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Imagine a mobile phone game that is meant to be played in short sessions (5-10 mins). You can choose one out of many characters, and each character slightly alters the way the game plays.

Those characters are all locked and have to be unlocked by purchasing them with in-game money.

Should the player be able to choose which one to unlock?

Besides the obvious benefit of being able to choose who you want to unlock, the downside of this method is that players often end up having choice paralysis: With tons of characters to choose from, the player will just not bother reading every character's pros and cons and make a choice.

Should the player just be able to unlock a random character?

This is a more casual friendly method, as the player will just spend their in-game money without thinking because there's no other options. The downside of this is that paying for a character that doesn't suit your playstyle may feel bad.

Other solutions?

Maybe you have another solution on your mind? Note that some characters make the game more high risk/high reward, aimed for veteran players, while other characters just make the game easier to play.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This question looks rather broad and opinion-based at the moment. We can easily point to choices in successful games that work the first way you propose, and ones that work the second way you propose, and other ways as well (eg. choice between a rotating short-list of daily/weekly options). So there's no one right answer to how to unlock characters, just what's right for serving your goals for the feature. What do you want from this feature, and how have the methods you've considered so far fallen short of delivering on that target? Identify a specific problem to solve & we can help solve it \$\endgroup\$ – DMGregory Jul 16 at 10:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ You could do some research into lootboxes (which is comparable to random unlocking). It is quite a popular model, but not without controversy. \$\endgroup\$ – Dukeling Jul 16 at 10:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ On the subject of loot boxes, it's also worth noting that some jurisdictions have introduced legislation restricting paying for a random outcome, leading some games with lootbox mechanics to ether change their interactions or block features where they're in dubious legal territory. \$\endgroup\$ – DMGregory Jul 16 at 11:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DMGregory And there are several more studying if they should ban lootboxes, too. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Jul 16 at 18:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ You could package multiple items together to make a pack. That would bump the average sale price if they want a few of the 5 characters in each pack, for example. The user still gets to choose without randomness. \$\endgroup\$ – ps2goat Jul 16 at 19:26
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The practice of letting the player pay to receive random rewards has gotten a lot of bad press lately because it preys on gambling instincts and is customer-unfriendly because the customer who wants one specific piece of content doesn't know how much money they have to spend for it. But large, profit-optimized companies like EA wouldn't do this if it wouldn't be profitable. Do you want to join the dark side? We can not make moral decisions for you.

If you are afraid that giving the player too many options might cause choice paralysis, then there are a couple solutions you can try:

  • Give the player an opportunity to try out content before they buy. That way they can make a more informed decision about what to buy. Some approaches to this I have seen are:
    • A "training mode" were all unlockables are available and can be experimented with, but there is no real core gameplay.
    • A "free character of the week" which is available to all players, but only for a limited time. If they want to keep playing the character after that time window, they have to buy it.
    • A mechanic to switch to the character of the opponent who just defeated you for one round, even if you didn't unlock that character yet. Also has the positive side-effect that it is an anti-frustration feature.
  • Inform the players well about which characters might suit their playstyle. This is mostly a matter of UI design and communicating their pros and cons properly.
  • Limit the choices the player can do by some kind of choice tree or by hiding each character behind some achievements the player has to complete in order to be allowed to play that character (you might want to consider to make them pay extra for overriding the prerequisites if they really, really want a specific character).
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  • \$\begingroup\$ "Inform the players well about which characters might suit their playstyle" - you could put characters into groups or add filters. This is a fairly common approach when there are a large number of options. Dota 2 is one example of this, with over 100 heroes to choose from (although they're all unlocked from the start). \$\endgroup\$ – Dukeling Jul 16 at 13:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Give the player an opportunity to try out content before they buy" pretty much covers what I was going to say, though I would have put it in the context of a small set of levels (1-3) that can only be played with a specific character that makes the most use of that character's special ability. These levels are freely available, might be integrated into a story narrative, might not be. \$\endgroup\$ – Draco18s Jul 16 at 14:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ One way of getting around the moral issues of loot boxes, in my opinion, is to have them as a cheaper alternative. I haven't seen this in action, but for my own concepts, I often consider a loot box with no control over the content, as something that is half priced. So you essentially get a 2-for-1 deal, but you miss out on controlling what you get. Depending on whether duplicates are allowed (They shouldn't be, in my opinion, but ymmv), this also offers a nice discount mechanism; Get all remaining characters at half price \$\endgroup\$ – MartinArrJay Jul 24 at 11:55
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I would point out that there are ways you can build in-game systems to address both of your concerns.

