Tobold's Blog
Monday, July 11, 2022
Randomness in games

Imagine a game with turn-based combat, and your current character is dealing exactly 10 points of damage per turn to an enemy who has 35 health. It will take you 4 turns to kill that enemy. The outcome is completely predictable, so unless that enemy deals more than a quarter of your health to you each round, you know that you will win. Some people will find that complete predictability somewhat boring, so let’s add some randomness. What if your character deals randomly between 9 and 11 points of damage? Not only is the average still the same, the random variation is so small that it will still always take exactly 4 turns to kill the enemy. So let’s widen that variability range to between 8 and 12 points. Now it becomes possible that the enemy dies in 3 turns, or in 5 turns, even if the outcome of it taking 4 turns is still the most likely. The sufficient degree of randomness adds some uncertainty to the game, and that creates some tension, which makes the game more interesting.

But what if your character had a 50% chance to hit the enemy each turn, and would deal between 1 and 39 points of damage. The average is still 10 points of damage per turn, and thus 4 turns to kill the enemy. But you could potentially one-shot that enemy. Or you could lose the fight after a series of misses and/or low damage rolls. That could potentially be rather frustrating, and not fun at all. If there is a bit of randomness, dealing with the randomness is a fun game element. If there is too much randomness, at some point we have the impression that we don’t deal with the random number generator anymore, but rather just suffer it’s random consequences. We lose player agency, and that makes for bad games.

I’m on my annual summer holidays, and I have my Switch and my iPad with me, but no PC. Now, if I wanted, I could buy Battle Brothers on the Nintendo Switch store and keep playing that game. But apart from having to buy it a second time, I also don’t want to play Battle Brothers on the Switch, because there are no mods on the Switch. And without mods, Battle Brothers is far too random for me. You progress in Battle Brothers by hiring more mercenaries, but without the mod that shows you how good each mercenary is before you buy him, the hiring is mostly random. And thus you could spend a lot of money on a completely useless guy, and if you are unlucky you could fall behind the power curve of the game and end up losing the whole game because of some unlucky randomness in hiring. With the mod, I see the stats of the mercenary before I pay, so the worst that can happen is that there is nobody good available, and I have to move elsewhere to find a candidate. The mod effectively reduces the randomness of Battle Brothers to a degree that is much more fun to me.

Your mileage may vary. Chess players probably like the fact that there is no randomness at all in chess, only the unpredictability of your opponent. Other people like gambling on games that are purely random, like roulette. It is safe to say that how much randomness is fun to somebody, and how much is too much will vary widely from one player to the next. And some games are designed to have random losses made less frustrating, because they give you some permanent advantage for each loss, increasing your chances for future runs. Personally I do like a bit of randomness for me to deal with, but not too much.

Games with limited information and a degree of randomness introduce an element of risk management into the decision cycle. With a purely deterministic game like chess, the skill lies n being able to correctly calculate the outcome of your move (and the subsequent moves). The risky game requires considering several questions - not only what is my chance of success, but what is the upside if I'm successful, and what is the downside if I'm not. Sometimes it's worth taking a punt on a long shot if the potential payoff is good and I can weather the consequences if I fail. Sometimes even a 97% chance of success isn't worth it if the 3% chance of failure is catastrophic and the reward is marginal.

A deterministic game loses that whole element of judgement. A game that is too random in terms of both success chance and consequences comes down to pure luck rather than rewarding decision-making skill as well, so the sweet spot is having enough randomness to make it bite, but be manageable. It all comes back to Sid Meier's dictum that a game is a series of interesting choices. The art of good design is to make the choices interesting.
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