Does respeccing your character build in Diablo 3 make you less happy?

The Psychology of Games: Jamie Madigan discusses the subjective optimism of character builds

Are you less likely to be happy with a character/class build in a video game if respeccing it is easy? This may make me sound like a cranky old man, but it used to be that you made build choices in a game and the only way you could change your mind was to start a new game. There's a new trend, though, to make such choices much more flexible. One of the more radical design changes in Diablo 3, which has just released on consoles, is letting you change class builds practically on the fly, swapping powers in and out with zero cost. Dragon's Dogma's goes even further: its entire class system is predicated on the assumption that players will flitter back and forth between the game's many occupations, each of which offers unique play styles. And changing skill point allocations in World of Warcraft and many other RPGs is similarly trivial most of the time.

Players like this freedom. But players, some psychological research shows, may be wrong to do so.

"If we're good at looking for silver linings, we're even better at ignoring the clouds altogether"

Decades of research in psychology labs and in the field has shown that humans are super good at seeking out, overvaluing, and remembering information that lets them feel better about their current situation. This has been studied under many names: dissonance reduction, self-deception, ego defense, positive illusion, emotion-based coping, self-affirmation, self serving attribution, and subjective optimization. They all show that if we're good at looking for silver linings, we're even better at ignoring the clouds altogether. And overall, that's useful. It's kind of a psychological immune system to protect us when things turn out to be suboptimal, so we're willing to take chances and make decisions, then live with them. It's an adaptive trait for our species.

But while people are good at this kind of willful happiness, they are largely unaware of it and are terrible at predicting (or admitting) that it will happen when they're making decisions under uncertainty. In fact, people like to keep their options open and hang on to choices as long as they can because they're afraid that they'll want to change their minds later - something called "psychological reactance." So the psychological immune system is there and it's effective, but we largely ignore it and take actions that prevent it from coming into play.

For example, Daniel Gilbert and Jane Ebert did a study where they had students in a photography class process and make prints of their two favorite pictures. The instructors/experimenters then told the students that they had to pick one of the two prints to take home, and one to ship off across the ocean in five days, along with the negative. But some students were told that once they made their choice, it was irrevocable, while others were told they'd have plenty of time and opportunity - five days - to change their mind.

When, nine days later, the researchers asked both sets of students how much they liked the picture they had chosen to walk away with, the ones who were immediately locked in to their choices said they they liked their photos significantly more than those who were given the opportunity to change their minds. They were happier with their photo and enjoyed it more. This is the psychological immune system kicking in: you can't change your choice, so whether you're aware of it or not you change your attitude with what you're stuck with. Still, follow-up studies showed that students greatly preferred being in the groups that allowed them to change their minds, even though they usually ended up less happy.

"Game developers should not feel shackled to convenience as a immutable design principle"

I have to wonder how often this kind of thing happens in video games. Most gamers, if asked, would probably tell you that they would love the flexibility that comes with being able to change their abilities, stats, or even class with little to no cost. Why not? What if specialising in ranged weapons turns out to be no fun? What if that "Whirlwind" or "Fire Resistance" or "Goat Launcher" skill that you picked at level 20 turns out to be lame? A lot of us still regret choosing the Aqualung augmentation in the original Deus Ex, after all.

And yet some others do take the view that you learn to be happy with what you choose and move on with your life - or at least your playthrough. When the super flexible skill system in Diablo 3 was announced, I remember reading reactions from a small but vocal group of Diablo 2 fans who said that committing yourself to a build and sticking it out was integral to the fun. Given what Gilbert and Ebert found about how people prefer options that don't optimise their happiness, were they right?

Or perhaps there's room for some middle ground that will let you both expect happiness and feel it, too. Rogue Legacy, the roguelike platformer, expects players to burn through many characters and gives you choice of traits each time, but you also make important decisions about gear and upgrades that form through lines.

Regardless, the psychological immune system has been serving us well as a species for some time now, whether we expect it to in any given situation or not. Game developers should not feel shackled to convenience as a immutable design principle, and they shouldn't always trust gamers who are not always accurate at predicting how happy they will be with choices. And players? Don't worry. You'll be happy.

