It simply says that the options should make a difference and the players should have the information necessary to evaluate their options and make informed choices.

So meaningful options are important, but in a well designed game players can be given many.

The solution to fear and ignorance isn't to serve up one brand of baby food for everyone. The solution is to dispel fear by informing people so they can choose what is right for them.

EDIT: His doctor scenario I found particular egregious. If you cannot find a doctor who will give you his/her best recommendation for a course of action, then perhaps this shows just how few options you have. You can have any color Ford so long as it's black?

Seems to me Barry Scwartz has a low opinion of people.

Michael Joseph
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Choice - our capacity to realize our options and make a decision is a source of power.

To discourage that I think is evil.

Darren Tomlyn
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Choice is merely A means of exercising power and ability - not just exercising power and ability all by itself.

The problem, is that games are about (competing by using) the latter, and not the former.

Puzzles, however, can be far more consistent with making choices, (though it can depend on their application).

Focusing on choice as the be-all-and-end-all of human behaviour in games has therefore tended to lead to the confusion of action, with interaction. (Again, games are about the former, not the latter, even if the latter can exist based on the application of the former).

Nick Weaver
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Interesting that you mention MtG. Indeed there are only so many different mana colours it may limit the mix of colours to be played. The myriad of combinations of the ten thousands of different cards are one hell of choice to be made to construct a deck. And yes there is a limited choice by the hand you're holding it amounts to many more choices with the available targets on the table plus all the things you can do with the played cards. A match of MtG can be quite linear and then again highly complex depending on all the cards available at a given point in time.

I think it's always good to have many choices in a game as long as they differ from each other and these differences are visible. An overwhelming amount of choices which are literally the same is just redundancy annoying the player.

Michael Joseph
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Of course, the options must NOT be disingenuous or they aren't really options.

Robert Crouch
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It's all bits of entropy.

I guess here's a question. If you have a system that gives you 4 solid, acceptable choices, and you have a system that gives you 30, of which 26 are "false choices" and only 4 are optimal, which system gives you more meaningful choices?

There's also assumptions made with respect to playstyle. Final Fantasy 9 is shown in the screenshot. I've seen many speedruns of FF9, and in those playthroughs, the consumables that are acquired are generally very necessary, or else they're skipped. The player is given a choice on how to play, the player can choose to grind up and buy 99 of all of the status cures and have characters a level that they are unnecessary anyways. They can choose to try and run as quickly as possible, be underleveled, and require certain cures at certain points to defeat certain enemies. That this is possible gives a choice - if the game were so strictly regimented, a player may not have that choice. Many Japanese games are made with the knowledge of Yarikomi, and whether they're designed around it, they're going to be at least designed knowing that it's a playstyle.

If you limit the player to just enough cures to survive, does that give you more options, or does it more limit the ways you can play the game? With the standard game, players will play it while getting no chests, or using no shops, or running from every battle, or speed running, or various other self-imposed game types. When you try to make the choices "more important" you can end up actually obliterating some other "play" choices.

There's obviously a balance to be struck, but it's not as simple as fewer choices mean better choices. Sometimes finding the needle in the haystack can be fun. Sometimes playing sub-optimal choices can be fun. Recently you could watch on a number of players streaming the Final Fantasy 5 Four job Fiesta. Info: In FF5 there is most definitely some winner jobs and some loser jobs. One way of playing is to choose the best jobs and finish the game. A casual player doesn't really know which jobs are best, so they get some fun-learning what jobs are better. Final Fantasy 5 is 21 years old, yet there's still a contingent of players who still enjoy the game enough to play through using sub-optimal classes for fun.

So, again, I ask, if you have 4 meaningful choices, or you have 30 choices with 4 obvious winners, which scenario really gives the player more choice?