I’m so random

Discussing the removing luck post, we wound up talking about sources of randomness. It’s suggested that players are a source of randomness in otherwise deterministic games, that’s an interesting idea I’d like to dig into.

Let’s start by getting to the root of what a random factor is. When people say “random” they don’t mean it in the literal sense – the roll of a die is deterministic. You throw it at a certain angle with a specific force onto a particular surface. A physicist with a lot of time on their hands and nothing better to do might be able to simulate the outcome of your roll, given enough information about it.

The most common crutch is to say that when people talk about something being “random” in games, they mean that it is “unpredicatable”. However I don’t think that stands up either, I cannot predict my opponents 48th move in a game of chess from the starting point, but it a game that most people are happy to call “no randomness” and practically everyone will call “low randomness”.

I’d be inclined to define it as factors that are beyond the control of either player – but that’s cheating since I’d be including a conclusion (“Players aren’t random factors”) in a premise (“Where random factors are defined as things that are not players”) which is extremely bad form.

When people think about randomness I’m not sure that there is a consistent logical construct that can be defined. It’s more a combination of unpredictability and uncontrollability, viewed with hindsight – where players don’t see something coming, don’t have the ability to meaningfully influence it and (once it’s happened) don’t feel like they even could have seen it coming or have influenced it – then they experience that thing as random.

At very least this fuzzy definition would explain why people will argue about whether cards are “more random” than dice or not 😉

So, looking at another player.

Hey you! You’re one of those.

Looking at another player: Are they unpredictable and uncontrollable?

Let’s start with unpredictable. Two things are immediately and obviously true: It is sometimes possible to predict what another player will do, yet it is not always possible to make that prediction.

More interestingly the degree to which they can be predicted varies depending on the attributes of the game in question. I can predict whether my opponent will open with their rook pawn in chess with much more accuracy than I can predict whether they will throw “scissors” in rock, paper, scissors.

Even in the most extreme examples, people are some degree of predictable. Opening moves in rock paper scissors are not distributed 33% 33% 33% – you may not be able to predict this specific opponent with complete accuracy, but nor are you completely blind.

Since how people perceive what counts as random, I question whether people’s beliefs about randomness in other players are correlated with their ability to predict what people will do. I’ve written before about how different players will sometimes experience probability differently, with some players experiencing quite deterministic systems as being quite random because they struggle to understand them.

Most people don’t understand most people.

Which is probably the cause of most of the things that are wrong with the world. My point is that I tend to know the people I play games with quite well and have got used to their habits. I’m also a doctor of psychology. It’s possible that one reason for differences in opinion over whether players are randomisers is down to differences in capacities to predict players which in turn leads to their behaviour being seen as “predictable” or “random” as viewed through different lenses.

Moving on to the issue of control – most games give you the capacity to indirectly control your opponents actions. The concept of a “forced move” is almost as old as gaming, sometimes your opponent must take a particular action or you will win. A game may even go as far as to codify a hard control of the form “If you make this move your opponent must respond in this way”.

Obviously an opponent is providing no randomness if they don’t make any actual choices because you have forced them all. Equally obviously a game in which that is actually possible (if one exists) is barely a game and is at best a solitaire game with an observer who’s not permitted to leave. However once you move away from forcing a player to do something towards persuading them to, more realistic games come to mind.

This sort of soft control is particularly easy and impactful in high interaction multiplayer games. There are a lot of ways to influence people. Some of these are pretty subtle (Check out my first post in my geek of the week thread for an example of a relevant psych study that’s pretty neat), others can be as blatant as saying “Cid is winning, you should attack Cid, all of the cool kids are attacking Cid.”

Even in a two player game there are soft ways to manipulate an opponent. A lot of players will visibly react to their opponent considering actions that do or don’t suit their plans. A smaller number of players will look for those reactions and base decisions on them. A subset of those will fake those reactions in an attempt to control the prior group. Heck, I’ve played in a game where a player has faked a reaction to a fake reaction in order to persuade the original faker than their faking has worked and to drive them towards a slightly suboptimal move in order to continue their bluff.

