# 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 ).

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 ). 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

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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For game design I have seen "Illusion of Choice" used in two main ways.

1. The game lays things out such that it looks like the player is making a choice. A or B. However, neither option actually changes anything, and the player will not be impacted in a notable way. Eliminating one of the 'choices', or replacing it with a coin toss, would not actually impact anything. To me I mostly see this as adding flavour and cosmetic options, which make the game feel more rounded and interesting, but can feel 'cheap' if not handled well. (ie, Deus Ex: Human Revolution end was cheapened in my view, as all the choices you make eventually lead you to basically a single choice node at the end, but don't actually have an impact.)

2. The "win or death" choice. To me this is just bad design. Sure, you "can" play as the necromancer character who relies purely on minions to protect your character and deal damage, but if you ignore their buff/debuff skill tree and the direct attack skills, then you will be totally steamrolled by mid game and will be forced to restart from the beginning because the choices you made were completely unworkable. Or you "can" choose to use the shotgun instead of the sword, but you won't be able to complete the game with it because you'll run out of ammo.

Win or Death is basically a single line or narrow line of choices that lead to victory and additional choices that all lead to defeat, but the game leads you to suggest they are all equally valid. These have to be VERY carefully watched for. They can work in a game, but you risk annoying the player.

It is also related to what I refer to as a precognition door choice. You present the user with two or more doors. Behind one is treasure, and behind the other is a horde of angry shot gun wielding clowns who will near instantly kill you no matter what you do after that door is opened. During your first play through they are both equally valid choices, but the player is not given any information on that 'choice', and therefore is forced to pick at random. The player is then punished for being stupid and not picking the 'one and only correct' door, and must restart/reload, from where they can then select the 'correct' option only after they have already viewed the outcome. To me these are simply annoying and frustrating, and make for an easy reason for me to hit the power switch and just go outside or something.

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I think, that the term Illusion of Choice is not clearly defined and different game designer will interpret it differently.

IMHO: from a game design point of view, or more clearly said, from a game mechanism point of view (skins, customization,item collection etc. are not really game mechanism), the illusion of choice is a choice which seems to be meaningful at first, but is meaningless at the end.

I can think of this example:

Take a standard RPG, you have Hp and Armor as combat attributes. The player have the choice to either invest some gold into pimping his HP (special training) or into buying better armor. At first it seems like a real choice, make a bear like barbarian with lot of hp or a knight with less hp and lot of armor.

Now, if you look under the hood, you see that armor have the following effect on hp:

new_hp = hp - damage* (1/(1+armor*0.01))
<=>
new_hp / (1/(1+armor*0.01)) =hp / (1/(1+armor*0.01)) - damage
<=>
new_hp * (1+armor*0.01) = hp*(1+armor*0.01)-damage


That is, 1pt of armor increases the hp for 1%, therefor at the end it doesn't matter if you buy hp or armor, because your armor is just an other  more obfuscated, way, to increase your hp (at the end the player just buy the most cost efficiently solution to increase this hp => no choice).

Btw, LoL is doing it this way, and what looks like pointless game design at first, it gives the player an additional option to play the game in a different way (the way of imaginating the game universe) without playing the game in a different way (the way of the game mechanism).

I have to mention, that LoL have other ways of making the choise of hp and armor meaningful (different damage types ignore armor, hp is more expensive etc.), but without this additional benefiits it would be nice example of the illusion of choice.

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.

These are really two different things. Traditional games (think of chess etc.) are more about game mechanism. In this case a choice should have a meaningful effect. In modern games lot of other human aspects are integrated, like the tentency to collect stuff (CCG, diablo), to pimp yourself, your garden or your car (avatar customization), which aren't really game mechanism. Always view this stuff as additional value to make your game more attractive to a broader audience, but at the end it doesn't matter and there is no real choice, not even an illusion of 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.

Well, this i a business choice and this choice has not a lot to do with the game (thought the IP itself is a ingame-progression system), therefor RP is more like a cheat than a game mechanism.

Edited by Ashaman73

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I can think of this example:

Take a standard RPG, you have Hp and Armor as combat attributes. The player have the choice to either invest some gold into pimping his HP (special training) or into buying better armor. At first it seems like a real choice, make a bear like barbarian with lot of hp or a knight with less hp and lot of armor.

Now, if you look under the hood, you see that armor have the following effect on hp:

new_hp = hp - damage* (1/(1+armor*0.01))
<=>
new_hp / (1/(1+armor*0.01)) =hp / (1/(1+armor*0.01)) - damage
<=>
new_hp * (1+armor*0.01) = hp*(1+armor*0.01)-damage


That is, 1pt of armor increases the hp for 1%, therefor at the end it doesn't matter if you buy hp or armor, because your armor is just an other  more obfuscated, way, to increase your hp (at the end the player just buy the most cost efficiently solution to increase this hp => no choice).

