Ceasar's Mind

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Randomness and Strategy Games

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At first, randomness and strategy games would seem like unlikely partners. Strategy games emphasize the role of information in making decisions, while randomness is chaotic, and undermines planning. Despite their differences however, when used properly they can combine nicely.

First off, let me begin with some terminology. When I refer to tactics, I refer to a series of maneuvers designed to accomplish a specific task. In other words, tactics are the little tricks that you can calculate in your head. When I refer to strategical moves, I refer to moves that are made in the absence of calculation, and instead guided by heuristics (in particular, experience).

With those definitions in mind, it is clear that when randomness is introduced into the low-levels (like, at an individual unit level) of a game, it elevates many tactics to the level of strategy. This can be good or bad, depending on your intentions with the game.

Randomness should not however come into high-levels of a game. I often debate the idea of macro-strategies, and how if done improperly, there can very easily be a rock-paper-scissors game disguised as a strategy game. This is bad, just in general.

Randomness should also be predictable. Not like, in the sense that it isn’t random, but in the sense that it shouldn’t be a 1% chance to create some uber-unfair effect. Again, depending on your intentions, the proc-rates will vary, but typically, I would claim that higher values are worse than lower values, the reason being, high proc-rates will cause players to depend on them working, and when they don’t it’ll cause a lot of frustration, while with low values, a player will find it more like it was just good luck.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, check out prospect theory. To make things brief though, marginal gains and marginal losses both decrease. Put in another way, let me present to you a classic problem. An impending disease will strike a city, and you are put in charge of choosing a plan that will protect the lives of its inhabitants. In Case 1, you are presented two options: Plan A will save 100 people. Plan B has a 50% chance to save 200 people, and a 50% chance to save none. Record your choice. In Case 2, you are again presented two options: This time, Plan A will result in the death of 100 people and Plan B has a 50% chance to result in the death of 200 people, and a 50% chance to result in the death of none. Record your choice. Now, if you are like most people, you chose Plan A in Case A and plan B in case B, despite both being equally rational choices. Here’s why: In Case 1, the value of the first 100 lives saved is to our brains worth more than the value of the next 100 lives saved. Thus, a 50% chance to double the number of lives saved doesn’t cut it. In Case 2, the value of the first 100 lives lost is worth more than the next 100 lives lost. In this case, where we want to minimize loss, taking the risk is a good idea.

What does this mean for designers? Well, for one, it means that if people are going to use something, they will prefer a 100% proc with a small effect rather than anything less than a 100% proc with a bigger effect. If they’re opponent is going to use something, they prefer the inverse. And finally, it means that testers will likely report on randomness in ways that pretty much mean nothing.

Debatably, it may make sense to not even make randomness random at all. I believe it was Civilization Revolution that completely did away with randomness altogether, and instead opted for an approach that guaranteed that a 1/x proc would proc once every x times, citing that players typically felt that the game was cheating them when abilities proc-ed repeatedly in their opponent’s favor. I personally think that if this idea can be reasonably implemented, it’s a better approach, as people tend to remember the negative experiences a lot more strongly than the positive ones. (This is scientifically verified, not just opinion. This is why when we are unsure we keep our original answers on tests rather than changing them, despite evidence that says to do the opposite. That is, we remember when we change an answer and got something wrong, and as opposed to changing an answer and getting it right.)

Randomness also removes a player’s sense of agency, which is vital in games. I can’t remember where I read it, but player’s prefer an opponent to be buffed than for them to be negatively buffed (and, I presume, the opposite for their enemies). Randomness has the same effect, and should be used sparingly.

Anyway, while you should factor all of those thoughts in, the real aim of this post was how it relates to strategy games. As said before, we want our randomness to not be so random, in order to develop sounder strategies. I would rather have a 50% proc which forces me to plan for what happens in either case, as opposed to a >50% proc in which I will count on it working, and totally be screwed, or perhaps better yet, a <50% proc, where I will count on the proc failing, and be happy when it turns out to go well.

In order to maintain senses of agency, which are of utmost importance in strategy games, randomness ought to have minimal effect, which means the range of its possible outcomes should be small. That is, if a unit is to deal on average 50 damage, it’s better to have it deal 40-60 with equal weights as opposed to 0-100 with equal weights. Furthermore, careful effort should be made to ensure that luck never (directly, or rather, noticeably) affects the outcome of a game.

Finally, let me refer back to this post on the TDG forums that I made a while ago, detailing randomness and its effects on intensity.

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Written by Ceasar Bautista

2011/01/28 at 03:45

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