Blog #4 – Luck and Variance in Game Design

Hey gang, Fraser here,

For those of you who’ve missed our Introduction blog I’m Hyper Luminal’s designer so I’ll be chatting about some approaches to design and the potential problems designers can face when creating games and mechanics. 

I’m a big advocate for traditional games  (board, card, etc…)  when it comes to developing design skills (and for playing!) and for analysing approaches. After all a board games mechanics can’t hide behind fancy physics or graphics and if they’re not fun then it’s very apparent.

In this post I’m going to look at random elements (luck, chaos, etc…) – what it brings; benefits, problems, and how these can be used and mitigated against.


Random Elements 

So what actually are random elements? When people think of random elements they most commonly think of luck and actions in which they can be lucky, and conversely, unlucky. So how then (in my opinion) does luck vary from random elements? Luck tends to suggest preferable (you got so lucky!) and thus, un-preferable (how unlucky) outcomes. This approach leads to the somewhat false dichotomy of luck only having outcomes which are better or worse than one another, rather than variable/different (an important distinction!) I tend to use random elements to cover all aspects which are (surprise surprise) random, where their lies a preference for certain results or not. To give a somewhat utilitarian definition; if an actions outcome cannot be predicated with certainty, then that action involves random elements.  (An interesting side note; based upon player’s knowledge/information in a scenario, a chance situation can transition from ‘random element’ to luck. For example a game where enemies are determined randomly and you come up against one you haven’t met before. Due to your lack of knowledge of this enemy you cannot determine if you have been lucky or unlucky in this encounter. But later on should you encounter this enemy again you have the knowledge to determine if you believe you have been fortunate or not.)

However, for the sake of readability, rather than repeatedly typing ‘random element’ (which gets doubly confusing when I need to use the word random in the same sentence) I’m going to stick to using the term Luck for the remainder of this post!


Luck vs Skill – The classic misnomer

This is one I see a lot, people who believe luck is the contrary to skill and the idea that the more luck a game involves, the less skill is does.

Luck v Skill1

It’s an honest opinion to come to, after all if you have no (or little to no) influence on the outcome of a result, then surely skill has no bearing on it. In reality these two are not opposites, but rather just two different aspects that a game can have, evident in the fact that some games can be both high skill and high luck (such as poker) or low luck and low skill (draughts, tic-tac-toe, etc…)

Luck & Skill


Luck – Purpose and Problems

So we’ve briefly gone over some of the bits and bats of Luck and its portrayal, but what are some of the main perks/reasons to introduce luck to a game?

Perhaps one of the largest benefits to randomisation in a game system is how it can add to variety and reduce stagnation. In games with no luck, such as tic-tac-toe, if both players play optimally (that is they are skilled and fully understand the game and its choices) then the conclusion is forgone. In the example of tic-tac-toe, a game with skilled players will always end in a draw (games with no luck where the optimum play can be worked out, and thus the outcome to any game with skilled players, are known as solved games). By introducing luck to a game it becomes impossible to accurately know the outcome (although you can make good estimates) and introduces an aspect that can cause the game to change drastically between plays.

For example let’s say we have a game where the player must fight through a series of monsters with a limited number of skills and options, gaining loot as they go. If the monsters and the order they appear in (alongside the available skills and options) are fixed and non-random, the game purely boils down to working out the correct optimisation of what skills to use and when to use them in order to succeed. Once this has been solved by the player, the game will lose all its challenge and enjoyment. By randomising the monsters in this game (alongside the available skills and loot) it requires the players to use prediction, and judgement calls, playing reactively rather than aimlessly going through a known pattern and thus increasing the amount of fun the player can gain from the game.

This variety can also influence games in more subtle ways, for example:

  • It can lead to games (typically competitive multiplayer) having a more diverse Meta as items/moves/skills/etc… that have random aspects are harder to evaluate and can negate the concept of strictly better, allowing players to have more diverse options whilst remaining competitive.
  • Moves/abilities/effects/etc… can have more flashy powerful effects and yet still be fair due to their lack of consistency and reliability.
  • It can cause unusual and unexpected situations that lead to unique experiences for the players to enjoy (which in turn leads to players have their own ‘stories’ of crazy/unlikely moments to share with one another).

Luck can also be an important factor psychologically for the players. Low luck, high skill games are often very unforgiving of mistakes and towards new players; by introducing random elements in these games the players (during their early stages of learning the game) are able to save face and their ego by blaming their loss and mistakes upon luck. As the player develops and matures the need for this emotional crutch will diminish and certain companies have been seen to change how luck influences their game during its lifespan as the player base has matured (a notable example to look at would be how Valve adapted their Critical Hit system in Team Fortress 2).

Due to the more forgiving nature of games with some amount of luck present, these games tend to be more approachable and have wider audiences. Fighting Games are notorious for being very difficult to get into due to their high skill, low luck levels which are very punishing for newer players, this can lead to the players feeling turned off from the game and unwilling to keep playing (conversely when you do start to get good at these games, because it is all ‘on you’ and not on luck, they do feel very rewarding). Games with higher luck allow newer players to contend with more skilled players as the random variance helps to level the playing field (a tad).

Right, I’ve rambled on about the advantages of randomisation and luck in game mechanics and in my next blog I’ll briefly go over some of the disadvantages before moving onto a system I’ve been faffing with that helps to balance out variance (I appreciate the irony of attempting to standardise randomisation).

Until next time, anyone interested in a more in-depth view on luck in games should hit up Dr Richard Garfield’s talk at ITU Copenhagen from 2013 ( which heavily influenced this post!

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