Bulletpattern Game design, Flash and Unity development


What’s Missing from Video Game Randomness


I am not a fan of randomness in games. I try to keep it to a minimum as a designer and as a player, it's a turn off for me. The idea of grinding for a loot drop will wear me out real fast. I'm looking at you Let It Die!

I've had debates with colleagues about randomness and it's often presented that randomness hits the same compulsion as gambling. Regardless of whether you think that's good or bad, it's an effective player compulsion. It can be mining for ore in Minecraft (that next block might be diamond!) or trying to get rares from loot boxes, the excitement of taking a chance and (maybe) winning keeps players coming back. There is also the idea that it's not much different from rolling dice in Dungeons & Dragons. Pen & paper roleplaying is where the core of many video game design elements come from, right?

This argument has never set quite right with me but I could not put my finger on what was missing in the transition from rolling dice at D&D to random loot drops in video games.

Predictably Irrational

I often consume behavioral psychology books, lectures, podcasts, etc. in an attempt to learn more about human behavior. So much interesting insights on human behavior apply directly to game design. I also like to think it makes me more forgiving of people's flaws and more aware of my own but let's not get serious about self-reflection. We are talking about video games!

Recently, an entry from NPR's Hidden Brain podcast filled in what's missing from video game randomness – almost winning. Their research shows that when people almost win, it's nearly as fulfilling as winning – even though, in reality, a loss is a loss.

Lottery tickets, slot machines, dice rolling, and every other real world randomness lets the player see if they almost won. You got 4 of the 5 numbers on the lotto ticket! You got 2 of the 3 slot machine reels! You rolled a 19 – almost a 20! This is what video game randomness is missing.

The Solution?

We've identified problem of what's missing but the solution is tougher. Games have done real-world correlates, like slot machines and similar implementations when players get drops. Good examples are Borderlands 2's weapons slot machines and Jetpack Joyride's Final Spins. However, these are done in times where the player is not really "playing" the core game. These kind of interfaces also require significant graphic design resources.

To me, the question is – how could we make random loot events in moment-to-moment gameplay (like killing an enemy who drops coins but sometimes drops a rare crafting material) communicate the desired "you almost won" state?

I don't have the answer yet, but it's something I'll keep in mind moving forward on new projects.

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Creating Game Depth with Adverbs


One of the first game design books I ever read was Chris Crawford on Game Design. It's a great beginner design book and introduced me to the concept of "verbs" in game design. Crawford suggested that the more verbs a game has, the better the game. A game is great when you can run & jump, but being able to run, jump, AND swim is even better!

However, adding verbs is often very expensive from a development standpoint. No developer ever wants to hear, "Your game is great but could you just add jumping, swimming, shooting, flying, hiding, or something?" Hearing something like this is often a case someone giving you a solution (add more verbs) instead of identifying the issue (gameplay needs more depth).


The Pitfall of Power-ups

A common misstep in a "your game needs more depth" situation is to add gameplay modifiers such as power-ups or relying on more content.

A bunch of power-ups cannot save a shallow core game design. In our shooting gallery example (you'll see below in a minute), a 3-way shot might be pretty cool but your player goals don't change. A player would still run out of gameplay when hitting 20/20 targets. Power-ups can make a game more interesting but the game is still built on a base of sand. You must make gameplay deeper before you start layering in gameplay modifiers.

Lots of content looks appealing on the back of a box (More levels! More skins!) but they cannot save shallow gameplay. Again, your core gameplay has to be strong, and not easily exhaustible, before players will keep coming back for more and care about your expanded content.



So following in the spirit of Mr. Crawford's verbs, I propose adverbs are the way to add depth to your verbs. It's not just what a player a can do, it's how they can do it. It's also when they can do it.

OK, let's make an example to show adverb-ing in action.


