I’ve noticed that when I play open world games I can have wildly different emotional reactions to exploration. Like, a new quest hub opens up and sometimes I go “Oh nice, there’s so much to do” and sometimes I go “oh no, there’s so much to do”. Why does this happen and what design choices make the difference?

In cognitive psychology, there’s this concept called “Cognitive Load”. It refers to the maximum number of things a person can easily remember and recall at once. Beyond that maximum, you start forgetting things and need to be reminded. Your brain is full, so finding space for the new thing becomes a little harder.

When you’re playing a game and your cognitive load is too light, you’re at the risk of feeling a little aimless and bored. Your brain just isn’t super engaged because it doesn’t have to be, so you start to tune out to varying degrees. In such situations, getting a bunch of new tasks will usually engage you more because it gives you more to think about, anticipate, plan for, remember, etc. This causes the “Oh nice, there’s so much to do!” sensation, because you’ve become more engaged. You’re looking forward to seeing where these new things will take you and what sort of fun new things you’ll be doing.

When you’re already near your cognitive load limit, this sensation turns to overwhelming instead. You already have all of these things you’re thinking about already - this quest for this NPC, that collection for the thing you wanted to craft, how to defeat these particular monsters, etc. When you’re near maximum capacity and you suddenly are thrust into even more things to think about, your brain rebels. Humans are very loss averse - we feel worse if we have to put something back than if we never got it in the first place. Seeing all of those things you have to pass over makes you feel bad. This is why you say “Oh no, there’s so much to do!” Your brain is upset because you’ve given it things to think about and now it has to put them back because it’s too full.

Generally, the way to handle this situation as a designer is to work carefully on the game’s pacing. We want the player to stay in that sweet spot of cognitive load, where they have enough tasks to keep them from getting bored and tuning out, but not so many that they feel overwhelmed and anxious about leaving something behind. 

For an open world game like you mention, this means careful placement of quest givers and quest goals relative to each other in the world. Have you ever played a game where you felt frustrated because the quest you were on had you running back and forth to places you just came from without anything else to do? This is usually because you’re at minimal cognitive load - you are spending all this time to do this one task and tuning out because it doesn’t bring anything else new along the way, so you’re starting to get bored and disengage from the game. If you had other quests you wanted to do along the way each direction, this would not happen.

In order to ensure a good flow for the player, you want each set of quest goals (e.g. where the bears spawn for me to collect bear claws) to overlap with the next planned set of quest givers (there’s a small hunter’s camp visible just beyond with some more quests). This way, the player’s brain can process through its cognitive load by finishing the older quests/tasks as we introduce new ones. Optimally, this keeps the player loaded up but not overwhelmed by adding new tasks as old ones complete. We want the player to continue doing these quests without sliding into the frustration zone, as well as gradually ramping up their power level, drops, difficulty, etc. to account for players learning to play the game better. In a lot of ways, our ability to keep everything flowing nicely for the player tends to be a factor of our maximum cognitive load as designers.

The FANTa Project is currently on hiatus while I am crunching at work too busy.

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