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A Tale of Two Talent Trees
by Jamie Madigan on 05/13/13 03:00:00 pm   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.


Can the presentation of choices on an upgrade screen or talent tree affect how we feel about those choices? Consider the two screenshots of talent trees below. No, look, don't ask why just yet. Just consider them!

syndicate skill tree

tomb raider skill tree

The first one is from the first person shooter Syndicate while the second is from the latest Tomb Raider game. It may not be self evident from still screenshots, but these games handle the presentation of player choices differently. In the Syndicate tree, all your options are set out in one screen. Every time you have a skill point available you can mouse over any of those icons to get descriptions then choose the one you want. In Tomb Raider the choices are presented a little differently: you scroll from left to right through a sequence of skills at the bottom of the screen before deciding where to spend your precious point.

Which system, do you think, is more likely to result in commitment to and satisfaction with skill choices? Which do you think would be less likely to make players feel regret over their decisions and make them less likely to reload a saved game so they can make another choice?

A 2012 study by Cassie Mogilner, Baba Shiv, and Sheena Iyengar in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that Syndicate's system would be better, based on the metrics of likely satisfaction, commitment, and regret. It comes down to hope for a better alternative and the way our brains tend to process the sequential versus simultaneous presentation of choices.

In one of their experiments the researchers had subjects review a list of 5 different chocolate treats, including a description for each one --e.g., "Waikiki: dark chocolate ganache with a blend of coconut, pineapple, and passion fruit". In one condition (the "simultaneous condition" or "Syndicate group" in my reckoning) all the chocolate names and descriptions were listed at once. In another condition (the "sequential condition" or the "Tomb Raider group") participants scrolled through the names and descriptions one at a time before making their choice. Subjects then got a free sample of the confection --YUM!-- and were told they were being entered into a lottery to win 25 more pieces. 

Then, to get a feeling for how likely each group would be to abandon their choice right before going out the door, the experimenters offered to let them either change their lottery entry in favor of one of the other 4 chocolates they had seen, OR a mysterious sixth chocolate that they knew nothing about.

The results? Those who had seen their choices all at once were much more likely to stick with their original pick and rated their satisfaction with the choice much higher than those who were shown their choices sequentially. Those in the sequential group were twice as likely to switch their lottery entry to another chocolate, but the amazing thing is that they were almost four times as likely to switch it to the mystery chocolate.

The authors argue that invoking the emotion of hope in the sequential group is responsible for this finicky behavior and relative dissatisfaction with decisions. When we see all our possible choices, we know what we need to compare to what --it's all right there. When, however, we receive one choice at a time, we get into the mindset of comparing each option to an ideal or potential (but not certain) better choice. In other words, we hope that the next one is better. This, in turn, triggers feelings of dissatisfaction with each alternative and ultimately on whatever alternative we settle on. Those little dissatisfactions carry forward and make us more likely to abandon our choices if we're given a chance --especially for something that we think could satisfy our hope for something better.

While we're on the topic, there's one other time when this sequential vs. simultaneous presentation comes to mind:'s Lightning Deals vs. Steam's holiday sales. Amazon will sometimes queue up hourly deals that go on throughout the day. The catch is that they don't tell you what the hourly deals are going to be. This sounds to me like a sequential presentation of options for those of us without the funds to buy anything we want.

Amazon Gold Box

Compare that to the daily smorgasbord of deals that Steam dumps on you every day of their major sales events. Instead of a sequential list of deals that are dripped out, you get a fire hose of bargains all at once. Based on what I described above, which do you think would result in more satisfaction once consumers have made their choice?

Steam Sale

Finally, game designers might look to hijack this effect and bend it to their own ends. Sometimes maybe they WANT to have players feel regret over a choice or have a feeling that things might have been better if they had made a different narrative or moral choice. In that case, designers might want to not offer all those choices in one menu or one dialog list. Maybe they would be better served by presenting them one by one and not giving players the option of backtracking. Little things matter.

Mogilner, C., Shiv, B., Iyengar S. (2012). Eternal Quest for the Best: Sequential (vs. Simultaneous) Option Presentation Undermines Choice Commitment. Journal of Consumer Research, 39, 1300-1312.

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Ara Shirinian
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Another interesting side effect seems to be that in sequential presentation, a really engaged player _wants_ to directly compare the choices, but the interface interferes with this by making direct comparison a really cognitively demanding and unpleasant process. The player generally has to remember item X while scrolling to then considering item Y, then individually compare those to Z, a really motivated player ends up often doing a lot of silly looking rapid (as permitted) scrolling back and forth as a way to subvert this sequential presentation into a simultaneous one.

I would imagine in the majority of these cases most players just don't bother with the increased effort required for exhaustive comparison, and just go with their first inspection gut feeling, which would usually prove to be a suboptimal choice.