Jamie Madigan writes about the overlap between psychology and videogames at Follow him on Twitter: @JamieMadigan.


Gilbert, D. T., & Ebert, J. E. (2002). Decisions And Revisions: The Affective Forecasting Of Changeable Outcomes..Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(4), 503-514.

Latest comments (5)

Eyal Teler Programmer 3 years ago
This article raises an interesting thought, but I think it could also work the other way. It would be interesting to see how people would answer if the picture they chose played a part of those 5 days. When I make a choice in a game, I don't just sit there for five days, I play, and the choice I made is part of the gameplay I experience.

The way I see it, being able to freely change things can make me enjoy the game more, not less, just knowing it's there. It's a similar mechanism to game saves, providing a safety net. It's why many people want to be able to save at any point. I save my games a lot, and use these saves more rarely. The feeling that I can go back reassures me that I can try any choices without agonising over them for a long time. It's possible that the ability to freely change a character would provide a similar kind of reassurance.

In any case if there is an option to modify the character, I would rather that it be freely usable at any time. For example respecs in City of Heroes were limited and required work, and as said in the article, I often chose not to use them, to keep the option open for the future, and to not risk "wasting" one if I respect wrongly. This meant that I obsessed more about them than had they been free. If they were free to do at any time, then I could ignore them, because I would know that if I really want a change I'd be able to make it, and if I decide it was a mistake I could easily revert it.

All in all, I feel that allowing change to happen freely reduces pressure on me as a player. It means that I don't need to obsess about decisions I make, because I know I could change them, and this makes my choices easier. Most likely I won't change them in the future (because as the article said, we tend to grow to like our decisions). I don't know, perhaps that won't work for everyone, but I think it's worth researching more. Researchers often try to reduce problems to their simplest terms, then try to conclude from that about more complex cases. That doesn't always work.
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Giles Smith Studying maths, University of Sussex3 years ago
If the game is balanced with many viable options then this study is probably relevant. Unfortunately in the case of Diablo 2, despite being a good game overall, the skill locking system was miserable. It wasn't a case of making do with what you chose, often that wasn't possible.
None of the early skills scaled correctly to the late game, so all good character builds involve spending no skill points for 20 levels or so and then dumping them into high level skills later on. They fixed this later when they patched the option to reset your skills a limited number of times, that proved to be a fair compromise.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 3 years ago
I can't speak to the experience of D3 (as I haven't played it!) but switching class and/or skills in Dragon's Dogma benefits the player through use of cross-class skills and abilities. This allows you to try out every style of character (if you so choose) without having to restart the game and make a completely new character - since there is no easy way to have more than one concurrent character per PSN account.

My personal experience of playing DD and DA was that I was able to choose the playstyle I enjoyed the most without losing my progress and also benefit from that learning experience both in the above-mentioned abilities/skills but also my knowledge of the game mechanics.

Ultimately, the question probably comes down to a "maybe, depending on the game and depending on the person".
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David Serrano Freelancer 3 years ago
And yet some others do take the view that you learn to be happy with what you choose and move on with your life - or at least your playthrough.
I think the dismal completion rates for core / hardcore games prove this is not the case.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 3 years ago
Unfortunately, the parallel drawn here between the study and games that allow respeccing is not a valid one. The study did not compare the ability to change with not having that ability, since in both cases in the study the decision was permanent. The only difference was the amount of time one had to consider (and second-guess) the permanent decision.

If not allowing changes to one's choices in a game were taken to its logical conclusion, you would also not allow a character to change his weapon types once selected, or go back from heavy to lighter armour, or the like.

I think that games do best when they try to achieve a balance between having to make decisions with non-trivial consequences and allowing the player to try out different approaches to the challenges with which she's presented. A good example of this, in my opinion, is the weapons selection system in Bastion. You can take only two weapons (and one potion-using skill) in to a level, and can't change them for the duration of that level (except when you pick up a new weapon). However, having completed (or failed to complete) a level and arriving back at the bastion, you can choose a new loadout for your next level or a re-try of the level you failed.
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