LUCK IS THE RESIDUE OF DESIGN
As a game designer, I play a lot of games for market research. I like to do deep dives to determine why the game designers chose to do what they did and what their design philosophy is. Something that keeps popping up as I play these games (and design my own) is the approach to randomness. Randomness is one of those design topics that gets talked about a lot, and I think it’s fair to say people find enjoyment from games on the low end of the randomness spectrum as well as the high end. I’m not here to say which is right or wrong or the higher form of game design. That’s not important, that’s for you to decide. What’s important for gamers is to not only determine what type of randomness you prefer, but what designers offer the gameplay that you find enjoyable. I design games with the type/level of randomness I enjoy, and I want players with similar tastes to find my games. What I don’t want is players to buy my games without the knowledge of the randomness I inject because for me, a little bit of randomness makes for a good game.
Randomness is a way to keep things fresh for the player and inject the right amount of sabotage for their best laid plans. Randomness is also a key component for any good puzzle game...
Input Vs. Output Randomness Input and output randomness are the two big categories of randomness that gets discussed often. If you’re familiar with these, don’t worry, we’re going to be talking about other concepts as well.
Input randomness is information, elements, or game states brought into the game before players make a decision. A video game example of this is the procedurally generated dungeons of Moonlighter, while the board game example is Weavlings in the Wilds’, randomly generated gameplay grid. The randomness of what is presented to the player is what drives the player’s decision making. The short and sweet of it, is my decision A leads to outcome B.
Output randomness shows itself in the form of I make decision A, and that may or may not lead to outcome B. It may lead to outcome C, Z, or nothing at all. We see this in combat systems that require skill checks for example or a certain dice roll to hit. This is new information the player receives after their decision. Now like most things in life, these categories are not static, but instead exist on a spectrum. You may see output randomness that allows for additional input, or you will just have to accept the outcome of fate. The same goes for input randomness. You may have a game state in front of you that allows for decision making, but the decisions may just be a false choice that is not meaningful.
Randomness with Meaning Randomness should be meaningful. If you’re going to put it into a game for players, it needs to create opportunities for dopamine. The randomness should be anticipated in some way or another, and the player must be given the toolset to overcome the challenge and feel good about their decisions. The problem that video games with procedural generation have is this belief that randomization alone makes for unique and interesting experiences, which isn’t the case. That randomization is better served as something that is curated with thoughtful design. What is not meaningful is what my partner and I call “sore loser mechanics” or excessive mitigation systems.
Mitigation as Randomness Red Herrings A red herring is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question. The important question being asked in regards to randomness is that overly zealous mitigation systems are implemented to distract players from recognizing the extreme amounts of meaningless randomness in a game.
"Some folk want their luck buttered." -Thomas Hardy
Firstly, I think players LOVE mitigation systems, and in low doses I think they’re fine, but one game that sticks out to me as a red herring offender is Creature Comforts. The genius of the game is that the cute art, fuzzy wuzzy animals, and cozy theme are additional red herrings to what is a dice chucking mitigation hedge-your-bets fest. Humans want to FEEL like their decisions are meaningful. If a game is unable to do that (like a dice chucker), designers tend to add mitigation systems to hide the fact there is not a lot of depth in the gameplay. Sure, you can try to strategically target a place on the board, but ultimately, it’s a game of output randomness with a veneer of decision making. If you haven’t figured it out, I’m not a fan of this game. It’s pretty to look at, but it’s not the kind of randomness I like or I put into my games. Nevertheless, this type of randomness does give players the feeling of making meaningful decisions, and it also gives solid gameplay to the market I think the game is targeting.
Systems that allow for reduced mitigation through investment is something I’m more of a fan of. This is something like deck building or dice building games where you purge objectively worse cards or dice and place better ones into your pool to better your odds. It’s still random at heart, but the odds are ever increasingly in your favor, and I enjoy that. A dice chucker that takes a page from this would probably be Dice Forge, where you are building better dice.