Example Game

Imagine you have a simple "shooting gallery" game where objects move across the screen horizontally in 3 stacked rows and a player  can move horizontally at the bottom of the screen and shoot the objects. The verbs here would be "move" and "shoot". This is a simple game type but you want to make it more compelling. The first step is to add a scoring system. (We are going to use this scoring system as a rough estimate of game depth.)

  • Every object you hit is worth 10 points.
  • Each round spawns 20 objects

Now the player has a score delta potential of 0 - 200 points in increments of 10. Players can replay the game but once they hit every object in a round, there is nothing else to do – i.e. no more depth to the game.

Now let's add some adverbs to "shoot". Let's do "shoot quickly". Now each object is worth more points the less time it has been onscreen. Let's say an object is onscreen for 3 seconds and now the score per object is:

  • 10 * (3 - timeOnscreen in milliseconds rounded up)

Now we have a score delta 0 - 600 with much greater granularity. Players are now challenged to shoot every object but to do it as quickly as possible. An additional layer of depth has been added to scoring, but more importantly, now the player needs to make choices since all the objects are not the same value at a given time. The player can ask themselves, "Should I shoot this object that has been onscreen for a while and risk missing one that just appeared onscreen? Or skip it and take a guaranteed shot at more points?"

This is a shooting game so clearly we need "accurately" as an adverb!

  • The more centered the shot, the more points it is worth
  • 3 concentric rings of score – 10, 25, 50.

Now our score delta is 0 - 3000.

Let's add a bit more depth with the adverb "far". The farther the player's shot travels, the more the object is hit is worth.

  • Objects in the back row are worth more than the front.
  • Row bonuses are x1, x1.5, x2

This adds depth in scoring and choice as well. Player's may try to "dodge" the front row objects to hit the more valuable back row objects. Now our score delta is 0 -4500.

Now for the big gun adverb, "consecutively". We are going to add a combo system! Let's say if a player keeps hitting objects within a 1 second window (i.e. no more than 1 second between objects hit) they get a combo bonus.

  • Combo bonus =  +0.1 per combo
  • 2nd object hit in combo = (50 (accurately as possible) * 3 (fast as possible) * 1.5 (average row bonus)) * 1.1 = 330
  • 3rd object hit in combo = (50 (accurately as possible) * 3 (fast as possible) *1.5 (average row bonus)) * 1.2 = 360
  • ...
  • 20th object hit in combo = (50 (accurately as possible) * 3 (fast as possible) *1.5 (average row bonus)) * 3 = 900

Now our score delta is 0 - 9,225. Now this is practically an impossible score. No player will be able to hit every target dead center, as quickly as possible, and combo the entire game. Or maybe they will. Players constantly surprise developers 🙂


Adverbs of Time

I am bending some grammatical rules here with adverbs of time, so bear with me.

Another power adverbs have is adding depth without adding buttons. This is especially useful in mobile development. One of the best ways is to add depth is creating actions done while performing other actions. For example, in our move & shoot game, shooting while moving could have a special action like curvy the shot or making the shot move more quickly. Or shooting while not moving gives the player faster rate of fire..

Nintendo are the absolute masters of hiding depth in their games but maintaining simple, often one-button, controls. Some of the best examples of this are in the 3D Mario games:

  • Jumping while jumping straight up does a butt bounce
  • Jumping while jumping forward does a dive
  • Holding jump while diving performs a belly slide
  • Jumping while changing movement 180 degrees performs a back flip

These kinds of actions don't have to be purely player controlled. The same verbs can be modified by the context of the action. Performing an action when hit by an enemy or near an environmental obstacle can modify core verbs.


Adverbs Add Depth

You can see by the above exercise how much depth can be added to a very simple game with a few adverbs. If we use our score value as a measurement, our 4 adverbs increased scoring depth by over 45x. The adverbs also added a number of choices the player will have to make to maximize their score.

You can modify actions and controls (without adding buttons) by using adverbs of time or context.

So they next time you have a game and it's feeling flat, ask yourself not what verbs to add but what adverbs you need.


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