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Analysis: Option Availability And Loss Aversion in Game Design
Analysis: Option Availability And Loss Aversion in Game Design
June 22, 2011 | By Connor Cleary

June 22, 2011 | By Connor Cleary
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More: Console/PC, Design



[In this analysis, Gamasutra contributor Connor Cleary examines players' "loss aversion" and stubborn insistence in keeping as many options available to them as possible in the games they play.]

Studies have shown that humans have an innate aversion to losing options, even if those options are not ones we ever plan on making use of; the psychological term this falls under is “loss aversion.” To be clear, loss aversion is an umbrella term that basically refers to the nearly-universal human tendency to weigh losses more heavily than we weigh gains, but the primary focus for the purposes of this exploration will be the aversion to losing options.

As a starting point, think about how loss aversion turns many of us into hoarders in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas: because we have unlimited storage space in any given container in the game's world, we indulge our aversion to the loss of options and end up with way more stuff than we will ever use.

Even though my energy weapons skill is only at 10, I still want to keep these 15 plasma rifles around... just in case."

This type of reasoning is a great example of loss aversion in action. We can derive pleasure from the simple state of having many options—from "option availability."

There was a famous experiment in psychology from Jiwoong Shin and Dan Ariely of Duke University a few years ago that explores our loss and option availability instincts. Interestingly enough it took the form of a simple video game where the participants' goal was to win money which they would receive at the end of the experiment.

Imagine you have a screen in front of you with a set of three doors on it—one red, one green, one blue—that each lead to an associated room. When you click on a door, you don't win any money but you move into that room—click the green door, go into the green room.

When you click inside the room your money goes up or down, somewhere between -2 cents and +14 cents with an overall distribution average of 3 cents. Unbeknownst to the participant, each room has a different range of potential winnings. Let's say the ranges were: Red, 0 to 7 cents; Green, 1 to 5 cents; Blue, 3 to 14 cents. Eventually the participant should catch on that the Blue door consistently offered more money than the other doors. Simple enough.

Here's where it get's interesting: Each round that a participant hasn't clicked on a given door—let's say green—the door shrinks 1/15th of its original size. After 15 rounds, that door will disappear forever. But the door will reset to its original size if a participant spends a click to use the door, thus “saving” it. Consider also that a participant that goes directly back to, say, the blue room after “saving” the green door has just spent two clicks and won no money to save it.

From our perspective the choice seems obvious: Who needs the cheapskate green door? But oddly enough, the participants overwhelmingly opted to save doors even if they never intended on using them again. Why? Loss aversion; they wanted to keep the option of the green door around.

The above example is admittedly simplified from Shin and Ariely's full set of experiments [note: PDF], but their experiments pointed strongly towards the phenomenon that the potential loss of an option makes it more desirable, and that people will often take illogical actions to retain options. Additionally the loss of an option, even a fairly undesirable one, is psychologically painful to the majority of people.

Let's look at an example of an intentional limiting of options in a game that is designed for a specific psychological effect. In Resident Evil 5 you have a maximum of nine inventory slots per character. Given the variety of encounters you are sure to fight through in any given chapter, plus the possibility of coming across healing items and new guns that you will want to pick up, this feels like a woefully inadequate inventory system.

If, however, we look at this as an intentional design element we can see it as a brilliant mechanic. In an action-horror game like RE5 it is desirable to add to the player's sense of tension because it increases their emotional engagement. The limiting of inventory options adds tension by exploiting and denying the player's innate desire for flexibility. The same kind of exploitation is at work in the game's sparse scattering of ammunition; a player might be constantly aware of, and nervous about their shotgun shell count for example.

Returning now to Fallout: New Vegas we find a cautionary tale. Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft shared an experience he had while playing F:NV. He was pursuing three separate quest lines simultaneously, investing the time and effort required to keep as many of them open as possible for as long as possible. Then with a single action (to avoid spoilers I'll just say it involved Mr. House), he unintentionally committed to a single plot-line.

At this point, the game played its ominous “Quest Failed” sound-byte—which coincidentally sounds like a door closing—and showed that he had “Failed” several quests. Given the psychological tendencies outlined above its probably not mere coincidence that I had the exact same experience of pursuing multiple plot-lines only to have them unexpectedly slam shut, and I wouldn't be surprised if many of our readers did as well.

The problem here is that the game does a poor job of explaining that you have to choose a single path, there is no warning along the lines of: “Warning: If you perform this action you will be permanently committing to [This or That] quest-line and fail any quests outside that plot-line.” Kris decided to live with his consequences and not try to replay the scene. But personally I felt a little duped, so I loaded and re-played the Mr. House event no less than three times to see if there was some way I could keep my other options open. There wasn't.

Addressing the principles of Option Availability and Loss Aversion in game design have an impact beyond the most obvious examples of inventory systems. Examples include the above-mentioned multiple quest-line system in Fallout: New Vegas, and also the romantic partner system in games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins. There are times when I think the player needs more explicit information about what they are committing to with a line of dialogue or a given action, so that we can understand the risks and take them willingly.

In my experience there also seems to be a point of diminishing returns with "option availability," at some point a variety of options stops being a joy and starts being a chore. If I can wring Fallout for one more example, there is certainly a point where sifting through the pages upon pages of the items in your stashes gets tiresome.

Final Fantasy XIII also comes to mind because it manages to simultaneously have too many options and too few. Once the whole party of nine characters comes together, each character has at least three classes they can switch to in a given “Paradigm.” (During battle, you can switch between Paradigms to change the classes of each of your three party members, example: “Attacker,” “Defender,” “Healer.”)

To make matters more confusing each character has a unique set of abilities for each class, so for most intents and purposes you have over 25 unique classes by mid- to late-game. While on the one hand, you have too many options to choose from, on the other hand you only have the slots to create six Paradigms so you have to limit yourself to six of them. Since each time you change your active party of three characters you have to design a new set of six “Paradigms,” you end up repeating this painful process over and over.

At the end of the day, the sweet spot for the number of available options will vary widely from game to game and from player to player. But as the potential for player input and choice in gaming increases so rapidly, it is more important than ever that game designers consider this aspect of psychology when designing their game mechanics. Easier said than done, to be sure.


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