On Randomness in Games Design

On Randomness in Games Design

So lately I decided to give FTL another spin. FTL, in case you live under a rock, is an indie spaceship roguelike. One of the key factors of a roguelike is that they use procedural generation for areas, encounters, item drops etc. Another thing is that they tend to be eye-wateringly hard. If you asked me if I like roguelikes, the answer would be “eeeerrm,” because honestly, I’m still not really sure how I feel about them. Roguelikes are a genre that is rooted in Randomness, and that has upsides and downsides, which I’d like to discuss here:

Downsides:
– Random elements in gameplay can decrease the impact of player skill. “I send in my best warrior with a legendary sword to smite the puny goblin!” “…Computer says no. You miss.” In a game with too much randomness, you’re effectively playing Snakes & Ladders; your role as player is really just to keep hitting “advance” and see what horrible fate awaits your character. This isn’t really a game. It’s a simulation that you’re watching, and luck is the only way to win.
-Computers aren’t yet creative enough to know when to fudge the rules. If it was a live GM in a tabletop game, they’d occasionally fudge the random generation to make the scenario more tailored to your character, to make sure there weren’t repetitive runs of the same outcome or encounter and to make a scene flow more dramatically.
-Often the randomness is in all the wrong places. Torchlight 2’s main issue is that the randomness is kind of a vaguely tacked-on thing that doesn’t add replay value. The plot always stays the same, the areas stay the same, the bosses stay the same, only some equipment drops change. This doesn’t add replayability because the point of randomness is to make the game different and surprising each time you play with new challenges and strange, madlibs-esque generated stories.

Upsides:
-Done right, it makes a game theoretically almost endlessly re-playable by presenting different challenges and surprises. You can’t use the exact same tactics each time in FTL because your upgrades are limited and equipment drops are random and don’t sell for much, so it’s pretty much vital that you learn to integrate upgrades you pick up for free into your loadout, and to use them against varied challenges.

-Randomness allows us to simulate factors too complex to calculate in real time. This allows us to create a sense of realism and complexity with surprising things happening and to hide the “fakeness” of a game in an efficient way.
-It’s easier to implement than complex simulations, hence the popularity in indie games.
-Humans love calculated risks and gambles, we also like surprises and novelty.

Overall… Hmm, I’m still not sure how I feel about randomness. I went through a phase of hating it and wanting to make games with no random elements at all, but I kind of feel like in some cases it can enhance a game. Particularly when the randomness is not applied to the player, but the scenarios they face, and uses heavy procedural elements to make sure said events and encounters are reasonable challenges.

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