Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Randomness in Games


Today, we talk a little about randomness in games.

To start, let's get something straight: in a game with randomness intentionally built into it, you must understand that you're possibly giving your victory over to chance.  So there is to be no complaining when the elements of chance bite you in the butt.  People who take Mario Party ultra seriously and get mad when the game screws them over need to calm down.  Yes, even if you won all the mini-games.  There's an understanding when you start playing a game that you understand the rules, and the ramifications of the game design.  You can say "this game would be so much better if X weren't in it," but you really shouldn't be complaining once you've agreed to play the game.

When you participate in something that has rules (whether it's a game or a tournament or something), you're essentially locking yourself into a contract.  You must then abide by the terms of that contract if you're going to play the game.  Don't like it?  Don't play.

This applies a bit less to glitches and engine flaws, where sometimes random things happen even though they're not part of the intentional design.  In this case (by my arbitrary guideline) you have a bit more leeway to complain.  But once you're aware that the game is not well-constructed and allows for goofy random glitches and bugs, you still have a choice whether or not to play.  So my advice is this:

1) Don't play games if you don't like the design, and...
2) Don't play badly made games.

Glad we got that out of the way.

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So the real question here is not whether randomness is "good" or "bad."  We're more interested in the questions: "what do random elements add to the game" and "what do random elements take away from the game."  And even those questions are a little complicated, because random elements can be implemented in different ways.  So really, you have to examine ANY given element, and ask "what does this one, specifically, add and/or take away from the game?"

Typically in a competitive setting, random elements put emphasis on the following skills and characteristics:

--Intelligent risk-taking and analysis: it gives you experience comparing risks and rewards.
--Long-term thinking: they teach you that good decision making in the long term is more important than short-term setbacks.
--Bouncing back from failure: you learn to evaluate your performance based on the decisions you make, rather than outcomes that may be altered randomly.  This actually de-emphasizes the outcome, and emphasizes clear thinking.  Of course, thinking and acting well are supposed to lead to good outcomes more often than not, so if they aren't, your understanding of the probabilities may be off.

Those are all pretty darn useful skills and attributes to have.  Cultivating an understanding of probability, and mental fortitude in the face of probability-based failure is critical.  Sometimes you make the right decision and it screws you.  It happens in real life.  Being able to calmly analyze your decision and remain confident you made the right one based on what you knew is important.

What are the cons of random elements?

--Randomness at critical moments can dictate a winner not based on the person playing better/making better decisions.  This is unfortunate when playing games with real resources at stake, where worse players at crucial moments can be given random victories.
--Alternatively, when the better player also has luck on his side, it can be even more unpleasant for the lesser skilled player.
--They can make it less obvious what you need to improve upon when chance and technical skill collide.  When you're playing a game for the enjoyment of improvement, this can be frustrating and disheartening.
--They can disguise how "good" you are at something.  A few good decisions that work out, followed by bad decisions that work out due to luck, can lead to a poor impression of how well you performed.

What do I mean by good decisions and good play when talking about randomness?  Decisions that intelligently take the odds into account, and make ones that are more likely to succeed overall.  Or ones that recognize a losing situation might require a poor-odds choice with a big payoff.  When you make decisions based on what will likely yield the best results, and you base it on accurate analysis, you

What types of random are bad?

None, really.  It largely depends on what you expect from the game.  Like I said before, if you go into a game of Mario Party expecting that the best player will win, period, you may be sorely disappointed.  If you are invested in winning consistently based only on skill, then you want to avoid games with any randomness at all.  If you are interested in witnessing chaotic events, and having a good time with silliness, the more random the better.  Sometimes the more brutally random it is, the more hilarious your game can be.  And there are well-designed elements of chance and probability that test your skills of analysis and long-term thinking.

The main random elements that I dislike are the ones you can't (or shouldn't) be trying to plan around.  If you have an attack with a .01% chance to do quadruple damage (or something), that's a one in ten thousand chance.  It would be really unreasonable to expect that any given one attack would be the one that does quadruple damage; basing a plan on the 1/10000 chance would also be ridiculous.  Payoffs would (at potentially irritating times) overreward bad planning and punish good planning.  When the randomness is that low, there's no point taking the possibility into account... except when there is.

The end result is not frustration or satisfaction on either player's part.  It tests no skill, it creates no emotional payoff.  It's just annoying when it happens to happen.  The other irritating aspect of low probability game-altering conditions is that they don't even feel like "part of the game."  So the reasonable mind ignores it, until it crops up in horribly annoying ways.  Such randomness also doesn't teach you many skills or lessons, other than "freak accidents sometimes happen and they suck."  And while that can be a useful lesson to learn, it really doesn't belong in most games.

Thanks for reading.  See you Friday!

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