Kenneth Blaney
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I'd imagine at a certain point the "all at once" presentation would become too dense to effectively use (imagine the spheregrid from FF10 all laid open all at once) and, as a result, players would simply choose to forego the benefit than have to deal with it. In comparison, if a list is too big, the player might just get bored and choose the convenient thing towards the beginning of the list (hoping that the game is rather balanced). I wonder where that point might be if it actually exists.

Alfa Etizado
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I think it may look like that but it doesn't affect the player negatively. I recall I'd choose a path, glossing over the possible paths, and stick to it. There were never too many chances to make choices.

The Sphere Grid is huge but you don't need to look at the whole thing to make your decision since it moves slowly, you only have to worry about what's on a character's vicinity and you don't have too many choices to make. You also get to memorize most of the Sphere Grid as you upgrade each character, analyzing their vicinity. That also shows the player how each corner is dedicated to a very specific skillset.

So you don't worry about what Tidus is missing out because only a few paths are viable to him. Those paths are easy to compare and visualize, since most of the Sphere Grid uses the same few icons, specially at the vicinity of a specific character. You end up choosing paths based on a skill you want to get to, like any other much smaller skill tree.

Lastly, while you decide between two or three easy to visualize paths for Tidus, paths which will take hours to complete, you're doing the same thing with every other character. From the player's point of view, you are acquiring the entire skill tree, so no regrets.

Players don't need to grind that much in FFX, very few do it, so very few have to worry about moving too fast, having too many options, taking a character outside his/her area. Those that do worry about that are probably out to complete most of the Sphere Grid with every character so I don't think they care.

Kenneth Blaney
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I think you might have missed my comment about the sphere grid. As implemented, it is actually a mostly linear path with few decisions (and mostly those branches are just small asides that ask the player to loop back in before long). Imagine, instead, something with all of the information of the sphere grid without any of the guiding paths. (That is, a points could be spent anywhere in the entirety of the grid without care about movement.) That would be way more information than is reasonable for a person to take in.

Alfa Etizado
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Yeah I'm confused now, I might've misinterpreted you. I thought you were saying the sphere grid is an example where the traditional skill tree layout (you get to see everything at once) doesn't work because there's just too much for the player to digest.

But reading it again I think you weren't saying that.

Gene L
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Unlike the study you describe or the skill trees, Steam and Amazon deals don't represent exclusive choices--an individual can buy multiple games. In fact, that's an outcome both retailers desire. In light of that, do you think the Steam layout implicitly presents its discounts as a choice, making the Amazon model more effective in luring consumers to spend more money?

Jamie Madigan
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That's a fair point, but I think most of us have a budget that precludes us from buying everything we want. So while we may buy two or even three games in a sale, it's still a choice. And the Amazon approach still triggers the hope emotion and the mindset it brings.

Randen Dunlap
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Very interesting post! Thanks for the analysis. However, I think in the specific case of Tomb Raider that the psychological effect you mentioned with having their choices strewn out sequentially is diminished over a short amount of time, especially as players discover their own dominant strategies with specific weapons/skills/abilities. As soon as these are identified they'll most likely ignore the other choices until the choices relating directly to those skills are maximized.

However, in the case of a game that is much larger in scope, like FF10 being listed above, this certainly wouldn't be the case.

Jamie Madigan
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I didn't mention it in the OP, but the researchers actually thought of this too. They had a follow-up experiment where they let people in the sequential condition scroll back and forth between options. The effects on likelihood to switch was definitely less, but it was still there. They still changed their choices and expressed less satisfaction than those who got the simultaneous presentation.

Totally agreed about the massive FF job/outfit spheres, though. There probably comes a point where UI considerations have to trump anything else.

Christian Nutt
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But with TR you get enough points that you have to dump into skills you don't care about just to use them up, past a certain point. Then again that's just a function of the game's meh design.

Nathan Ware
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I think one of the best takeaways from this study is that option presentation can be another tool for authorial control.

If we want players to make choices they are satisfied with, and keep them from exploring, we have to 1) Make sure the range of choices aren't overwhelming, 2) present them all at once in a visual format that allows direct comparison, 3) make sure the range of choices is surprising and encompasses all the verbs a player might want, 4) add additional layers of depth beneath the top-layer of "variety choices" so players have to make "degree of commitment choices," and 5) make the face of each various option equitable (probably by making them differences in kind).

If we want players to make choices that encourage out-of-the-box thinking and exploration, we have to 1) Obscure the full extent of the range of options, 2) obscure all the interactions available with the choices, 3) add additional layers of depth that subvert the original functions of an option, 4) Reduce the negative consequences of making choices while restricting a player's ability to undo choices, 5) design choice trees so that each choice expands the total number of choices.

At least, that is what I could think of when it comes to controlling a player's emotional state with choice availability structures.