That’s the issue with high variability. A player’s success shouldn’t rely solely on a perfect game state. There should be some wiggle room for success.
High Variability Vs. Low Variability I’ve been playing a game called Isle of Arrows for Android, which gave me the final push to get to writing this post. It’s a tower defense game with randomized tiles, towers, and other goodies that you place on the board in hopes of fighting off incoming waves. The issue I’m finding is the high variability diminishes the ability of the player to navigate the randomness to form a coherent strategy. From what I’m seeing, the root cause of this is a power curve that takes into account (maybe equally) the rarity of towers, pathways, goodies, and everything else you may get in a given turn. An example for someone who hasn’t played the game. You get the option to pick a power that makes your traps do additional damage. You take that power with the hopes of getting traps to take advantage of that effect, but they are never cycled in through unlucky randomization and the shear amount of gizmos that can possibly be randomized in. I’m nearly done with the game, but now I’m stuck – waiting on the perfect assemblage of randomization to be in my favor. That’s the issue with high variability. A player’s success shouldn’t rely solely on a perfect game state. There should be some wiggle room for success. That’s why I’m a fan of low variability, heck maybe even medium variability to give the player a more than likely chance at success if they can execute an awesome strategy.
A game with low variability limits the twists and turns simply for the sake of the player. It allows them to form a winning (or nearly winning) strategy because the variables are manageable. I say low, but variability still needs to be present in just the right amount to keep things interesting for the player; otherwise, they can simply card count to the end, which isn’t fun. Weavlings in the Wilds is a game with a lower variability because of the limitations of the cards in the game. With a small deck of cards and limited card types, there are only so many surprises the game can throw at you. This is intentional. A game state with a lot of Traps will equal a game state in the following turn(s) with less Traps. That’s the nature of the finite. Knowing this, I would hope players plan around this. This idea of game state/card optimization is a very core concept in games like Sylvion, Friday, and Onirim. You know what’s in the deck, so it’s up to you to decide on how you want to navigate each hand draw, card pick up, and choice, which will affect the final outcome. The player actually has a wealth of information not afforded in many games.
Randomization as Encouraged Engagement In my designs, I like using randomization as a way to encourage engagement with the core mechanics. In Weavlings in the Wilds for example, you’re not always going to get every card type in a single turn. I went back and forth as to whether there should be separate decks with the card types and based on X, Y, or Z, you would place corresponding cards on the Tender Wilds to give a good mix. I hated it. It made the game more complicated than it needed to be for something I feel is a non-issue. If you’re missing a card type in a turn, it allows you to sit and explore options with what you do have.
I had a playtester email me with a game state and they said I have no Traps, what would you do? I’ve been playing Weavlings in the Wilds for a few years now, and I saw a game state full of opportunity. I moved the Trapper around, grabbed a Wilds Spirit, blocked a high-damage Beastie from moving out of the Tender Wilds that turn, and pushed a low-population Weavling into a Beastie to knock another high-damage Beastie off the Tender Wilds. If randomness gives you lemons, you need to make the strategic lemonade that sets you up for the following turn. Though the playtester didn’t get any Traps that turn, it was nearly a guarantee they would get a gaggle of them the following turns because of the finite nature of the deck. If you’re missing a card type, take that opportunity to fully explore everything else.
Randomization Generates Rallying Moments Randomness in a finite setting can generate what I like to call rallying moments. This isn’t the case with procedurally generated game states as often, but it can happen. For me, a rallying moment occurs when you’ve gotten all the bad cards/game states/bad combos etc. out of the way. I think it’s really attractive as a player to get a bad opening turn, mulligan, and start over for that perfect start; however, that perfect start will lead to some possible bad game states in future rounds. It’s better to work through and navigate around the bad game state, leaving you with opportunities to rally from the hardship and get into a flow. That feels rewarding to struggle and then persevere. It’s less rewarding to start off with perfect turns and then start to struggle and feel the game has been unfair to you.
