Perceptions of Randomness, Social Games and Game Design

By April 21, 2010Ideas
Courtesy of Flickr's ocadotony

Courtesy of Flickr’s ocadotony

I thought I’d share a link to an article with you that I came across. It’s from the CEO of Manifesto Games (and he is also a game design expert), Greg Costykian, about randomness in game design and whether it’s good or bad to include it in game mechanics. Can it be used to game designers’ advantage to improve the gameplay experience?
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, when it comes to events that have randomness in them, like most games, rather than seeing them as such, people will impose patterns on the events by default, because our brains evolved to see patterns in most events even if there were none present. As Costykian also speaks to our previous points, randomness is viewed by some as not just merely a feature of gameplay, but also as “divinatory.”
So why is this post worth a mention? From a game design perspective, the concept of randomness continues to fascinate us, and is especially useful, when trying to determine if games should be designed to be won by skill and not by perceived “luck.” As Costykian explains, we’re likely to think less of a game if we think we won it based on luck. However, sometimes it favours the game designer to imply this sense of luck in game designs because it engages the player more in gameplay (when in actuality, other elements are actually at work, like intention, choice, strategy and meaning). If a player thinks they can predict the outcome of that next dice roll, even better! Ayogo has released lottery games (based upon random number generators) and found that people use the forums to share “strategies” for picking the numbers! Even in a game of chance that relies on so many small random occurrences that they smooth out over time, (so the outcome of the game is more and more likely to be dictated by strategy than by chance), the outcome in rare cases can be dictated by chance. This oculd surely be frustrating to some players.
To echo Costykian’s thoughts, there are instances when a degree of randomness plays an important, and useful, role in a design, even if players might find the game unsatisfying. Leveraging this knowledge and working it to harness it to beneficial effect is a goal many game designers should think about. Some have argued that Costykian’s analysis is based on competition based games, and that we also have to take into account the social interaction component of why we play games. While Costykian hints at this point in his “levelling the playing field” game example, it’s worth mentioning that there is commonly a need to relieve social tensions which tend to build up in competitive situations and randomness is one way of doing that. So for example, I win because of my brilliant play, and lose because of bad luck. I’ll let you dive into the article. Let us know what you think.