If you have any output randomness at all in your game, or any of a certain kind of input randomness, then it’s quite likely that a compulsive gambling mentality will be the thing driving players to play. This is interesting to me because I have always said that single player games require some randomization to maintain their status as games, but there’s an interesting pitfall with regards to this that I think a lot of people aren’t totally aware of.
At a basic level, you could say that there are two totally different desires – the “game desire” of creative mastery (I want to see what I can do), and the “gambling desire” of hoping (I want to see what the system will do). I should also mention that both of these desires are referring to subconscious desires, not conscious ones – I’ll explain that further later on.
First, I need to delineate classical gambling machines and how they work. This section is a bit obvious to most people, but I just need to be clear on it before I move on to my real point.
I’ve talked before about how “gambling machines” are really quite different than games. The classical, obvious examples of gambling machines are things like Blackjack, slots, roulette, or a lottery. While the best gambling machines give players some amount of choice to give them some illusion of agency, this choice doesn’t usually matter very much and is highly solvable.
While this solv-ability would be a terrible thing in a competitive game, it’s actually something of a boon for gambling machines. This is because it allows players to have the following thought pattern:
“I’m playing SUPER well. The only reason I haven’t won yet is just a series of flukes. If I keep playing, I’ll definitely win.”
And eventually, they will of course win, so it’s not that that thinking is wrong. They are likely playing optimally (or close to it), and eventually the dice will tumble in their favor. So, this is roughly how this kind of compulsion loop thing works (more info on that here). It tells you that “you’re doing everything right, it’s only a fluke that you didn’t win, so if you play again, you’re likely to win”.
The lottery is a great example. You’re absolutely playing optimally by picking any numbers at all. You’re doing the best possible move, so if you don’t win, that’s just some fluke. Therefore, you should probably try again. Even if the odds aren’t good, it’s only a matter of some random numbers going your way…
What players – and possibly many developers – don’t understand is that if you have a videogame that has even some of a certain kind of randomness, that game may be driven by the same kind of compulsion that causes someone to continue playing the lottery.
Most people already know that this is how games like Diablo get people to keep playing. What item is that monster going to drop this time? But I think few people realize that many games which seem totally skill based are actually just as driven by compulsion as Diablo.
For instance – my friends and I spent about 2 hours playing Super Crate Box on the OUYA (by the way: there will be an article forthcoming about how awesome the OUYA is and how you need to get one, stay tuned). I had played this before on PC, but with the whole console atmosphere, it was much more playable.
Super Crate Box, at first, seems like a completely skill-based competitive game. Most people would certainly not think of this, upon first sight, as a “random” game, and certainly not as a gambling machine. You run around, jump over monsters, and shoot, all of which requires lots of twitch dexterity. There’s even a decently interesting strategy metagame going on, in terms of “when do I slow down and kill a bunch of monsters to clear out the screen” vs “when do I just rush for crates” (which are the objective).
However, none of that is what made us play this game for two hours straight.
We were handing the controller around and playing round after round, and as my friends were playing, I was thinking – what is the reason that this friend of mine, a super critical hardcore strategy game player, is so motivated to play dozens upon dozens of matches of this game, which isn’t particularly dynamic or exciting to play?
I realized it’s because Super Crate Box is most certainly, at its heart, a gambling game.
You see, at the top of the screen, monsters are streaming into the game. They stream in at seemingly random rates, of random types, and heading in a random direction. Now I’m sure there are some constraints on this; I don’t think you’ll ever see a stream of 6+ large-head monsters come out of the thing in a row, but with that said, the constraints are still loose enough that sometimes, you get a harder game than other times. This is particularly true since the three possible monster types aren’t at all equal in their difficulty.
This is compounded by the fact that the goal of the game – collecting crates – is also super-random. The crate spawns in what seems to be a truly random position. Sometimes it spawns very close to you, sometimes it spawns on the other side of the map.
Oh, not only that, but the weapons are also given out randomly, and they are certainly not balanced, especially if you consider the context of the current game (certain weapons are better versus certain spawns).
So, I think that when we play this game over and over again, we’re subconsciously compulsively HOPING for that one game where the monster spawns are favorable/easy and the crates all spawn really close to each other. That, in a nutshell, is what gets people to play lots of Super Crate Box, and I don’t think the developers realize that.
I also don’t think most players realize it either. Consciously, they’re thinking “yeah I gotta perform better”, but the thing that’s really drawing them to play over and over again is not mastery at all, but hoping.
