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Mav Erick

Game Design: The Illusion of Choice

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I've recently taken to thinking deeper about the games I play, and after reading/watching some quick articles/videos on choice, and the illusion of choice, in video games, I still have no clearer understanding about the latter.

 

Every time I try to imagine an illusion of choice in the more popular games I play(Rift, League of Legends, Wildstar) they still seem to boil down to people deciding on a preference. To me, that seems like it makes the choice meaningful. When someone decides on a race for their new MMO character, even if race plays virtually no role in the game itself(instanced PVP randomized without thought to faction, cross-faction trade, guilds, communication, etc), it still comes down to someone deciding which race is aesthetically pleasing to them, which feels like a meaningful choice. When someone chooses to buy a new champion with RP(cash currency) instead of IP(earned in-game currency) in League of Legends, even though in the end it doesn't really matter, it still feels like that player is making a conscious decision to use their IP on something else.

 

Can someone explain the Illusion of Choice a little better to me? When does it stop being a meaningful choice? Is there a defined point one can look at and say "That's not a meaningful choice because ... " or is it more of a philosophical thing? "I don't feel that is a meaningful choice because ... "?

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after reading/watching some quick articles/videos on choice, and the illusion of choice

 

Maybe explore some more in-depth resources and try some games outside of your wheelhouse?  I don't intend to sound glib, but you are asking a broad question.  These choices (and non-choices) may be more obvious in games you aren't invested in as a long-time player.

 

I don't play those MOBA or whatever-they-are-called games and can't comment on them with any experience.  Reading your post makes me think you could be on the wrong track with your association with player preferences on how they spend... whatever they spend... with actual game-play choices.

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Meaningful choice is referring to choices that will affect the outcome of the game/encounter/whatever.  A skin change often has little if any effect on the game, where-as a stat change often has a significant effect on the outcome.  Granted there are many counter-examples (in LOL Annie's frostfire skin for example makes the 'stun stack' very difficult to see).

 

I personally dislike the idea behind 'illusion of choice', but I can see where it can be useful for fueling monetary transactions without affecting balance or gameplay (ie. staying away from the P2W side of microtransactions).

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I would have thought the illusion of choice would be if you give a player a dialogue choice which allows the player to express an opinion but then has no effect on anything.  I don't think aesthetic choices are illusionary.

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I agree with sunandshadow above, aesthetic choices aren't necessarily illusory. Sure, they don't affect the game perhaps (though, with your cited example of race, often in games, race comes with various stat attributes, skills, etc, but I get your point. Let's say eyebrow color would be a better example smile.png). 

 

I typically would use the term "illusion of choice" to describe a scenario where regardless of what you chose, the outcome is the same. Or, a scenario where you're presented multiple semi-meaningless or dead-end options, but are eventually shoe-horned in to a certain path. Imagine a choose-your-own-adventure story where multiple options led to the same page in the end. I can think of several games where a dialog tree has many options, each with sub options, but in the end, the choice was still predetermined, or led to what ultimately was a binary outcome (despite the many choices). You've appeared to be given many, many options, but really the programmers are giving you two (or sometimes even one). They just hide this binary system behind the illusion of having many choices. You'd never know this unless you replayed the game (or at least reloaded and played that part again).

 

Or, perhaps imagine a game that appeared to be rather open and non-linear, but when it came down to it, you still had to do A) then B) then C) to really progress (say, the legend of zelda games, where you can run around and do whatever, but in order to progress you still need, let's say, the grappling hook to progress to the next area. You could probably make an argument against this, but if you don't look to closely the analogy is probably fine smile.png). There are endless examples of this, I'd say every "open" type game that still has a beginning and end, to some extent uses the illusion of choice (this obviously excludes truly open-ended games such as...minecraft, or whathaveyou).

Edited by Misantes

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Thank you so much for your replies.

 

@GoCatGo I understand what you're getting at. MMORPG's and MOBA's very likely don't have much in the way of depth when it comes to choices and/or lack thereof. Most of it is fairly transparent, and players understand that, because there's no real 'end' to either of them, you can't have much in the way of choice because there is no real 'outcome'.

 

@Ryan_001 That's exactly where I was getting confused. I wasn't sure if 'affecting the outcome of the game' counted a players enjoyment, rather than just mechanical outcomes.

