January 11, 2008


We all know the feeling. You've plotted carefully, planned everything perfectly, executed flawlessly, and then a roll of the dice takes it all away. I've permanently burned into my memory all of the times that I've had the rug swept out from under me in a game of Risk or Dice Wars.

Of course, complaining about the randomness in a game called Dice Wars is like complaining that In-N-Out Burger doesn't provide a slow and relaxing dining experience; it's true, but you're still a dumbass for pointing it out. And I can't deny that the game, which is built around a highly random game mechanic, makes for fantastic fun despite the occasional unfairness. Indeed, chance is one of the fundamental sources of the elusive quality labeled "fun".

This doesn't mean that randomness is fun, though. Rolling a die, hoping to get a six, is not a fun game. The difference between rolling a die and Dice Wars is that, in the latter, the player usually has a significant amount of control over his place in the game. "Significant" in this sense means that your decisions have a high potential to determine whether or not you win the game.

I don't think that the makers of Dice Wars would advertise their game as offering "the possibility of defeat regardless of how skilled you are!" The game plays very well when superior strategy eventually beats through the randomness and wins (as it usually does), but it sucks to have your fortunes reversed when you're rightfully winning.

So what role, then, should randomness play in a game's design?

Most games seem to think that random elements have some place. Some games even include chance when it's totally unnecessary. Take, for example, the standard attacks in games like Heroes of Might and Magic or Warcraft 3, wherein the ranges of randomness are narrow or always balance out. Changing "23-27" to "25" is not going to visibly affect the gameplay. I'm not sure if the randomness is an early feature that was grandfathered into the final design, or if random elements are part of some sort of game design checklist, or if the designers really feel that the minuscule chance of a major change in gameplay adds to the appeal of a strategy game. I really don't know. Of course, I LOVE these games, but I'm much more impressed by something like Diplomacy that actually boasts that it lacks random elements.

My only complaint about randomness is that it leads to arbitrary events in gameplay, and arbitrariness doesn't lend itself to fun. But it's worth noting that the feeling of arbitrariness isn't only created by random number generators. Imagine that you're running along in Battlefield 2. Suddenly, an artillery shell drops out of the sky and blows your character to smithereens. It was not a random event; the enemy commander chose to shell that particular area of ground, but the switch from safe to deadly was sudden; the death feels arbitrary, a nuisance that keeps you from the real action and fun of the game for that much longer.

The same scenario can play out in a lot of deterministic games. What if, in Diplomacy, a bunch of other players gang up on you simultaneously, each action on his own volition (i.e. not in alliance with the others)? Or what if you're playing a non-randomized rock-paper-scissors-style RTS against a friend who just so happens to choose the strategy that always beats yours?

The perception of arbitrariness, then, can be born of player action as well as game-generated randomness. This is an incredibly important point when games are viewed in a holistic perspective. What does the player compete against? Either other players (whose actions are variable), a random element of the game (as in most solitaire games), or against set obstacles. But a game that is played versus set obstacles is more properly a puzzle (which can be included in games but is not itself a game). From this analysis, all games are played against pseudorandom elements.

But playing solitaire and playing against another person still feel very different. The reason is that, while the other player might do anything, his or her decisions will be constrained by his own strategy and skill. If you only build bombers, your opponent won't only build tanks. To continue with the RTS metaphor, the reason that people don't bitch about an enemy's surprising strategy is because they have the ability to scout out the opponent's base and see that strategy firsthand. If you couldn't scout before a battle in an RPS-style RTS, the game would feel arbitrary.

In the Battlefield 2 artillery example, the arbitrary feeling could be fixed if each team had a counter that made visible the time left before the other team's artillery could be fired. You're left with a time-sensitive mission to destroy the artillery before time is too late; if the guns are standing ready, infantry would have to spend time under cover. Because the possibility of an artillery strike is known, it won't feel arbitrary.

So there's a useful takeaway: if a player's actions are obscured from another player, then scouting must be available. Otherwise, just reveal what the other player is doing. Chess and Go do fine without hiding anything from the other player. Even modern RTSs are starting to take the hint by adding visible countdown timers for superweapons or announcing when important units are being built.

But while this solves the perceived randomness of multiplayer games, it doesn't inform us about how (or if) to include genuine random elements in game design. What about Dice Wars?

The best answer I can give right now is that it depends on what type of game you're making. You can either go for the sort of fun that comes with a slot machine, or the sort that comes from a test of skill or strategy. Randomness has a place in a game like Dice Wars or poker primarily as a means of simplifying or abstracting a layer of gameplay. In Dice Wars, it's understood that each attack should have a possibility of winning or losing, with the higher count having a better chance to win. Rather than simulating this with a sub-game, Dice Wars just rolls the dice. Poker offers a test of skill that is entirely based around managing randomness and judging probability, since the player controls the betting. Like Dice Wars, it is a test of skill because the random elements are expected to average out. If they don't, it is accepted that the game is flawed as a test of skill.

Ultimately, games have to be either cheap fun in which randomness dominates or deeper, high-commitment fun that acts as a challenge. Mixing the two necessarily dilutes one or the other. Dice Wars is more accessible than Go, but it won't be a timeless strategic showdown. Slots is extremely accessible, but it won't keep people playing for very long. Unless they're addicted to gambling, but we can't much help that.


Andy said...

There are tons of board-games out there that have very little to no randomness in them. Try Puerto Rico for a start. And check the top games at www.boardgamegeek.com

Sir Cucumber said...

and speaking of not-video-games, "Apples to Apples" is a great card game solely for its absolute arbitrariness. But only when drinking amongst drunks. Otherwise it kind of sucks.

E McNeill said...

@Sir Cucumber:

I'm a big fan of Apples to Apples, but I think that the game mechanic (matching traits to objects) sucks. It's fun because it offers a lot of chances to make jokes. That's why it's such a good game for playing with friends or when drunk, but isn't so fun if played with, say, parents.

Anonymous said...

Poker needs randomness so that people will think things like "any two can win!" and put their money down. Also, there are different kinds of poker, some have less randomness. For example, Razz. But you'll see that Razz is far less popular than Hold'em. Anyway, randomness in Casino games is the same as with Poker in that, people who don't understand the law of large numbers will play games like Roulette, Craps and Blackjack.

Peter Cooper said...

If you're a REALLY evil coder, you can also make things look random that really aren't. Several years ago I wrote a Pong game that became semi-popular, and there was a "vs computer" mode that was effectively impossible to beat, because any time it fell behind or was just about to going to miss the ball, it'd get a tiny speedup so it could make the difficult shots. You won't believe how many people will KEEP PLAYING without noticing it and get increasingly frustrated :)