Thursday, February 23, 2012

In Which The Warlock Mulls Analysis Paralysis...

We have something of a running joke in amongst my gaming/social circle:  the "Karl-o-meter".  You see, my good friend ChaoticKarl tends to take his sweet time when we're playing board games.  Karl's a very mathematical fellow, and (despite my monniker for him) likes to use logic in his moves...which doesn't always work, once the highly unpredictable human element is factored in.  It reached a point once where we literally forced Karl to use an egg timer on his turns, automatically moving on if he hadn't moved before the timer ran out.

The thing that held Karl up so often usually was the sheer number of choices in a game.  Do I move move my piece here or there?  Do I build up this skill/tech-tree or another?  Do I hold my resources?  Do I trade?  Do I purchase now?  Do I use the power-up or save it for later? 

Opportunity cost is a funny thing.  It's so fundamentally critical to game theory and the formation of a good game, but the inclusion of additional opportunities seem to increase the complexity in an almost exponential manner.
Look at all the fiddly-bits! 
So many options!  So many choices!
So much...reading.  :(

It makes me wonder, similarly, about the amount of opportunities in role-playing games today.  The so-called "Old-School Renaissance" has been advocating a return to simpler rules-sets--no power cards, no fiddly-bits, no gimmicks or the like--as a return to "real" role-playing.  Simultaneously, though, we've seen the rise of high-complexity, high fiddly-bit games like 4e D&D and Warhammer Fantasy

In some ways, I can equate it to this:

When 4e just came out and your 2nd level Fighter, "The Mighty Jim-Bob," leveled up, he had approximately four options for his 3rd level encounter power.  After a few months, Martial Power came out, doubling those options.  After another month, a Dragon article raised your options to 10.  After four years of sourcebooks, articles, and fan-creations...well, you can imagine the choices!

More options can be good, but each decision--meaningful or not!--slows down gameplay and character creation on a massive scale.  The more options one has in front of them, the more likely that they'll consider each of those options, grinding the game to a halt.

Now, here's the weird thing.  The answer seems to be...less options!

You see, when you take away the power options, the feat choices, the skill points and the're left with pure imagination.  Now, that's a double-edged sword, since it relies on both player and GM to fill in the details each and every time which, needless to say, is an onerous task!

Minimalist, indeed!
Call of Cthulhu may, in fact, be a perfect example of this minimalist economy.  There are no rules for how many actions a character gets in a round, no power choices, no feats....simply a player saying "I do X" and a GM adjucating that action, occasionally using a handful of abstract stats or skills.  But, for all its wonderful storytelling capacity, a good Call of Cthulhu game hinges on its players buying into the mood and atmosphere created by the GM's narration.  Without a willingness to experiment in a "box-less environment," the game quickly becomes a matter of going through the motions or, more likely, simply falls apart.

As with all things, balance seems to be key.  As a designer, how does one find the balance between over-designing a system, making it overly complex, and under-designing that same system, resulting in vagueness and lack of structure?! 

How does one avoid the dreaded Kotov Syndrome?!


  1. Anonymous1:00 PM

    Another consequence of this is that people with lots of choices tend to be less happy with their end result. Psychologist Barry Schwartz did a lot of studies with this and in one particular study, including with real life stuff like mutual funds

    Check out a video about him explaining his findings at here. He's got a lot of great stuff in that video and I recommend starting from the beginning, but he speaks pretty much about what you're saying starting at 8:00 and specifically about analysis paralysis at 9:20 or so.

  2. WoWSonya7:31 AM

    Even WoW discovered that too many choices causes distress and unhappiness in it's players. In the original incarnation of the game, a player had a talent tree where it required a minimum of 31 talent points spent in a given tree in order to reach the final talent. Now that wasn't mandatory, one could spend their point in any combination of the 3 trees available. Made for some odd, inefficient and just downright stupid builds.

    Over the next two expansions, Blizzard increased the total size of these trees by 20 points, 10 points per expansion. It still wasn't mandatory to place your points in one tree up to 51, you could do some weird half-assed tri-spec. Blizz found that players were not really even looking at the talents themselves, but going to outside sources to determine the best build for any given tree. Hell, I was guilty of that. I didn't really know or take the time to know what talent worked well in conjunction with any other talent or what talents were pure shit for what I was doing.

    Fast forward to the current expansion, Cataclysm. Blizz shrunk the talent trees back down to 31 points, and made it mandatory that you spend that minimum amount of points before you could place points in another tree. They also simplified the talents, took out a lot of just straight buff talents, and just made them better overall. This turned out to be a lot easier on the player base, and a lot more people were able to make they're own spec without having to rely on an outside source, such as (website full of theorycrafters and math geniuses). My dad still plays WoW, though I've moved on to SW:TOR, and he's capable of making his own spec where he'd rely on me to make his spec in the previous expansion due to being overwhelmed.

    Now, in the upcoming expansion. Blizzard has completely removed the talent trees in their current incarnation in favor of a completely new system. They state that due to the way the current, simplified talent trees are built, there's no actual choice just the illusion of choice. So now the player gets one "point" at certain level milestones, and with that "point" they get to choose 1 new ability out of 3 presented. It gives the player a genuine choice, as opposed to going with a cookie-cutter build.

    Too many choices, and the player gets bogged down and overwhelmed. In my case, I can't decide for fear of making the wrong choice, so I seek outside help. Less choices, and I can make my choice with less stress and worry. Generally, I'm happier with less choice, as long as my choice is genuinely that...a choice. The illusion of choice is a trap to watch out for, making 1 or multiple options obviously better than the others is no choice at all.

    Happy gaming!

  3. Wow...or should I say WoW?!

    I've been keeping track of how the skill system of Diablo III has been evolving, and I'm seeing a greater trend away from "committed" choices.

    Whereas in D2, you were locked into a certain set of skills, with no opportunity to change whatsoever, D3 will likely be much more flexible, with skill changes being allowed on an almost at-will basis.

    I'm hoping that this results in more variety--people willing to try out more things, eventually settling on their "favorites". It seems really solid, but....I don't have a D3 beta key like SOME people do! ;)

    Thanks for the comment!