So where does all of this leave us?

At the seemingly unsatisfying conclusion that whether players should be considered a random factor depends upon factors that change depending on the game being played and the nature of the players. Some players are better at predicting and controlling others, while some are not. Some groups have it as part of their social contract, where others expressly forbid it. Some games lend themselves to producing predictable, controllable behaviour – while others are the opposite. The question “Are players a source of randomness?” must be answered “Sometimes”

But I don’t think this is an unsatisfying conclusion. Let me draw your attention to the important part: “depending on the game being played”

Thus we have yet another glorious spanner for the designer’s toolbox. The extent to which players are used as a source of randomness is something we can mess with. Furthermore it is subject to the same effects as every other type of randomness, which has some neat features. For instance if you want to get that “Somewhat random factor that players think is a result of their skill” effect that some games use so well, this is a great way to do it.

Earlier I mentioned that the distribution of throws in Rock-Paper-Scissors isn’t perfectly even – there’s some non-random behaviour going on there. However it’s still very largely unpredictable and here’s a second statistic on that game: The average player believes that their win rate to be above 50%.

It’s much harder to study and to see in playtesters (and a common cause of the ‘tested on the same group of playtesters too often’ problem) but if you can get your head around how your game is interacting with your players predictability and controllability you’ve got a neat tool to play with.

Happy random gaming!

 

Kickstarter: How to get the word out

In about a month I shall be launching my fourth Kickstarter campaign. Before I launched my first I received a lot of advice about how important the month in the run up to launch was and that has shaped my thoughts as to what will happen next. So today’s post will be sharing what’s worked for me in building the crowd, what I intend to do this time around and ends with an idea for something I’ve not tried before but would be interested in hearing your opinion on.

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Mental Battles in Game Design

A lot of game design is winning mental battles with yourself. Your brain is a sneaky beast that tries to sabotage you in one of two ways. Either “This game is horrible, your playtesters are bored, it’ll never succeed and you should drop the project” or “This game is wonderful, anyone who says otherwise can’t see your vision, ignore feedback and release it immediately!” Unfortunately there’s no simple trick to overcoming it, since these situations require opposite responses.

tugowar

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UK Games Expo 2014

So I was at the UK Games Expo this weekend and had a blast! It was great to hear that they’ve moved it off the bank holiday weekend so it doesn’t clash with every other geek event of the season and I’m looking forward to going every year from now on. I went with the UK Games Media Network, which this blog is a part of. (Seriously, there should’ve been a UKGMN link somewhere on this page for months and I’ve been really tardy about putting it up, let’s start this post with a great big picture of the logo for those who’ve not heard of us!)

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Secret Identities

So I finally got around to playing A Study in Emerald and confirmed what the comments told me, that my previous post mentioning the game was wildly off the mark. That’ll teach me to listen to rumours and heresay (Side thought: Is it an accident that heresay and herasy are so linguistically similar or do they share a root?). I did have a good time with it though, I’m not sure how replayable it is, but there’s enough going on that being ruled over by great old ones was enjoyable as a first experience.

cthulu

Our game had three players and very early on the other two effectively revealed their identities through their actions and subsequent discussion. As they were on opposite teams this provided me with a substantial advantage, they knew that they could hinder each other safely but neither could be sure that ruining my day wasn’t hurting their own chance of winning. I found myself really invested in continuing to keep my identity a secret to preserve this advantage.

