rand(Two Step)

Welcome to rand() week at Kill Ten Rats unknowingly sponsored by Leala Turkey of Spouse Aggro fame.  For those sane enough not to have scratched much of the surface of spreadsheet programs or number intensive programming, rand() is a random number generator.  And this week, I will be talking about randomness, choosing random topics, and generally throwing things to the whim of the all-conquering RNG. Sound boy, proceed to blast into the galaxy.

In the latest Spouse Aggro podcast, Leala rages about the bouncing ball of death in a raid she is working on in the Ice Crown Citadel for World of Warcraft.  A bouncing green ball bounces around the room and kills people it lands on.  Seemingly, there is no pattern to the ball’s movements.  Beau’s measured response is that World of Warcraft players were complaining about raids being in easy mode, and so Blizzard added a random, positional effect to keep players on their toes.  Yet, Leala tactfully responded after discussing the size of her husband’s nose, this is not what people really wanted.

I see this time and time again when it comes to PvE content.  Players boldly claim that they want excitement.  They don’t want to learn some dance step that they can mindlessly walk through.  The excitement must come from random events!  It’s so obvious and easy.  Yet, every time the developers come through the players complain.  Leala echoes the biggest complaint I hear: the game becomes unfair.

I want to reframe the playing field.  What players actually want is not “random”; what players truly want is a bigger flowchart.  In the end, every game is nothing but a flowchart of if/then statements for players to run through when deciding on an action. 

For example, in the Watcher in the Water fight in Lord of the Rings Online if the Watcher shakes in anger then everybody strafes the Watcher as it throws out an extreme pressure puke yell.  The yell is on a timer, but the simple if/then statement can hide some complexity.  A minstrel’s heal may root the minstrel for a second while he sings his song.  The minstrel has to make a few more decisions on the flowchart every cycle.  Can the group member survive for a while longer if I don’t heal her? Can I use a quicker heal? Are we far away from the next Watcher scream?

A good player will run through these questions so quickly that the challenge begins to feel intuitive.  The simple event requiring players to strafe if the Watcher shakes with anger becomes conditioned.  However, if the event becomes too simplified in the gamer’s mind – if it truly gets boiled down to the simplest of if/then statements – then there is the danger that the content will become boring.  The lowest common denominator in PvE encounters seems to be the scorned “tank and spank.”

PvP content is no different, but the amount of questions a player has to run through each cycle is too many to allow for conscious thought.  This is why games survive for years and years by focusing on good PvP events.  There is always something new. Something to learn.  Something to keep the game fresh.  Players begin to experiment with bluffs, advanced teamwork, and even throwing randomness in the works in the hopes the enemies become too confused to know how to handle the event without wasting thought cycles.

The goal of good developers is to emulate the PvP flowcharts in terms of thought processes for PvE.  A good example, in my opinion, is the use of Dangling Tentacles in the aforesaid Watcher fight.  The Dangling Tentacles are on a timer and every so often one will spawn and grab a random player.  The player then dangles in the air, unable to do anything but drink potions, until the group kills the tentacle.  This creates a complicated thought process for the group.  How long can the person remain dangling?  How important is that person to the group’s activities? Where is that person dangling?

The event creates a question of importance, which has to be resolved in a relatively short time.  If a healer is dangling in deep water, and healing for 5 other people has stopped, then it becomes pretty important to undangle the healer.  If a DPS gets dangled on “safe” ground, where an insta-kill won’t occur, she might be left to dangle for a few seconds.

Eventually even the Dangling Tentacles become ingested to the point where a conscious decision is not required.  It becomes intuitive to the group as a whole for what happens to the danglee across a broad swath of variables.  It’s not that the decision making process simplifies; it’s just that the veteran players already know the answers.  For a scripted encounter, this is inevitable, but the journey to that point can be stimulating and fun.

As I listened to Leala’s rant I heard her touch upon the real problem.  It wasn’t that the raid had to dance around while a ball bounced around like a drunk uncle.  It was that two random events would collide in a way where there was no proper response in the flowchart.  I am not familiar with the fight Leala was talking about, but in the Watcher fight there can be instances where someone gets hit with a Dangling Tentacle and the Watcher shakes with anger.  There is no time for the player dangled up in the air.  There is no if/then statement to resolve.  The player just has to die.

The danger in expanding the if/then flowchart a player has to dance to when using random events is that a collusion of two or more events creates an unbeatable condition.  The player feels cheated.  It gets even worse if the overlap is a constant occurrence.  The encounter then becomes an hour long dice roll.  If by a small chance the overlap does not occur, then the encounter becomes “doable” and gets beaten.  The players create their path of least resistance, but instead of exploits or YouTube strategy videos, it is purely based on chance.  Randomness.

It’s an interesting conundrum that the creation of choice can overinflate to the point of causing loss of control.  The small balancing point is bordered by boredom and frustration.  Adding random events is a great way to shunt the encounter out of the boring zone, but too much can easily destroy the whole thing.

wants to square dance with me

20 thoughts on “rand(Two Step)”

  1. I think this is why I enjoy Guild Wars and the Act/React measures in place that make combat so much faster and heart racing.
    Quickly eliminating conditions and hexes, heals, skill usage at exact moments for interrupts…it all makes the game so much fun.
    To stand and hit 1,2,3 and then wait for them to refresh and do it all over again until a red bar disappears…sucks.

    And yes…a “random” occurrence that YOU the player do NOT control also sucks. If control is taken from me in a game, I am done…
    I bought that game for me to learn how to maximize my fun. If my skill is useless because I can randomly be killed..well, I would quit.


