Epic Games’ Senior Designer Jim Brown deconstructs the psychology of level design and explains how to give players autonomy by taking it away.

Influences of Choice

  • Paradox of Choice: Choice is essential to player autonomy, but too much can break a player’s flow state and leave them overwhelmed.
  • Availability Heuristic: The tendency to believe that whatever is easiest to recall is the best foundation for future predictions.
  • Sunk Cost Fallacy: Perceived investment in a goal compels a player to continue towards that goal regardless of obstacles or alternatives.

Guiding Choice Through Design

  • Agency vs Autonomy in Gaming
    • Agency is the capacity to choose.
    • Autonomy is the capacity to make an informed choice you endorse.
  • Choice vs Simple Decision Making
    • Real choice gives players autonomy and makes them responsibility for an outcome.
  • The Peak-End Rule: Players judge an experience by how they felt at its peak and end, rather than by averaging the entire experience.
  • Multiplayer games create the most autonomy because the choices of each player directly affect others.
    • Respect the paradox of choice to maximize the multiplayer format.

Create Meaningful Decisions

  • Design Without Intent
    • Give players options, not influences, so that they can make their own choices and find meaning in their outcomes.
  • Avoid Chain Decisions
    • Spread out important choices so that players can process peak and end points.
  • Second-Order Decisions: Premeditated decisions designed to reduce the problems of real-time decision making.
    • Players find their own path, make their own memorable peak and end points, and construct unique meaning from that experience when given the space to make second-order-decisions.

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