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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