Join Brenda Romero for an in-depth discussion in this video Chance in games, part of Game Design Foundations: 2 Systems, Chance, and Strategy.
- [Instructor] The roll of the dice. It's a phrase we hear uttered when chance intervenes. What may have been predictable no longer is. As game designers, chance, a literal roll of the dice, plays an important part in our designs and ultimately the player experience. In this video, we'll talk about why we use chance in games and how it improves the games that we play. First off, let's define chance. Before looking at what it does, let's define what it is, and obviously it's pretty simple.
Chance means that some part of the outcome is left up to randomness. In games, we often use a random number generator bounded by a high and a low end or by percentages to determine the outcome of any given action. In my games, I almost always use a range of 100, even if what I'm doing is rolling a six-sided die. You have 16.667% chance for any given action to happen. So, why chance? Well, there's nothing quite as joy-killing as predictability in a game.
For instance, take the game tic-tac-toe. It's wonderfully entertaining for young kids, but as we grow it becomes predictable, boring, and solved. We know how to play to win, so that the effort becomes boring if we're playing other adults or a decision if we're playing little kids. Do we let them win or do we take the prize for ourself? I mean, imagine playing a game like Civilization and always having your civs find the exact same land, founding your cities in the exact same place, and playing against the exact same people for the exact same ending.
Who wants to do that? Inserting chance into a game changes the predictability. Now, using tic-tac-toe as an example, imagine if the middle square were decided randomly and only after all the other squares had been placed. This would certainly add a little bit more excitement to it and not make the game so predictable. That said, it still wouldn't be a very good game for very long. I don't imagine people getting together to play tic-tac-toe with their friends. Used well, chance can be the stuff of moment-making moments.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Back in 1983, I was playing a game called Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. I was facing a boss in the game, an evil wizard named Werdna, along with some minions who were there to protect him. Now, that I remember this over 30 years later tells you something. These were the memories every game designer hopes to create. In Wizardry, you take control of a party of six characters, and in this boss battle we were not faring well at all.
This round was most definitely the last round for us. I set my Priest to cast a full healing spell on my Mage who had somehow survived to this point. I set my Mage to cast the Tiltowait spell on Werdna. That spell had the chance of doing between 10 and 100 damage. I had my one remaining fighter set to fight. All three others were already dead. Now, Wizardry plays out in phase time, meaning that whoever gets initiative gets to go first. But I didn't know who it would be.
There were about 100 ways this could go wrong and maybe one that it could go right. If Werdna killed my Priest before he healed my Mage, there was genuinely no hope. They were both nearly dead as it was. So the round of combat begins. The first action of the game takes out my fighter. Another hit gets my Mage down to two hits point. Death is obviously about to follow. My Priest casts his healing spell and fully heals my Mage and in the next action my Priest is killed. My Mage was the last character standing.
It was a dramatic, nail-biting, tense, and ultimately wildly satisfying win. And chance is the reason I remember it so well so many years later. There were multiple levels of chance here. Who goes first? Will my Priest heal my Mage before he dies? Will my Mage die before his spell is cast? Will my Mage cast a lame Tiltowait spell for 10 hit points that barely damages anyone? Will my Mage fumble the Tiltowait and cast the spell on the party instead? Every combat action had at least two levels of chance to it, the order of their action and the power of the action itself.
That level of variability made the outcome something I could only hope for but ultimately one that I could not predict. Chance's ability to prevent or delay solvability is one of the greatest uses. Players cannot perfectly predict the outcome. The only way to determine it is to play. Not being able to perfectly predict is leaves us feeling both tense and excited. This level of variability leads to a virtual matrix of decision-making for players. If a game is well-balanced between skill and chance, players can spend a good deal of time thinking through various probable outcomes before making their way forward.
In a collectible card game like Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone, decision-making is a masterful art that involves not only turn to turn card plays, but deck construction as well. Players react not only to the randomness in their own hand in terms of what cards will be drawn when, but how those cards, both on the field, in their hand, and still in the deck respond to the cards their opponent plays. It leads to a huge variety of play experience. Among expert players who know both the cards and various optimum deck constructions, there remains the randomness in the other player.
You can never really fully predict what he or she is going to do. Having deeper decision-making in games prolongs mastery, delays boredom, and keeps players playing longer. For commercial game designers, this leads to longer shelf life and more profits. Another reason game designers put chance in their games is to make it fair for players of different ability levels. For instance, if I'm playing the board game Carcassonne against my kids, the play field is leveled when it comes to their tile choice.
Their selection is as good as mine. Games which are designed to be played by a broad age demographic, which most families represent, tend to make a very heavy use of chance. The more chance in a game, the more approachable it is for the younger or less experienced player. In Minecraft, for instance, you have as much luck finding a diamond as I do, provided we're both in an area where a diamond is likely to be found. You can increase your odds with a strategic approach to diamond mining, of course, but in the end there's an element of chance that determine whether you find something or not.
Chance is a huge part of our lives, both in and outside of games. In games, however, designers use chance to level the playing field and increase enjoyment for others, to provoke deeper decision-making, and to increase dramatic moments and to prevent solvability. It's also used in procedural worlds to figure out exactly what those worlds will be. It's a valuable tool that's really as simple as deciding where to put the roll of the die.
- What's a game system?
- Common game systems
- Exploring a character system
- Mechanics of chance
- Mastering skill in games
- Tradeoffs, dilemmas, strategy, and tactics