Thursday, November 1, 2012

On Random Chance

            Greetings to hypothetical readers, self-deprecation as a result of slow update rate, etc. You know the drill. So I have been rather busy lately, which is partly responsible for the lack of updates. The other reason is the fact that since I haven’t had much free time, the only video game I’ve played in like 3 solid weeks is the pet battling system from World of Warcraft.

Above: What obsession looks like

            For those who aren’t aware, in the latest expansion to Blizzard Entertainments popular MMO, Mists of Pandaria, a system was added where previously purely cosmetic pets could be collected (along with an expanded roster of wild ones), leveled up and battled. The comparison everyone has been making is that it’s like Pokemon. Make no mistake though, it totally is. An imperfect and simplified Pokemon, but one that I haven’t played to death and contained within an online game I already liked. So I’ve been enjoying myself with it quite a bit.

            However, a few things have bothered me as I’ve continued to play the game. There are a lot of little balance issues, and some bigger problems like a lack of proper end-game. But there’s one problem in particular that sparked a more interesting line of discussion in my mind. You see I was annoyed by the amount of random chance in the system. Missing, dodging and criticals are all moderately common in WoW pet battles, and much more common than Pokemon, the game it gets much of its inspiration from. My frustration with this got me thinking about these random elements in games in general.

            Now if I were to talk about every random aspect of games this would be a very long article indeed, so I’m going to limit myself a bit. I’ll focus mainly on random chance in RPGs, and since that definition is oh so vague these days I’ll define it as follows: a game wherein known stats or numbers play a significant role in determining the outcome of your actions. The word known is central here because almost every game obviously has some underlying math behind how the world works, but it’s not used by the player to decide things. The general, loose rule of thumb here is that the more skill/reaction based your actions are the less random chance the game dabbles in, though there are some exceptions. In a tight, fast game that requires precision noticeable random chance would be beyond annoying.

Above: What fun doesn’t look like

            However, I can see the appeal of random chance in a slower paced game like most RPGs. It adds some texture and tension to the experience. For example, I absolutely love the game Paper Mario. This game is rare amongst RPGs in that the damage values stay very small and unaffected by random values. However, pretty early in the game you get the ability to perform action commands, timed button presses that make your attacks stronger and enemies weaker when performed correctly. This combined with the games various partners, badges, items, and diverse enemies made it absolutely brilliant, but let’s not get sidetracked by my fanboy ranting.

            At the very beginning of the game, you go through a sort of tutorial area where you don’t have access to action commands at all. You just do a set amount of damage (usually 1 at this point) every single attack. Obviously this doesn’t last long and is only used to introduce new mechanics one at a time, but if the whole game worked in a similar fashion fights would get a lot more boring before too long. After all, if you already know all the set damage outcomes and which is most efficient then you might as well let the game play itself until the point where an important decision needs to be made.

Final Fantasy 13 actually did something like this, though not exactly (note where the cursor is). This strikes me as somewhat missing the point.

            So in order to add some variance and unpredictability to the mix, most RPGs have at least some mild randomization of the numbers at play. This is usually fine by me, but I think you can certainly tip the scale too far on the side of random chance. I’m admittedly more biased towards less random systems in the first place (I’m the type of person who will always go for 50% more damage all the time rather than 100% half the time) but I think in general more games have too much random chance than too few. This is particularly noticeable in some older RPGs, and it all comes back to the original inspiration for many of them: D&D.

            Dungeons and Dragons, the tabletop roleplaying game that pioneered a lot of this stuff, is ridiculously random. At lower levels, you can easily deal or take damage equal to your entire health based on one good/bad roll. This becomes less common as you get higher level, but the game always keeps a healthy level of randomness to the affair. There’s a simple reason why the game made this design decision: the game is really slow.

            Now let me qualify that statement before a bunch of D&D fans rip me to pieces, assuming FF13 fans haven’t already. The pacing of Dungeons and Dragons, like almost every aspect of the game, depends on the DM (for the uninitiated, DM stands for Dungeon Master, and represents an actual person controlling the bad guys and non-player characters). However, generally speaking the combat of the game takes quite a bit longer than in your standard video game, because everyone has to declare their actions every few seconds of game time and then calculate the results. Admittedly this could be sped up a bit with the removal of the randomization, but that’s a bad idea, because it’s the thing that makes the slow combat bearable in the first place. The high level of chance involved in the proceedings mean that any turn may be your last. And surprisingly enough, that’s a good thing.

Assuming you’re level 1, D&D bumps up the number of games in which a chicken could kill you in to two.

            There’s some skill involved on the players part, but ultimately a certain amount of luck rules the outcome of things. Not everyone is a huge fan of this type of game play (namely, me) but even I can admit that it makes battles pretty tense. Difficulty is always best balanced on the edge of a razor, a point where you almost always will win, but almost always can lose. The lengthy fights and interactions would bore players if it weren’t for this fact.

            But the astoundingly astute among you will note that Dungeons and Dragons is not, in fact, a video game, and there are some key differences between the two. The biggest one is the reason that random chance can work in one but not the other: the DM. Assuming your DM isn’t a jerk, he can always moderate the game to make sure the random odds don’t get out of hand. In D&D, if your seasoned adventurer is walking down the road when a ludicrously unlikely series of rolls cause him to permanently die by the hand of a paraplegic orphan child who fell off a nearby cliff, your DM can step in and say “No, this is stupid, re-roll that shit” (or keep it canon from sheer hilarity, depending on what your group is like).