Contrast this to the traitor in Shadows over Camelot, in which an early reveal can serve the traitor more effectively than attempting a subtle game, to the point that the rulebook actively encourages traitors in small games to stay hidden in order to give the knights a chance. When a designer implements a secret identity mechanic they have an idea for how they hope players will use it, but ultimately the mechanics that underly the games reward functions determine what actually happens in play.

spy

Any ideas concerning the best mechanics to get players to interact with secret identities in desirable ways need to be rooted in what a desirable interaction is. Ultimately secret identities introduce depth to a game without increasing complexity as they allow a great deal of other rules to be brought into a game from the outside world. Unless a player has lead an exceptionally sheltered life they will already know what it is to be lied to and what it is to lie to someone, they’ll have hundreds of tiny lessons that they’ve picked up about both of these situations and so will every other player anymore. Furthermore these differerences will be asymmetrical, with different players having different ideas about the concept, drawn from their different experiences. So a desirable interaction is one in which players are motivated to utilise these skills to produce interesting effects.

Ideally, in a secret identities game, all players desire to know the other players identities and keep their own a secret. This is enchanced if there is a tension between the actions that a player needs to take in order to win and the actions that would best hide their identity. I think that seeking this enchancement is where some designs can fall apart, to keep the tension interesting some actions have to provide big bonuses while making it hard to maintain a deception – but if the bonus is bigger than the penalty for being caught there’s no reason not to simply reveal ones identity. This needs to be considered across all bonuses, rather than on an individual level – for the tension to be constant the game needs to constantly offer “subtlety or power” choices and someone who gives up on subtlety can get the best out of all of those choices.

greed

I think that Battlestar Galactica has enjoyed such success because it avoids this issue of cumulative benefits for being revealed. A choice often comes down to “do I risk revealing myself to sabotage this check?” and the consequence for being revealed is a dramatically reduced capacity to sabotage checks. The cumulative problem is avoided by having the large benefit for revealing apply only once at the point of reveal, rather than allowing a traitorous player to continue to accumulate benefits for revealing their treachary.

An alternative solution is seen in the likes of Discworld, in which a hidden identity has no impact at all until the game is over. The choice there is between ‘proceed objectives’ vs ‘remain hidden’, but on no occasion will anyone have proof positive of your identity before the end of the game. There’s no explicit consequence to being identified, but it gets harder to win as players begin deliberately thwarting your objectives. Whether it’s desirable to disengage from the hidden identity mechanic boils down to how effectively other players will be able to neutralise your ability to complete your objective.

nuke

Ultimately if a game designer wants to use hidden identities they need to examine their payoff mechanism. The trick is in balancing the tension between these things:

  • If a player takes an action that risks revealing their identity then it should often lead to more progress than not taking that action (otherwise there is no reason for a person to risk exposing themselves).
  • If a players identity is revealed it should set back their capacity to win by some amount (otherwise there is no reason for a person to try to hide themselves).
  • The penalty for being revealed in the early or middle game needs to exceed the total bonuses for taking all “risks revealing” actions available (otherwise there’s no reason to engage with the mechanic over openly revealing on turn one).

It’s a tricky balance and some games manage it more successfully than others, as the reward functions that a game is imbued with also need to drive a host of other behaviours, but the sort of experiences that come out of seeing this mechanic executed well are irreplaceable.

Give me your problems, not your solutions

This morning I came across this post from Kevin G Nunn, I think via a twitter notification (It turns out that I’m really bad at twitter, I haven’t posted anything at all this year and can’t remember my login details.) In it he describes a designer using the line “Give me your problems, not your solutions.” and the arguments in favour of getting playtesters to report feedback in this manner.

nofix

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Kingmaking vs Virtual Elimination

I store fruit next to my computer, but the chocolate is in a cupboard downstairs. This is because I know that I’m lazy and greedy but would prefer not to be. I can have chocolate or I can refuse to get up, but if I do one I can’t do the other. I’m not sure I could successfully fight my vices alone, so setting them up in opposition to each other seems like the way to go.

FMAgluttony

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The Perfect Player

There are lots of people who play games, but let me tell you about someone special, the perfect player of games. She is characterised by two things, the first of which are her capacities. Intellectually, she’s second to none, as soon as she’s skimmed the rules she’s learned them, by the time setup is finished she’s a dozen idea for good strategies and by the end of the first game she’s well on the way to mastering it. Woe betide you if you seek to beat her at a game she’s put any real time or thought into.

brain

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