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  • Design 101: The Role of Randomness

    - Dan Felder
  • Hey everyone, welcome back to Design 101. Today we're going to talk about one of the most controversial aspects of game design, the role of Randomness (or RNG). Few topics inspire more passion in designers and player communities alike, especially in strategic titles. We've got a lot to get into, so let's get started.

    RNG - The Hated One

    RNG has a truly terrible reputation among many gamers, particularly competitive players. There are a huge number of reasons for this. Here are just a few.

    1. Your decisions can feel less important, because you know they might be trumped by randomness. This can make you feel less invested in your turns.

    2. Randomness leads to unfair results. The more skilled player doesn't always win. This can create frustation at the injustice.

    3. Many RNG designs, like Hearthstone's Mad Bomber, have a chance to backfire against their players. While some players find that exciting, most players hate it.

    However, if randomness was universally bad then no one would be playing cardgames. Many competitive players decide to dedicate themselves to mastering a title in this genre. Just check out the MTG Pro Tour Circuit and the sheer amount of strategy content generated each and every week purely for that game's competitive play.

    If games were just better without randomness, especially for competitive play, this wouldn't be possible. What's going on?

    It's easy to see the issues with RNG. I've seen many new designers seek to improve their favorite genres by eliminating it entirely. Yet RNG is just like any other tool. Properly used, there are many different benefits it can provide your projects.

    Let's dig in.

    Randomness Adds Variety

    Randomness ensures that games play out differently. Shuffling your deck ensures that your games will play out differently depending on which combination of cards you draw. These are major benefits for keeping a game interesting over time and they create epic moments that people talk about for years.

    Randomness Lets Friends Play Together

    I can't play chess with my friends. I used to play competitively and was one of the best in my state. When my friends and I play chess, I know I'm going to win. They know I'm going to win. This feels boring for me and frustrating for them.

    When we play Magic: the Gathering things are completely different. I've actually spent even more time studying MTG than I've ever spent on Chess. Despite this, the random elements mean that my friends always have a chance of winning. We can enjoy playing together.

    Randomness Keeps Players Engaged

    While the tension of randomness can sometimes feel unpleasant, having no tension is even worse. Even against an equal opponent, many games can start to feel boring once you've won a significant advantage or taken a significant setback. You can either lose hope for victory or any fear of defeat.

    Randomness provides an element of uncertainty that can help address this issue. No matter how well I'm doing in MTG, there's almost always a card that my opponent could use to come back. While they might not have it in their hand or deck, I don't know that for certain. Even while I'm far ahead of my opponent, I focus on looking for ways to minimize my opponent's' chances of coming back with the right draws. Is there a way I can turn my 90% chance of winning into a 95% chance instead?

    Meanwhile, when I'm far behind I'm always looking for ways to maximize the number of chances I have to draw the card that can save me. This keeps me engaged in the game until the very end.

    Randomness Can Reward Skill

    I know this sounds crazy, but give me a second to explain.

    Imagine two math competitions. In the first, there are always the exact same problems with the exact same answers. Anyone can spend a bunch of time memorizing the solutions that skilled mathematicians worked out years ago.

    In the second competition the problems are randomly generated by a supercomputer. Some years you might get lucky and get a lot of problems that explore areas of math you know well. Even so, the people that actually understand mathematics get the advantage here. You can't improve through rote memorization.

    You've probably noticed the first competition sounds a lot like Chess. Well designed randomness works like the second competition. When randomness provides a different assortment of cards and considerations each game, the best way to improve your overall performance is through learning the game's core strategy. It rewards the ability to genuinely analyze the right move.


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