Game Design: Working With Randomness, Balance, and Narrative

One of the greatest things that I hear people complaining about in games is the random element of them. And, truth be told, many games with random elements handle them wrong; the random number generator may be faulty or the randomness only serves to force repetition. However, randomness is also a great tool in a game designer’s toolkit; it turns a simple challenge of execution into a risk and reward analysis, and can add great amounts of depth and replayability to games.

A lot of people don’t like putting randomness into their games. It seems like something that’s unfair, especially in a competitive environment. However, when you consider a few things randomness becomes a lot more valuable and can serve to create an environment where thought, rather than reflexes and practice, is the ultimate deciding factor in victory.

For example, consider what would happen if we stuck weapon jamming into Counter Strike. Sure there would be a lot of complaints, such as with Team Fortress 2’s critical hits, but it’s something that could actually change the experience on a dramatic level. Should a player know that a certain weapon is prone to jamming, they may choose a less effective but more reliable weapon. Alternatively, they may play in such a way that they’re always ready to duck back behind cover or switch to a sidearm if their gun stops working in heated combat. If there are tactical options provided, it’s something that actually adds more depth to play; the short-term inconveniences of even a loss on account of this can be outweighed by the fact that it’s going to happen equally often to people who play identically, and provides an interesting element to the combat.

Balance being based on randomness, however, depends on the scale at which it is implemented. Most MMORPG’s have random drops from foes or treasure hoards that can give highly valuable or entirely worthless stuff, but the best stuff typically has to be found first-hand unless it’s restricted to being useful to only a small portion of the player-base. In this situation, or when trading isn’t available, the players who are dependent on these valuable drops will be at a disadvantage not based on their performance but based on fluke, and it’s a long-term rather than a short-term event. Likewise, a tabletop game that has players roll attributes is typically only fair if it allows for rerolls on demand or when statistics fall outside desirable ranges, because players could be stuck rolling mediocre results when their friends all get particularly good or above average results.

Randomness in narrative, on the other hand, is an interesting proposition. It’s not something that typically adds value; it’s only going to be more surprising than a standard static storyline if the player expected something else, which with randomness may be a little dangerous as it could lead to the injection of disbelief into the plot. It also means that, at least with current technology, video games won’t be able to offer the same depth as they can now, at least through deep multimedia experiences. However, randomness does excel in a couple areas; it adds replay value and it also allows for a significantly self-directed narrative. In an open-world situation, randomness means that a new plot figure can be created or chosen in a true sandbox that doesn’t arbitrarily protect its citizens (like in Skyrim, but to a further degree). It also means that players will get a different experience each time they play. Note that I’m including stuff like NPC’s interpersonal relationships and other environmental factors wholesale when examining the narrative; Clue, for instance, relies on every game being different, with multiple randomly selected factors in each game. Randomness in this case can help hide authorial bias and provide a more dynamic experience, but it’s worth noting that Clue is designed to be played multiple times, rather than just once as most single-player narrative driven games are.

So, to wrap this up, randomness offers many opportunities to a game designer, but works best when its effects on balance matter only in the short-term. In terms of narrative, randomness is rarely superior to a skilled writer’s hands, but can allow for versatility and expanded narratives that otherwise become impossible.

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