A game that has Unfair Randomness is a game that has some significant level of difficulty variance due to its randomness. To avoid having Unfair Randomness, then, every play of a game must be equally (or very close to equally) difficult.
By “Unfair Randomness”, I don’t mean randomness that makes a player die right away and has the player going “What?! That’s completely unfair!” Unfair Randomness is usually very subtle and many players don’t even consciously notice it (but their brain does!).
The most common form of Unfair Randomness is simple “to-hit %” found in most RPGs. While people will counter-argue with this by saying “oh well over many many hits, it averages out”, in reality, this isn’t the case, because not all hits take place in the same situation. Sometimes, you’ll get a critical hit when you REALLY need one. Sometimes, a monster will miss you when you REALLY need him to, and sometimes… that monster will hit you in those moments.
So taken over the course of one match, sure, maybe things always head towards 50% in general, but that doesn’t mean that you weren’t very fortunate with when the extremes struck, or very unfortunate when they did.
Another note: Unfair Randomness doesn’t actually have to be “random” (well, actually nothing we deal with in any games is truly random, but you know what I mean). For example, perhaps people don’t consider the way a ball bounces down in Pachinko or Peggle to be “random”, but it’s certainly effectively random, in that no one can possibly predict how it will land. It’s quite similar to a real life dice roll in this way.
Let’s take another example – 100 Rogues, my own first commercial game. I designed this game back in 2008-2009, and I’ve learned a lot about interactive systems design since then. Largely, 100 Rogues was based off of the existing “Roguelike” template, and so it has tons of input and output randomness.
I’ve been spending some time with the new OUYA version of the game (by the way, it’s the best version of the game ever, upcoming article on that, too) and I’m realizing that the most exciting part of the game is “finding out what item was in the treasure chest”. This is a thing which the player has absolutely zero agency to affect, and yet it’s the most engaging thing about the game.
Now that I understand this about 100 Rogues, I can make it a much better gambling machine. The abilities need to be more random. There need to be fewer item restrictions on the classes – for instance, the Fairy is probably less fun to play than the Crusader almost entirely because she has less chance of drawing great random items she can use.
So here’s the litmus test for whether or not your game has unfair randomness, and is therefore possibly more of a gambling machine than a game:
Is the most exciting thing that happens in your game something that the player has absolutely no control over?
For 100 Rogues, and many many other videogames, I’d say the answer is yes. This doesn’t mean at all that I’m saying 100 Rogues is bad, mind you. Instead what it does is inform me that I need to take it in a more gambley direction. I didn’t have any idea of this “unfair randomness” concept back then, so I tried hard to take Roguelikes and make them more strategy/tactics gamey. Much later, I realized that to do this I had to start from scratch, which resulted in AURO, which has essentially tossed out the entire Roguelike template and has very controlled randomness specifically to avoid the unfair kind, because I really wanted AURO to be a competitive strategy game.
We’ve worked hard to make sure that in AURO, the random arrangement of tiles and the placement of monsters is always fair, and that each game should be pretty damn close to the same in terms of difficulty (for Trials mode – the highest-score single-player mode). In the future, I’ll be keeping an eye on this to make sure that it remains the case. If I find that it’s still too swingy, I’ll look for solutions.
Other Examples of videogames that are accidentally gambling machines:
Civilization – “Hoping” to start near friendly/weak civilization, or large amounts of valuable resources, or to be the only one on your continent, etc.
Dominion – “Hoping” that the synergistic cards I bought will get drawn together
Arkanoid – “Hoping” that when the ball gets stuck up behind the wall, it will bounce around up there a billion times and basically clear the level for you. Again, this “isn’t truly random”, but in the same way that a dice roll isn’t truly random.
Match-3 abstract games – This one’s a bit obvious, but, basically these games are all about “hoping” that gems fall in a favorable pattern. I think probably stuff like Candy Crush and Bejeweled embrace this, which is part of why they’re more popular than stuff like Puzzle Fighter or Dr. Mario.
The point here is not even to make a value judgment about “strategy games VS. gambling machines”. I, of course, greatly prefer strategy games, but as my two-hour stint of Super Crate Box shows, I can get sucked into a skinner box just as quickly as the next guy.
The point is that we should be aware of what it is that we’re doing. There’s only so much room in a given system for sources of interest, and if your game has significant Unfair Randomness, that’s going to be the primary draw of your system. Of course, there are other ramifications that Unfair Randomness has on a strategy game, which I’ve talked about at length. But beyond that, you can strive to make a very good gambling machine, if you figure out that that’s what you’ve got.