Why Randomness in Games Should be Embraced — By Design
Pray to the RNG gods for a good pull, a critical hit, or a generously-laid dungeon — as the designers intended.
When you woke up this morning, you most likely had a plan for your day. Whether its working your 9-to-5, or gaming in your underwear all day, humans are adjusted to follow pre-scripted flows that help them understand and hold the reigns in their daily life. Games, most of the time, don’t allow for this — they have a degree of randomness. It can be monster placement, or randomized rewards, but almost every game has some level of randomness, no matter how small.
Randomness in games is a good thing. Period. It’s time to re-invigorate this understanding, amidst the claims of negative effects of randomness in games (which we will get to, don’t worry!). Let’s discuss a few points that will give you a better understanding of how uncertainty drives fun and fulfilling gaming experiences.
Your Brain is Wired to Enjoy Spontaneity
Humans are inherently wired to enjoy random games of chance. Think about how social media has been engineered to keep you clicking on the next recommended video, scrolling down your feed, and hungering for the latest Story update. Randomness is stimulating, and when planned just right, it scratches an itch that us homo sapiens cannot resist.
Randomness also, paradoxically, reduces how much we as humans need to invest thought-power into any given situation. Going into another randomized rogue-like dungeon (think Persona 5’s Mementos, or a Spelunky level) with the understanding that there are components that are familiar, but the layout is different, teaches players to better handle the individual obstacles in the game. Gone are the days of following game walkthroughs line-by-line. Gamers today are ready for any obstacle, simply because they’ve encountered it a few times before.
The Essential Balance of “Random” and “Planned”
There is a relatively fine line to draw between “fun” random and “annoying” random. Continuing with the example of procedural level generation, players can often find it unfair if multiple traps or difficult mobs are within close proximity of each other. Or if a check-point or health pack are too scarcely distributed. True randomness will often have wrinkles of “unfair” design that need to be ironed out.
For, say, a collectible card game, you must attempt to achieve balance between all feasible deck builds. Cards with a random element are considered a little more risky, because the chance of them failing to deliver can topple a masterful strategy. So there is a tightrope to traverse, between making a random effect overpowered, and making it not worth the effort to pull off. Large AAA game studios have entire teams dedicated to game balance for this very purpose.
Often in procedural games, you will see larger components made into random constructs in the level design. Instead of scattering some rocks around a field, you may find a variety of pre-designed crops of rocks and trees in interesting configurations. A procedural platformer may break the level into 9 or 16 segments, each segment posing its own atomic challenge separate from the rest. The TL;DR — in order for randomness to work, it needs extra planning by you, the game designer.
Risk vs Reward — What’s Fair?
It is the role of the game designer to challenge your players. Gamers need a continuous flow of stimulation, challenge, and rewards, that scales with their ability to play the game. Make the challenge too difficult, and players will rage quit and drop off. Make it too easy, and they will get bored and drop off. Randomness is a great tool to help players stay alert and challenged.
Introduce a game mechanic of the “risky gambit” — give the player some enticing offer to increase power, with the chance of critical failure or reduced effectiveness. Risky plays help gamers express themselves in-game. Let’s take Super Smash Brothers as an example. If you see a professional Smash player leap off stage, away from safety, to try and meteor smash their opponent into oblivion, then you’ve seen one great example. They take the risk of losing an aerial battle in order to decisively end the game!
The *sigh* Inevitable Loot Box Discussion
Random mechanics in a video game and gambling are completely different concepts. Loot boxes have fallen into scrutiny because they invoke an element of chance and are often paid for with real-world currency. Buying a loot box with your parents’ credit card, for a chance of receiving an item, or playable character, is inexplicably gambling, to many gamers.
The sad reality is that loot boxes play into all the points I made previously as well. They take advantage of the dopamine rush of opening a present before Christmas, and they are often tuned to give you the prize you desire (after emptying most of your bank account). Triple-A companies will continue to churn out loot box mechanics because we humans are ill-equipped to resist them, at least until they are considered gambling mechanics.
Randomness in games makes for great mechanics and design choices. Players benefit from experiencing the unknown, harnessing it and overcoming it. Your game does not have to be a rogue-like to benefit from randomness!
Are you interested in game design? Check out some of my additional articles on unique game mechanics and trends that are poised to dominate the next few years of gaming: