Monday, June 5, 2017

Randomness and Player Agency

Hey all,

Have you ever felt like a random number generator (RNG), not the game itself, caused you to lose? Have you ever said "RNGesus beat me"?

Have you ever felt like RNG has led to your victory?

Today, I would like to discuss the use of random number generation and game design, specifically about player agency.

Agency: The capacity of an actor to act in an environment.
(At least I didn't OPEN with a definition. Sure, the definition came in about only 4 sentences, but who made you the authority on article / essay writing? Also, why are you counting?)

RNG is an interesting topic in games, because when applied correctly, it can allow for emergent possibilities that are more fun for your target players. When applied incorrectly, RNG can be an incredibly frustrating element for your players.

Think I'm exaggerating on that last sentence? Take a look at people's thoughts on Five Nights at Freddy's 20/20/20/20 mode.

In short, players want to feel like that no matter what happens, that the results of an encounter / battle / whatever are caused by their own decisions, by their own skills, not by the game itself. The player is an agent within the game's rules, and acts to cause reactions, and the results of the game should be a reflection of those actions.

That doesn't mean that all RNG is bad, however. For that, let's take a look at a few examples.
  • Texas Holdem' Poker: Cards that are dealt are essentially random, as cards are dealt, the possibility space (the cards you can possibly get) decreases. Any one player can beat another player during a single game of Poker. Randomness is mitigated by playing a set of games. Good players are capable of playing the odds and wagering when the odds are in their favor, or bluffing (playing the other player), resulting in a win over the course of a set.
  • Mario Party: Movement is random by rolling a die, the possibility space in that sense is constant. Mini games may have elements of randomness in them, sometimes deciding winners arbitrarily, but there are so many mini games played during a session to mitigate the effects of a single adverse mini game result. The end game star allocation makes the possibility space wide open, leaving players who are the best at mini games or map navigation to be subject to losing, potentially rendering an entire game of smart play as moot. Any one individual game can be so random that caring about winning is really a test in insanity. (I call this the absurdity principle.)
  • Mario Kart: Item allocation is a weighted random, where players who are lagging behind are given a higher chance of getting better items. Items create new possibility spaces by knocking leading players out of the way, or giving lagging players a speed boost. The amount of variance is limited, and may cause a better player to not land in 1st place. Good players can mitigate the effects of the items through skilled play, item management, and maximizing opportunities over a set of races.
Notice something about the first and third entries? A good player can win by taking advantage of opportunities caused by helpful randomness, and mitigating the effects of adverse randomness (by either playing well or playing over a large set.). There's a key in there though, a skilled player HAS the opportunity to mitigate the effects of adverse randomness. Like I said before, "The player is an agent within the game's rules, and acts to cause reactions, and the results of the game should be a reflection of those actions".

Good use of RNG opens up the possibility space (the amount of possibilities that can be generated), but in a limited amount. Players continue to have agency in the outcome generated by the use of RNG. You can quote me on that.

Discussion about Mario Party is a great example of bad use of RNG. Ever heard someone say to you "I was winning, and then the game decided to give my friend all of the stars", or something equivalent? Dice rolling is one thing, handing out game winning tokens at the end of a game, when players can no longer take action, is another. Ever had that friend who almost ended a friendship with you because of Mario Party, or heard such a story? Mario Party becomes more fun when players give in to the "Absurdity Principle", which is essentially admitting that the game is crazy and to not take it seriously.

A bad game will use RNG to potentially affect the outcome of a game, and not give a player the opportunity to change the outcome based on said RNG, or severely limit the amount of actions that a player can take, removing or crippling their agency. A bad game will let RNG blow the possibility space wide open and essentially decide winners and losers. I literally have a phrase for it, "Deciding winners and losers.", don't let your game do that, if you're making one.

Bad RNG removes a player as an agent within the game, not letting their actions have an effect on the outcome. You can quote me on that, too.

Following the "Absurdity Principle" is hard to achieve, and the designer is walking a tight rope and relies on the player's subjective definition of fair and competition. I'm not saying to not make a ridiculous game that uses RNG, just be careful.

When making your game, if you choose to have an RNG element to your game, consider these things:
  • What does this use of RNG do to my game's possibility space? (What results can come from it?)
  • Does this use of RNG limit what my players can do, and if so, by how much? (How much agency will my players have?)
  • Does this use of RNG decide winners and losers?
  • Can players overcome the results of this use of RNG?
If any section in here needs clarity, let me know.

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