The mechanical difference between HP and DEF doesn't seem to matter per attack, but it does matter a lot when you take into account frequency of attacks (whether from multiple enemies or enemies using quicker attacks).  The relative benefit of HP and DEF enhancements will therefore vary situationally: assuming HP and DEF costs are balanced according to the average situation, then in situations where enemies make FEWER attacks than usual, HP enhancement is a better value, and in situations where enemies make MORE attacks than usual, DEF enhancement is a better value.

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2. The "win or death" choice. To me this is just bad design. Sure, you "can" play as the necromancer character who relies purely on minions to protect your character and deal damage, but if you ignore their buff/debuff skill tree and the direct attack skills, then you will be totally steamrolled by mid game and will be forced to restart from the beginning because the choices you made were completely unworkable. Or you "can" choose to use the shotgun instead of the sword, but you won't be able to complete the game with it because you'll run out of ammo.

Win or Death is basically a single line or narrow line of choices that lead to victory and additional choices that all lead to defeat, but the game leads you to suggest they are all equally valid. These have to be VERY carefully watched for. They can work in a game, but you risk annoying the player.

I don't see this exactly as a "Illusion of Choice". I agree with the first one, mostly noticed in adventure games in my opinion (like most of the Legend Of Zelda franchise). But, this one, i think that's actually an unbalanced game, more than "Illusion of Choice". It merely depends on what was the intention of the game designers, if it was to truly make an "easy way" or an "hard way", or simply they weren't able to make the classes "equally playable". Sometimes, this can't even be done, where some ways just needs more gaming mechanics, like using the "Unarmed" skill on Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas, it's hard as hell.

Using this in League of Legends, for example. Sure, the game have more than one hundred playable characters with different skills, and they try to make it every single one playable, still i'm not sure if they intently make "powerful champions" and left the other ones used, or they just aren't able to make all of them playable. And, still, there's at least 1 patch per month, changing champions mechanics and skills power trying to make it balanced to the game.

I think that the worst problem that  "win or death" causes it's the feeling of losing time. For example, when you spend hours on an MMORPG trying to improve your "miner skill", and when it's almost at maximum, you discovers that it's just pointless. You gonna through all this suffering to finally realizes that what you were doing was a complete waste of time.

It is also related to what I refer to as a precognition door choice. You present the user with two or more doors. Behind one is treasure, and behind the other is a horde of angry shot gun wielding clowns who will near instantly kill you no matter what you do after that door is opened. During your first play through they are both equally valid choices, but the player is not given any information on that 'choice', and therefore is forced to pick at random. The player is then punished for being stupid and not picking the 'one and only correct' door, and must restart/reload, from where they can then select the 'correct' option only after they have already viewed the outcome. To me these are simply annoying and frustrating, and make for an easy reason for me to hit the power switch and just go outside or something.

I don't exatcly think this as a problem. Yeah, sure, the situation you presented is completely pointless. You're like having fun killing things with a shotgun, than saves, than see yourself with the two doors and only one opportunity to choice, which one leads to death and the other one to eternal glory, and if you choose death, you just reload and now choose the right door. This situation, and only itself, is pointless. But, for example, imagine a game like Dark Soul, a game which challenge is at maximum, dying is so freakin bad, and bad choices have fuckin importants feedbacks. That door, with clowns that will kill you, sure will be effective. It won't be like "oh great, now i have to reload and choose the right door". It will be like "FUCKIN LORD I JUST DIED? WHY THE FUCK DID THAT HAPPENED?". Yeah, this reaction can be good or bad (if you want to make a game where the player will almost give up 99% time, this will be just great).

The situation itself can be completely pointless, but combined with other components, can be a really nice feature.

For me, the worst about choices, it's when your choice is completely meaningless. I mean, not illusional meaningless, when it's really just waste of time. For example, recently i tried to play Final Fantasy XIV a Realm Reborn, and when i'm creating my avatar, styling it as my unique avatar, there's a moment when i have to decide which god do my character believes in, and what the birthday of my character (both of them are from the universe of ff xiv). But this just affects NOTHING. Really, it doesn't make a fuckin change all along the world. It doesn't give you buffs or nerfs, it doesn't give you nothing. You're just there trying to decide something you won't even will use. And you won't even remember. Sure, the color of your hair you will be staring at least forever, but there is no point in saying that you were born in "the 27th sun of the 4th Umbral Moon". Really.

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Imagine a choose-your-own-adventure story where multiple options led to the same page in the end.

Sounds like the Time Machine series I used to read as a kid.

Bonus, scroll to the bottom of that link to get "maps" of how the books were laid out.

Illusion of choice?  Not really.  It's educational!