The meaning of choice

Every game confronts us with choices, which is not surprising at all since games are per definition an interactive medium. Of course, there are skill-based games which demand from the player to givie a pre-defined input without giving him/her any choice as it might seem. But even then, a minimum level of choice is always there. For example, if the seemingly simple task is to click a button at a certain moment, it’s up to the player to make an estimation how long it takes (physically) to press the button and to decide on the right timing for his/hers decision to actually press the button. And it’s up to the game designer to make sure that players are confronted with the optimal level of appropriate choices (defining complexity) to achieve the best results in terms of fun, engagement and conversion. In the following, I will discuss the effects of choice on the gameplay experience and which consequences it might have for the monetization of a game.
My inspiration to write about this topic is due to listening to one episode of the social triggers podcast (which I can highly recommend), called “Why People Bought The White iPhone… When They Wanted The Black One” by Derek Halpern.


Linearity vs. non-linearity

I guess that’s a pretty old debate but as far as I know never got really into detail. Fact is that professional reviewers praise games which give players much freedom of choice. I recently played through ‘The Walking Dead’ and researched after that on what would have happened if I made other choices at key moments and I was somewhat disappointed when I learned that the immediate consequences did not differ much from each other. It seems that the illusion of choice (or control) seems often to be equated with real choice (assuming the game does not tell you the consequences). This leads us to the question “Can freedom and choice exist in games or are events and actions always predetermined?” Read the dissertation by Alice Rendell for answers. Also, make sure to check out the ‘Love Game Experiment’, a prototypical simulation of artificial freedom of will.

Notwithstanding and like with most things in life: too much of something, in this case freedom of choice, will make you unhappy. Most games include tutorials and I guess I don’t need to explain why it’s not good to confront inexperienced players with ‘too much’ choices. Using NPC’s as mentors, tips or recommendations provided by the game helps to deal with that. This can be done by presenting the advantages and disadvantages of choices or by other information like “90% of your friends/ other players did that”. However, some players prefer straight movie-like linear games or at least an increased amount of guidance by the game, meaning less choice. I like linear games very much because that way, I don’t have to bother with ongoing ‘what if’ questions. For a detailed explanation why less is more, read the blog post by Johnny B why “Linearity is Okay in Games”.

Meaningless choices

When confronting players with meaningless choices over and over, we can expect them to generalize this pattern and combining the consequences of their choices (note that not choosing anything is also a choice) with a negative outcome (like loosing each PvP fight) leads to frustration and a phenomenon called learned helplessness. This effect was discovered by Martin Seligman and colleagues by putting dogs into cages and giving them electric shocks at random times which they can’t avoid (psychology was a cruel science in its beginnings). The interesting thing about that is that when the dogs were given the choice to avoid the shocks, they were unable to do that. Transferring this finding back to games implies that choices should always have a meaningful impact with appropriate feedback. The consequences might range from none, when it’s just a minor property of the game (most shooter games are fun because we just like to shoot at things, we don’t care about choices) to severe, e.g. when we feel that we are not making any progress no matter what we do (I am really bad at adventures and get tired very quickly after combining a bunch of items with each other and nothing works), and as always depending on the individual perception and frustration tolerance. For the monetization of your game you can use this knowledge to boost your conversion rate.


According to the effect of learned helplessness, much caution is advised for balancing the strength of VC vs RC items in F2P games. Players get a sense quickly when a game is becoming unfair: learned helplessness establishes quickly and is reflected in high churn-rates. Naturally, we look for an acceptable trade-off and want players to become paying users, however the motivation to invest in your game is more sustainable when each investment contributes to a better game experience for the whole player base instead of only the individual. In this sense for example, it is not recommended to created overpowered RC items (obviously) but think of creating something (might be an item) that shows other players that you are contributing to a greater goal, e.g. contributes x points to unlock a new area and alters your visual appeal so that it signalizes other players your honorable behavior (thus making them want to be like you). Vanity items work the same way by giving the paying player something to be proud of and enriching the game world at the same time.

Players should have a great variety of choices when it comes to spending money for at least two reasons. First, a huge player base implies a wide range of preferences so make sure you cover all potential needs and wants. And second, everyone wants to feel unique so make sure to include many choices in terms of customization (also good for increasing the level of identification and thereby engagement). Furthermore, apply user research methods and ask your community to identify what’s missing.

A study titled “When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?” by Iyengar & Lepper (2000), discusses the impact of choice in shops. It is already explained (and linked) in the article 5 Tips for Boosting Virtual Economies by Ben Sipe, so I will just recapitulate and make some additions to its implications. So in its essence, the study’s findings suggest that players should not be confronted with too much choices or otherwise they feel overwhelmed and do not buy anything. Note that for shops in games, this applies to the presentation of items and not their availability (though you can boost sales by applying artificial scarcity).  As a rule of thumb, you should present not more than 7 items on one screen.

The next thing that will improve your sales is by facilitating the decision-making process of your players by categorizing choices into smaller subsets. Alternatively or additionally, including functions for filtering & sorting will also do the trick. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any studies comparing those two methods or even evaluating their various kinds in the context of shops for virtual goods (but sounds like a good idea for a A/B test…). For categorizing, there is the believe that states to never present more than 3 options at a time (3 x 3 rule), but again, no studies which proof its effectivity in the context of in-game shops.

You know some more tips? Just post them as comments below ;)

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