Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Randomness, What is it good for?

I used to actively raid in World of Warcraft with some real life friends. My friend one day decided to switch roles for a raid. He no longer wanted to play a melee role and decided to play a caster role. Luckily for him his class had a wide range of roles to choose from. However after sometime he became discouraged because his abilities relied on a chance to activate off of other abilities. This meant that his damage output was somewhat random. Most players that are in the role of dealing damage are competitive and are always looking at the damage output charts. So even though my friend was a competent player his damage output would change based on his luck during that fight. This eventually made him revert to his melee role which was based less on random factors.

As we can see randomness has a negative connotation. It is easy to see why most players would dislike randomness. A player is given control over certain variables in a game. They are able to manipulate these variables to solve the problems set by the game. However the randomness of a variable is something that player cannot control. If this variable has a large impact on the decisions the player has to make then the randomness will be seen as a negative. However if this variable has very little impact then the player might not even realize there was some sort of random factor that contributed to their decision.

I want to take a look at how some games have actually used random elements that have negatively impacted the game.

Diablo 3’s loot system suffers from relying on too much on randomness. The game throws a large amount of items at you but due to how much randomness there is in determining item stats they always amount to being sold to a vendor. Luckily the designers at Blizzard have been working towards creating a more meaningful loot system which will reduce the amount of randomness when items are generated.

 Another game that always manages to irritate me is the Mario Party series. You can do very well throughout the entire game and then at the very end someone can easily take your stars away with no hope for recovery. I wouldn’t mind it as much if it happens earlier so that you have a chance to make a come back but usually these random star taking events occur towards the end.

The Pokémon RPG series on Nintendo handheld systems is notorious for using randomness when generating stats for Pokémon. This doesn’t have a major impact on anyone who is just trying to beat the game. However for the players who play competitively, it will take them hours upon hours to get the perfect Pokémon.  It even got to the point where players have learned how the random number generation for Pokémon works and are able to eventually manipulate it to help obtain the perfect Pokémon. Gamefreak probably initially intended for the randomness to create unique Pokémon so that it would be rare to find a friend with the exact same Pokémon. Gamefreak has tried to help reduce this issue by allowing for some of this randomness to be controlled by using items to pass down specific statistic which is much better than just having to farm Pokémon eggs till you get the right stats.

I believe that randomness can be used to create positive gaming experiences even with all the negative associations.

Trading card games use randomness when players are forced to shuffle their decks. This helps keep the game fresh instead of just pulling out the same 5 cards for the start of each hand and creating a predictable set of moves. The random cards in your hand means you have to be actively thinking about your deck strategy and how your current position can help you to achieve your original strategy. Players can complain that the randomness means you were dealt a terrible hand which ultimately cost you defeat. However if you balance out your deck with a variety of cards you can minimize these effects. As we can see here, randomness does play a role in trading card games but there is some way to limit how much it affects your game.

Earlier I stated that the random stat generation in Pokémon was a poor use. When Pokémon are generated there is a chance for them to become a different color, known as shiny. The chance for this to occur is 1 out of 8192. You can pretty much go through almost all the Pokémon games and never see one. However once you do encounter one you will probably be in disbelief. The fact that it is such a low chance means you won’t actively go for it unless you can find a way to manipulate the randomness in the game. Also since the difference between a shiny Pokémon and a normal Pokémon is only an aesthetic difference, it does not provide any real advantage to farm for such a rare outcome. Since the randomness in this situation only creates a visual change, I feel like it is something that makes the game series better.

FTL: Faster than Light is a game based off random events. At first you would think the randomness just makes the game unfair forcing you to restart. The designers for FTL probably accounted for this and made sure the game was relatively short. You can probably complete the game within an hour and a half. Since the game is so short you don’t mind if you fail because you can just start up again. A great thing about this game is that each time you play the game you learn a little more about how to handle each scenario presented to you. After a few failures, you will get the hang of it and be able to progress much further through the random encounters. Randomness works well in FTL because of the short sessions. If you get dealt a lot of bad random encounters, you can always just restart the game since you probably wouldn’t have lost more than an hour or so. Also that hour you just lost probably taught you a lot of valuable lessons to take with you in future playthroughs.

So what can we learn from these games and the proper use of random number generation? One thing is to make sure you aren’t using random number generation that overwhelms all other mechanics. You want to also avoid penalizing players for things that they have no control over. An important way to use random number generation is to make sure the player has some way to minimize the effects. It is important to understand that randomness helps to reduce the monotony in some games and without it every playthrough would become the same as the last.