 

@sunandshadow Through my reading, I understand that what you gave as an example would be a choice related to narrative. I would also be interested in mechanic choices(eg. A player chooses a talent, which radically alters the way they play their class). However I find it difficult to think of illusory choices when it comes to mechanic. I can read and watch videos about them, and when given examples I can say "Oh yeah, that makes sense", but then I struggle to come up with my own examples in games I play.

 

@Misantes Your third paragraph is a perfect example of this. I can understand that as a mechanic choice(The player can run around smashing jars, or trying to jump puzzle to the top of the map), and an illusion of choice(however they still need the grappling gun to move to the next area). I just wish I could come up with my own example in games. Haha

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The first I heard of the illusion of choice was in terms of weapons choice in some rpg: there were a wide variety of apparent weapons, but really they boiled down to only a few mechanically different weapons.  Although it looked like you had a lot of choice, experienced players understood that much of that choice was illusory.  (They described it as "lots of options, few actual choices".)

 

I should note, though, that illusory choice isn't necessarily *bad*.  It can still be "meaningful" to the player even if it's not "meaningful" to the game.  (Maybe one of those illusory weapon choices fits some players' view of what a truly badass warrior should be, and that lets them RP their ideal warrior.)  Game designers are illusionists, and illusory choice is one possible technique in our spellbook.  It's just a question of whether this technique enhances or diminishes the overall illusion we want to achieve :)

 

When are illusory choices bad, then?  I'd say they're bad when you set up a choice *as if* it's going to be gameplay- or story-meaningful and then the player realizes you misled them.  Once one illusion is broken, the whole illusion can fall apart.

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The first I heard of the illusion of choice was in terms of weapons choice in some rpg: there were a wide variety of apparent weapons, but really they boiled down to only a few mechanically different weapons.  Although it looked like you had a lot of choice, experienced players understood that much of that choice was illusory.  (They described it as "lots of options, few actual choices".)

 

I should note, though, that illusory choice isn't necessarily *bad*.  It can still be "meaningful" to the player even if it's not "meaningful" to the game.  (Maybe one of those illusory weapon choices fits some players' view of what a truly badass warrior should be, and that lets them RP their ideal warrior.)  Game designers are illusionists, and illusory choice is one possible technique in our spellbook.  It's just a question of whether this technique enhances or diminishes the overall illusion we want to achieve smile.png

 

When are illusory choices bad, then?  I'd say they're bad when you set up a choice *as if* it's going to be gameplay- or story-meaningful and then the player realizes you misled them.  Once one illusion is broken, the whole illusion can fall apart.

 

I understand the pros and cons of illusory choice. What I'm trying to do is learn enough about it to be able to spot them in the games I play.

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I think that it's hard to spot illusory choices in a single playthrough of many games. A single playthrough will look like a single path. But if you want to find those illusory choices for yourself, when you get to a point that seems like a significant narrative choice, try saving and taking both paths. Is there any real difference? Writing branching narrative is hard. Many writers and designers will just pick a "correct" path, and the incorrect path will either lead to death or lead you back to the "correct" path. For example if the hero tries to change the bad guy's mind, they will just betray them and need to be killed anyway. Some games do have significant choice, e.g. in Fallout 3 you can be paid to nuke your starting town, which has the consequences:

  1. Town is gone.
  2. Inhabitants are dead or mutated.
  3. You have a new home in a different town.
  4. Town-related quests are failed.

Also (for narrative and mechanics) try looking at online strategy guides for various games. The community will have come together and realised which things are insignificant usually. For example, certain weapons are merely worse variants of other weapons, so should never be used.

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I think that it's hard to spot illusory choices in a single playthrough of many games. A single playthrough will look like a single path. But if you want to find those illusory choices for yourself, when you get to a point that seems like a significant narrative choice, try saving and taking both paths. Is there any real difference? Writing branching narrative is hard. Many writers and designers will just pick a "correct" path, and the incorrect path will either lead to death or lead you back to the "correct" path. For example if the hero tries to change the bad guy's mind, they will just betray them and need to be killed anyway. Some games do have significant choice, e.g. in Fallout 3 you can be paid to nuke your starting town, which has the consequences:

  1. Town is gone.
  2. Inhabitants are dead or mutated.
  3. You have a new home in a different town.
  4. Town-related quests are failed.

Also (for narrative and mechanics) try looking at online strategy guides for various games. The community will have come together and realised which things are insignificant usually. For example, certain weapons are merely worse variants of other weapons, so should never be used.

Hmmm. Do you think developers for an MMORPG would intentionally make some weapons/armor less desirable than their counterparts or would that just be a design flaw, done by accident?

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