Have you ever been sitting there playing a game with your friends, getting ready for a guffaw and dance as your perfect plan plays out, only to have everything spin on its heels and victory yanked out of your hands due to a seemingly random roll of the dice? Such as those bonus stars in Mario Party or that troll bomb in Binding of Isaac? Ripping away victory from the more skilled players in favor of chaos seems to be an absolutely insane notion, yet it’s a tradition in certain games. But luckily for you, it’s not all nonsense, It’s a well thought-out and designed plan for the player to take advantage of.
Some games become predictable, like a well coordinated dance routine.
Some games become predictable, like a well coordinated dance routine. Certain events going off one-by-one the same way every single time like fireworks popping off in a line, while others sway back and forth according to the almighty dice. Some of them take a different route, a more interesting and scenic route: controllable luck. Luck that takes skill to tame. Akin to a wild stallion with mane majestically swaying in the summer breeze. These games are more interesting and have longer life-spans. It’s a pretty interesting concept…at least it is to me. To understand the luck/skill Divide, we need all the pieces of the puzzle, so let’s scan over the toy box and pick up the pieces.
Let’s begin with pure skill. Pro-gamers thrive off these types of games. A common example would be Leauge of Legends. I mean, have you seen those tournaments? It’s a crazy spectacle. The game is comparatively slow and deliberate, when compared to other competitive games. Everything in League is fixed. Enemies spawn at the same times, items demonstrate the same effects every game, and the champions have the same abilities. Predictability is what makes Leagueand other MOBAs such a magnet for competitive gaming, and a good place for the medium to grow. Making the game most similar to traditional sports, I mean, you don’t watch a football game and suddenly you’ve got a raging bull that enters the field. It’s all skill, and all training. It makes training for the game worth it, where the only things you have to consider as threats are the skills of your opponents… and maybe Gromp.
It’s not restricted by genre, either. The Rhythm Heaven Series, The Monster Hunter Series, or anything else featuring Dark Souls-like animation locking needs that skill cap to keep players interested and to continue the game, even if there is no one to usurp as “The Best.”
The FAR FAR other end of the spectrum are the luck games… sort of. See, playing a game based completely on the roll of the dice doesn’t exactly make for fun experiences. Every game must have at least a modicum of skill required to be fun. Take my Mario Party example. The game is nearly decided by the flip of a coin. However, the game gives you some control over your actions, but not 100%. That bit of control is what makes the game fun, and is what makes players invested in it. It’s why thousands upon thousands of people visit casinos to try their luck at Blackjack or Poker.
However, combine the two: Luck and skill makes for a pretty interesting game. An example I love to bring up is the fresh off the presses Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. Well…I say fresh off the presses, but what I actually mean is that the game was recently released for Xbox One, Wii U, and 3DS. Introducing a whole new audience to its juxtapositional artstyle and roguelike gameplay. Isaac is procedurally generated, with over 5000 possible rooms and 340 items.
“Wait a second!” I hear you scoffing, “If a game is almost completely randomly generated, couldn’t you win or lose by sheer luck alone?” And, the short answer to that question is: Yes. It is possible for the game to roll the dice in your favor and you get an easy run while your buddy is struggling on the third floor because he didn’t get the uber-powerful item you did. By simply playing the game, you get lots and lots of information, so first run you might not know what you’re doing, but with simple enemy patterns and tons of item effects, soon after you’ll be skating through like you own the place. You can squeeze every drop of potential out of a floor, rolling the dice as many times as possible just to see if it produces that super item you’ve always wanted, or you can scoot right over to the Boss Room with minimal risk. It’s a simple concept of risk/reward, but the risks and rewards extend deep, and are rooted into the game in such a way that each person can have their own strategy and still win Isaac. Unlike League, which has a deeply ingrained metagame (of which the players will kindly remind you if you are unaware), and also unlike Mario Party, which requires almost no strategy. It’s a nice combination of skill and luck, risk and reward.
However, combine the two: Luck and skill makes for a pretty interesting game.
Even though the game, essentially can be beaten with a single lucky run, a smart player will use the system to their advantage. You can run into an Arcade room and use your hard-earned cash at the machines, looking for that lucky item, or you could just blow everything up with a well placed bomb, with the machines dropping money and various other goodies for you. Don’t get hit by the bomb though, sheesh, take some caution.
It’s not just Isaac that uses risk to balance reward; however. Consider The Civilization Series, the entire series is based on what you do in your beginning years. Extend, and you might spread your butter too thin and find a randomly generated barbarian camp, or a randomly generated “Natural Wonder”, keep it in too tight, and you won’t have much space after to grow your populace further. Even worse, some bloodthirsty warmongering tyrant might claim some land next to you, and he’s a total jerk, and doesn’t accept your trades, and just places his guys all around your spot but doesn’t declare war, God! Anyway, the point is, controlling your scouts early game is a bit like rigging the dice. I mean, you could send out an actual unit fit for combat and slaughter an entire camp of barbarians, but how much do you want to try your luck? What if you get nothing out of it but a little bit more revealed map and a unit crawling back to you on its knees?
It’s a feature put in by Developers to make the player like they’re outsmarting the system. When a player figures out out all the little secrets sprinkled about and uses them to their benefit, it’s deeply satisfying, on the developer’s end and the players, and controllable luck is one way to go about using this powerful technique. So go ahead, rig the dice and belt out your victory guffaw as your meticulous plan plays out.