Choice Paralysis & the Paradox of Choice in Games: Are Subscription Services Like Xbox Game Pass Making Things Easier or Harder?

We’ve all heard the expression ”less is more”, but is this true for games? Game subscription services are getting more content-rich (hello Xbox Game Pass!). And there’s more free-to-play games than ever before—not to mention the Epic Game Store giving free games away left, right, and center. Simply put, selecting what to play is getting harder, but there may be some light at the end of the choice tunnel. In this article, IGP host Jeremy Jackson explores the topic! We also cover it in the Side Quest podcast series right here.

What Is Choice Paralysis in Games and other media?

Choice paralysis: we have all had it, even when we don’t know what it is. Choice paralysis—AKA the choice paradox—is a situation where a person is so overwhelmed with options that their brain locks up and no choice is made.

Have you ever sat down with your dinner and spent so long cycling through Netflix that your dinner gets cold, so you end up throwing on your go-to rerun show? Familiar? You’ve encountered choice paralysis.

A key cause of choice paralysis: many people believe that more options mean there’s a higher chance of making the wrong choice—and that causes A LOT of anxiety. Hell, you probably had choice paralysis when you decided to read this article instead of watching that cat video (looks like you made the wrong choice there!)

The good news is that it isn’t your fault. There’s a book on the subject called The Paradox of Choiceby Barry Schwartz. Barry says it best: “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”

Why Is Choice Paralysis a Problem (In games and beyond)?

Choice paralysis has plagued the world of business for a long time, as it’s difficult but important to strike a balance giving people enough choices to make them happy and not overwhelming them with too many choices.

Social psychology shows that overwhelmed clients actually buy less. In a social experiment conducted by Columbia University in 2000, experimenters set up a jam section in a grocery store with 24 option, switching it up to six options the following day. The bigger selection generated more interest, but clients were less likely to buy (compared to the six-options day). These days, people’s attention spans are typically even shorter.

In today’s subscription world, choice paralysis is everywhere. Netflix, Kindle Unlimited, Spotify, and more recently Xbox Game Pass. Recent headlines around Game Pass tell us that they’ve added 80+ titles on PC with the Bethesda and EA Play content dumps, bringing the total number of games to close to 340! That means that Game Pass members this weekend sat down to check out a new game and might have been faced with some heavy choice paralysis.

Now, I believe that a massive selection is important in getting people in the door and keeping them subscribed to a service. The more options they know they’ll have, the cheaper the service will feel. But companies also have to mitigate choice paralysis once they’ve gotten the customer through the door.

Is Game Pass Addressing Choice Paralysis? How?

Simply put, companies need lots of content to get users in, but they need to hide some of this content to keep users sane. This work falls on the user experience (UX) team. Anupam Pareek made a post on UXPlanet in which they conducted a small survey. The survey claimed that on Netflix, people were most likely to choose content based first on their friends’ recommendation, and second on what’s trending online. This makes a lot of sense. After all, Game Pass emphasizes ‘trending’ and popular titles, so they scratch that itch.

But while you can see what your friends have played when looking at their profile, they don’t leverage the massive social implication in gaming to have friend-based recommendations—this might change once Phil Spencer reads this article, though (you’re reading right, Phil!?)

What’s interesting here is that Microsoft seriously underplays just how many games are on Game Pass. All their marketing still says that a subscription gives access to “over 100 high-quality games”. As I mentioned earlier, Game Pass for PC has north of 300 titles… and I doubt this is simple oversight from their marketing department. It’s possible that they’re trying to address choice paralysis even before people sign up.

Something else I noticed is that while Microsoft is clearly using an algorithm to show me relevant content, they’re not flooding me with it. “The existence of multiple alternatives makes it easy for us to imagine alternatives that don’t exist—alternatives that combine the attractive features of the ones that do exist,” says The Paradox of Choiceauthor Barry Schwartz.

Already having to make lots of choices—choices that directly compete with one another—aggravates things further. I like racing games, I have two installed on Game Pass, but I’ve only ever been shown one racing title as a recommendation—despite there being a total of eight racing games on Game Pass.

Instead, Game Pass shows me content based on themes and categories. This might be the direct result of Microsoft avoiding the easy route of recommending games they know I like (which could’ve caused me to default to the alternative I already have installed and am comfortable with). Instead, it seems Microsoft is taking a risk to grab my attention with something new.

On the Game Pass front page, there are only 30 choices. They don’t flood you with endless scrolling like Netflix does. The process is clean :one category based on things in my library, another section is a Bethesda spotlight, but there’s also a ‘popular games’ section (there’s that trending recommendation). Finally, they have a ‘coming soon’ and ‘leaving soon’ area. When all else fails—they choose for you, with a bit of FOMO thrown in there.  

What Are IGPubcast Followers Saying?

We posted a poll on our Twitter page, @IGPubcast (follow please!), asking our friends and followers about the number of options in Game Pass. Only 14 of our followers responded, so take this with a grain of salt:

The result? There are definitely some who feel overwhelmed, but overall users are happy with the options.

Conclusion – Is Game Pass a Choice Paradox Genius?

As gaming explores the world of subscriptions, it’s important to consider that too many choices can lead to a bad time. Luckily, it seems that Game Pass is seriously dampening just how much content is perceived to be available on their service.

They’ve likely determined that for ~$10 per month, a perceived rotating library of 100 games is enough to bring people in without overwhelming them. It’s likely that advertising more games could lead to hesitation to even get people to subscribe. Once you’re in Game Pass, Microsoft avoids showing you all 300+ games on the home page. They even purposefully avoid ‘shoving’ alternatives to the content you like down your throat.

Instead, Game Pass might even be looking to get players to try genres they never would have tried otherwise. In 2019, Agostino Simonetta of ID@Xbox shared that Xbox Subscribers were playing 40% more games than they were before they were subscribed.

They even become more active outside of the service. Around 91% claimed to have played a game that they wouldn’t have played before Game Pass and, overall, members are playing 30% more genres than before.

Simonetta said Game Pass is “an opportunity to broaden the horizon of the fans.” It’s possible that the emphasis on content diversity at Game Pass actually makes choosing more fun and easier, because you don’t feel like each game, you’re looking at represents a similar experience. What do you think? Let us know on Twitter!

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