Choice Paralysis

Your first stated concern was with the route of choosing your character, as is may cause choice paralysis. This can be solved by adding filters to facilitate player choices. You could allow for search queries that show you characters who have specific pros and lack specific cons, etc. This is beneficial for a number of reasons:

  1. Looking through the search options will give the player a general ideas of the types of pros/cons (s)he can unlock, prompting them to start recognizing what strategies are feasible and conceptualize how to implement them, even before they reach "veteran" level.
  2. If a player wants to test a certain strategy but lacks the deck to do so, (s)he can obtain the characters (s)he needs in a comparatively short and simple process than had the search option not been present.

Randomness

The reason you gave for leaning towards randomness at all was that it would be a quick and easy way for casual players to get a new character and move on. But this ease can easily be preserved in a player-choice system by adding a "Unlock Random Character" button!

In fact, if you were to combine the aforementioned search query with the random button, allowing the player to say, "select a random character with this pro/without this con," you can even avoid the potential scenario in which a player pays for a character that does not suit his/her playstyle, even if they let the computer choose a character for them.

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Do you have evidence of choice paralysis? Did you run play tests this?

Let us assume you did test it, and found this result...

I will not suggest to hide characters. That can also lead to some other predatory practices (loot-boxes are not the only bad thing out there). In fact, many people enjoy shopping. If the decision is hard, it could spark a community of character reviews in social media, that is all good.

Furthermore, I would like to encourage the philosophy that players should enjoy buying. You want them to like to buying things in your game. So spice up the market!

Besides pure user experience, you can address that choice paralysis with non-premium version that can be acquired by other means. Sure, they would try to get the non-premium first, but it also means they will be buying something they know they like. That is good customer satisfaction. Perhaps you can limit the number of non-premium character they can have at a time as a side incentive.

And of course the premium version would be extra fancy... they may even have slightly better stats, never to the point where the non-premium version are not usable. You want them to enjoy the non-premium so they know they will enjoy the premium one.

Addendum: to make sure you are not making a pay to win. The improvement should not be in power, just in convenience.

Which remind me. You want differences in kind, the characters should differ in mechanics, not just stats. There should be no clear better character, getting a character should feel game changing, and you should offer characters that lead well to different character styles (ranged, melee, stealth, etc...). That last point should also help the player decide what to buy.

If you are thinking in offering multiple variants with different stats... Instead provide ways to alter the stats of the characters (leveling up, power up items, collectible cards, whatever).

Also do not forget to offer alternative skins for sale. Let the player express themselves with the customization. In fact, in multiplayer, that is advertisement! If a player can see another player with a cool cosmetic, they might want to get it too.


Addendum: I understand the argument against the premium version having better stats. It easy to make it so that player with premium versions dominate. I suppose it works better in some games, for instance if the game is cooperative instead of competitive. Another things that helps is having things that can only be acquired by playing, and let those be tradable with other players, plus allowing trading premium currency among players. That way, if you put the time you can still get the premium content despite not using real money by selling things to those who do.

However, please understand the argument against hiding characters and rotations. It is easy to design rotations in such way that it prays on the fear of missing out. Not to mention making it so that everything in the rotation is not an easy combination of the amounts of premium currency that can be acquired... making it so that you always need just a little more premium currency, but you got to buy a bundle bigger than what you actually want to expend... leaving you with little extra that sets you to need just a little more premium currency on the next rotation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please do not make this "premium has better stats" thing. It makes for an horrible player experience overall. Use a weekly free rotation or something of the sort. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Jul 16 at 18:33
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It would be cool if the player could level up, thereby unlocking WHICH characters could be unlocked at particular levels. It pushes the player to continue progressing and leveling up.

Think Fortnite. I hate to reference it, but dammit if it doesn't work.

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Expectation / psychology angle:

If I purchase something, I expect to choose. There are very rare exceptions, such as sneak previews at the local cinema and raffle tickets, but the general expectation is that the person spending currency (whether real or in-game) has the choice what to spend that currency on.

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I’d say random character is the best choice and I might go as far as saying it will result in more money.

Here’s why: The way human psychology works and why gambling industry is so popular is exactly that, the random chance.

An simple example could be the “Mystery Box” in Call of Duty Zombies, people love it and at least in the early days it might’ve been one of the things that fueled the success of the game mode.

Another example is cases in CSGO and Call of Duty again.

So I would go with the random system, and despite the bad press and all, players still get hooked, meaning they don’t have a problem.

They would spin it again and again to see what they get, the mystery is key...

Hope that helps

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "players still get hooked, meaning they don’t have a problem." That's kind of a bold statement: Some players do have gambling problems and lootboxes makes them poor. Now wether or not this is my responsability or not is another discussion \$\endgroup\$ – user3491043 Jul 17 at 9:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I meant they don’t have a problem with his game, like negative opinions. Their gambling problems is their own business and is completely outside his game. \$\endgroup\$ – Vadim Tatarnikov Jul 17 at 9:44

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