Actually, I would play the crap out of a game where this is replaced with a paraplegic orphan child version.

Video games have no such luxury. If you almost lose due to luck, if the fluctuations in favor shift constantly between you and your enemy, causing you to cheer and boo respectively, but ultimately leading to your all the more satisfying victory? Then this is a triumph, and the intent of the system has succeeded. But if your luck ever turns sour, then you have no recourse but to call bullshit, to seethe and swear at the screen, and ultimately try again, but in a worse mood.

This means that these systems don’t just cause short term frustration either. If the variance in outcomes is too large, then the player will begin to question how much effect their skill really has. If a player loses over and over, growing frustrated over time, and then wins due to sheer luck, this is usually not a positive. It’s better than them rage-quitting of course, but they’ll be stewing in resentment over the fact that getting lucky was their only way to succeed. At best you’ll just reset them to the base case where they started, and more likely they’ll continue slightly more annoyed then they were before (and this will grow over the course of the game). You should be wary about attempts to auto-balance bad luck as well, as any benefits given to the player due to failure can feel like a pity prize and demean them.

So say you’re a game designer. Being a savvy and handsome person you read my blog and really want to avoid these types of scenarios. But at the same time, you want to offer that variance in what might happen to excite the player. So what can you do?

You could take the Paper Mario route and instead of luck based outcomes have the variance in damage based on player input. I’m on record saying I’m a huge fan of this system, as the player always feels like in control (because they are, really). Of course, if your game has extended grind without the vast number of enemy types and abilities that the Paper Mario has, then this could lead to boredom due to predetermined outcomes. So I understand that not every game can and/or is well suited for this type of system (though seriously, more could try).

Could more games please do this other than Paper Mario/Mario & Luigi*? Please?! C’mon guys! The upcoming Paper Mario has some weird sticker thing, and the last one wasn’t even an RPG! More of this, I’m BEGGING YOU!!

You could take the route many MMOs do where a ridiculous amount of factors go into damage calculation. This lets the player make lots of tiny decisions that make them feel like they’re in control, even when ultimately the outcome doesn’t change much. This isn’t a great solution though, because not everyone likes the modifications to their character being so small or incremental. Many will realize the tiny changes aren’t having much of an effect and resent the system for its lack of true customization. (Not to mention this can lead to systems that are unbalanced without realizing it, as conveniently explained by Shamus Young in this interesting article he wrote a week or so ago).

The most common thing to do is compromise. You could take the route of most RPGs and make the variable factors (missing, criticals, damage variance, etc) fairly moderate. That is, have some of them but not too much. This dilutes the disadvantages of both sides of the spectrum, but dilutes the advantages as well. How well this is handled varies from game to game, but a game in this middle area certainly isn’t going to be remembered for its approach. This method is inoffensive enough, but it’s not exactly perfect and I think we can generally do better.

You could put the same level of randomization in games as old RPGs and D&D. But for the reasons stated above, I think these systems don’t work well in games without significant modification. In other words, don’t use them here because here they are stupid and also dumb.

Games that use these systems exist, but they have to significantly modify things for the video game version. Even then, it’s not without its flaws.

That pretty much covers the archetypes of approaches for randomization in games that we’re currently using. But I think there are more undiscovered systems out there we can craft that take a better (or at least different but equal) approach. Of course, these could get into specific mechanics and vary greatly based on the type of game, so it’s hard to suggest one specifically without writing up a whole game design document. Some help I am, huh?

All this really comes down to is that designers should be sure to think about how the numbers add up in any given game. Consider how the player will react to what level of randomization your game has, and ask yourself if your method complements the mood and style of play you want to encourage. If you compensate for crazy levels of randomization and really think that you’ll get the benefits without the frustration, go for it (though good luck with that buddy). Basically, same as always, the lesson boils down to “good game design is hard”.

So what do the vast hordes of readers I have think? If by chance any of you are an authentic humanoid being who read this with their human eyes, let me know what you prefer. Do you like quantities to be known, for things to be concrete and calculate-able? Do you enjoy a mostly random and therefore tenser approach? Maybe you have different views entirely, but it’s an issue with a lot of sub-issues to discuss and any opinions are more than welcome in the comments.

*I’m sure there are some obscure games I’m unaware of that have done this. Also Legend of Dragoon a bit. So don’t bother mentioning, Zach.

1 comment:

  1. So Legend of Dragoon is non-random, but of the type where the equations are completely unknown. As far as I know, there is no random element because the damage done during a battle is unvaried.
    As for which approach I like the most, I'd say the Paper Mario approach, which is ironically in the same category as Legend of Dragoon with its additions system.
    Honestly, what I find most impressive in Paper Mario is the shear number of types of foes that don't fall into the tired system of elements (i.e. fire, water, lightning, earth...). They've got flying, armored, spiked, rear, front and I'm sure more that I'm forgetting. It makes collecting badges to handle each type all that more fun.
    Finally, Matt and I have gone on at length about random factors in games, but we were talking about competitive board games. You should bring it up when we are all around because discussion gets heated.