I’ve played several video games that suffer from this infinite perfect starting turn problem. The game will give you item cards for example and the items you get are infinitely randomized with no sense of a power curve (power curves are important). In some games you’ll start with two super epic rare items, and in other games, you’ll start with two commons. That’s not fun, and it encourages you to keep restarting the game because that randomness is still continued throughout the entirety of the game. There’s no rallying moment in such gameplay. You can’t have rallying moments when each input is a 1,000-sided die. Some games try to get around this with once you progress X-value into the game, you’ll receive a bonus for the following game. That leaves you to decide if you want to lose out on that bonus from the previous game and still stick with those two common item cards. This is a step in the right direction, but that bonus tends to be randomized as well. Finiteness fixes this issue to some extent and creates those rallying moments. Sometimes less is more.
For a game with a smaller footprint, short gameplay, and puzzly nature, the game should have more randomness if the intent is replayability.
Level of Randomness based on Game Size, Game Length, and Loss Percentage There is a certain level of randomness that is acceptable to inject in a game, and I think part of that consideration is the size of the game and how the game is meant to be played/enjoyed. For a table hog of a game that will last an hour plus, I feel the amount of luck should be on the minimal end. For a game with a smaller footprint, short gameplay, and puzzly nature, the game should have more randomness if the intent is replayability. For both Weavlings in the Wilds and Fate Weaver Zadarra and Her Unfortunate Misfortune, the randomness is higher because the goal is replayability in small chunk gameplay sessions. For Weavlings in the Wilds, there is minimal mitigation because the game length is short, the size is small, and the loss percentage is high for beginners. In Fate Weaver Zadarra and Her Unfortunate Misfortune, there’s more set up, game time, and size, so there is more mitigation and a lower loss percentage; however, all that mitigation is invested in by the player. I scale the level of randomness with these factors in mind because if a player is going to invest a lot of time into a game, they should feel like they have more control over their situation.
Randomness Keeps you Coming Back Randomness is a way to keep things fresh for the player and inject the right amount of sabotage for their best laid plans. Randomness is also a key component for any good puzzle game, and that’s what Weavlings in the Wilds and Fate Weaver Zadarra and Her Unfortunate Misfortune are at their core. Tetris, Solitaire, and any other procedurally generated game rests on the backbone of randomness. There are puzzle games that have set scenarios, no randomness injected, but those types of games are harder to pull off in a physical format and often have a one and done lifespan. My goal with randomness is to create lifestyle games that keep you coming back. Instead of busting out Solitaire during your lunch break, I want you to play a game of Weavlings in the Wilds, which offers a much richer and colorful experience. It’s Not a Bug, it’s a Feature I get a little surprised with game reviews sometimes where a player will complain that Dice Chucker X is too random, and they don’t like random games! I’m not sure if this is coming out of the publisher not being explicit about the content of the game and therefore the player feels there was a rug pull, players don’t deep dive into what’s being offered by a game, or something in between. Whatever the case may be, there’s never an element of randomness that is put into one of my games where I didn’t think about the user experience. That’s partly why I implemented the Clear Skies Mode in Weavlings in the Wilds. I was finding low-luck-tolerance players were getting into the game, and I wanted an option for them to fully enjoy it (I won’t always do this). As mentioned in the beginning, I want players to find my games who want the level of randomness I inject. That’s why as a designer, I have taken extreme lengths to keep all gameplay elements excessively transparent. I don’t want players surprised. I don’t think it’s right, and I don’t want them to spend their hard-earned money on something I know they won’t enjoy. During campaigns, we actively update the public rulebook from player feedback, offer a Tabletop Simulator, black and white print ‘n’ play files, show the mechanics through video, gif, and image form, and we make a section specifically to game mechanism highlights. You don’t like what’s on that list? You’re not going to like this game. Even with all that information available, I can still see how someone wouldn’t go through all of that to make a purchase decision. Nevertheless, our goal is to be open about our offerings and cultivate the player base who like what we’re doing.