Game designer Greg Costikyan has posted a transcript of the presentation he gave at the 2009 Game Developers Conference in Austin, in which he talked about the role of randomness in gaming.
Games come in all forms, some purely skill-based while others are highly, or even completely, dependent upon the luck of the draw. It can be a frustrating part of the experience, as our best laid plans are brought low by the capricious whims of the universe, but it's been an important part of the whole for as long as gaming has existed.
"Randomness has been part of games since their earliest inception -- and when I say 'earliest inception,' I mean deep into the unwritten Neolithic past," Costikyan said. "Game scholars sometimes point to The Royal Game of Ur as the earliest known game, and in a sense it is - but we also know of games from any number of Neolithic cultures that survived into the modern era, many of them documented by Stewart Cullin in a series of books for the Smithsonian, published in the early 20th century."
Yet the reliance on chance, he noted, doesn't necessarily mean the outcome of a game will be random. "In a game with chance elements, there will typically be dozens or hundreds of random tests over the course of the game -- many, many times in which dice [are] rolled, or an algorithm that uses a random number as an input applied," he noted. "Paradoxically, the greater the number of random tests, the less effect chance has on the outcome. Over time, random systems regress to the mean."
Costikyan also explained that even some games that appear to be entirely skill-based can have random elements at work under the hood; FPSes, for instance, introduce a random element in weapon damage which isn't enough to cause any surprises in solo play but in multiplayer, introduces "enough variability in a system of chaotic fireplay to prevent a non-random system from becoming dull."
For anyone interested in the intricacies of game design, Costikyan's presentation is a fascinating and detailed look at the role of randomness in an ordered system. "If randomness dictates outcomes, many players will find the game unsatisfying," he said. "But there are times when a degree of randomness plays an important, and useful, role in a design." Check out the whole article at playthisthing.com.