  2. Design like this can be tricky though. To an uneducated player, something might appear ‘random’ when in reality it is not. Same goes for the stacking of conditions, sometimes players think they are unavoidable, when in reality they are. Not saying this is always the case, but far too often people cry ‘unfair’ not because an encounter is too hard/random, but because they don’t full understand it yet.

  3. So the developers can either add additional code to prevent the occasional no-win situation, or they can look at the development schedule and get to work on their next project.

    From a certain perspective, a player going on hour long tirades about how unfair an encounter because the unbeatable situation occurred is indistinguishable from a player going on an hour long tirade because of frustration caused by learning the new encounter. So, the developer writes both tirades off to expected player behavior and goes off to work on the next encounter.

    1. Indeed. How ingrained is the pass off of a no-win situation? Do we players really just chalk it up to part of the game? Do developers add it in to slow down farming/content? Or is not accounting for it just what they were allowed to do in the time they did it?

      Leala herself said that she intends to keep going at it, and I know for the Watcher raid we just had to shrug it off.

  4. For what it’s worth, I really can’t think of any no-win situations brought up by Malleable Goo in the Icecrown raid… I can’t listen to podcasts at work though, so can’t confirm that I’m thinking of the same thing as the ranter.

    1. Yeah, I can’t either since my whole experience of Icecrown was through the podcast. The Watcher, though, I am sure of. ;)

      1. Right, it’s all development implementation after a certain point, as you said in the post. The more mechanics you strap on to an encounter, the faster the space grows for them to interact in ways that are frustrating to the players.

        That said, players (especially WoW players due to the particular culture of preparation for grouping/raiding in that game, maybe?) generally undersell the amount of tactical depth that can be brought to bear on their part, and frequently what looks like an “RNG” death is really lack of strategizing to limit the impact thereof.

  5. Malleable Goo is completely avoidable except in one rare case. If the green ooze locks on to you while a Malleable Goo is coming towards you, you’ll take the hit.

    Otherwise, if you’re getting hit by Malleable Goo, you need to learn how to avoid it.

  6. Good write up. Random events are definitely a great way to keep gameplay interesting, but only if they’re random events that players can DO something about.

  7. “It becomes intuitive to the group as a whole for what happens to the danglee across a broad swath of variables.”

    I’m not sure that sentence is grammatically correct, but your verbiage makes me tingle.

    On topic though, randomness is just lazy design. We are talking about WoW players though, for whom collecting poop and dodging bouncing green balls constitutes pure gaming goodness. From a designers point of view, why spend time creating a masterpiece of gameplay when poop and balls keeps them subscribing?

    1. Glad I could tickle your senses. ;)

      “From a designers point of view, why spend time creating a masterpiece of gameplay when poop and balls keeps them subscribing?”

      This made my morning.

  8. What players actually want is not “random”; what players truly want is a bigger flowchart. In the end, every game is nothing but a flowchart of if/then statements for players to run through when deciding on an action.

    This is SOOOOOO wrong. Nobody want a flowchart. Flowcharts aren’t exciting. What players want, is the excitement of figuring it (whatever “it” is) out. You don’t figure out a flowchart, you just follow it. Similarly, you don’t figure out a random bouncing ball.

    Now, if the ball was not simply random, but predictable, it would be interesting… for as long as players don’t learn to predict it.

    So to make raids actually more interesting, devs need to add some random element that creates predictable patterns, but that are (unpredactably) different every time. The first company to invent such a thing (I have no idea if this is even possible) will bring WoW to its knees.

    1. I am not sure you understood the use of flowchart. If you read more carefully, you will see I apply it to how a player decides on actions. My usage of “flowchart” does not narrowly apply to a raid puzzle.

      For example:
      Is the bouncing ball now randomly bouncing towards me? If yes, then move. If no, then don’t move.

      You do seem to understand the gist of my post with your discussion on predictability. Predictable content requires less decision-making so a players internal flowchart will be small (and arguably boring). Unpredictable content, like PvP, requires more decision-making so a players internal flowchart will be large.

      1. Is the bouncing ball now randomly bouncing towards me? If yes, then move. If no, then don’t move.

        There’s no “figuring out” here. This is why random bouncing ball is boring. Yes, you make decisions, but decisions do not matter if there’s no doubt about them.

  9. I think there’s two parts to this. One is understanding that there are different types of randomness. Randomness you like and randomness you don’t and kills you.

    Randomness we like (well, some of us do, sometimes): More or less random loot tables on encounters -and yes, I know I’ll get flak for this, I stand by it. Random, rare mobs appearing on long timers that you happen to come across. Random appearances of environmental effects. Random rare things you find after you tap a resource node. Things like that.

    Randomness we don’t like: Balls that bounce and kill you. Being on the receiving end of a nasty string of crits + healer unable to cope. Crucial weapon misses (although we rationalize this one, is still random and nasty). And so on.

    The randomness we don’t like is tied to the second part, which is: It’s not enough to throw players into situations where randomness is present – are we giving them enough tools to deal with this randomness when it’s not nice?

    And I think the answer is, not all the time. When that nasty randomness overcomes the tools a player has at his disposal to deal with it, that’s when it turns sour and the player rightfully feels the game dealt him an unfair hand.

    To use the bouncing ball example (I don’t know the encounter, but it’s an example): Are players given sufficient notification in advance, however you notify them, that the ball has randomly chosen to land where they are? What happens when it does, is it damage? Insta-kill? What? What’s the time frame for the player decision? Too short and he can’t react, too long and the challenge is trivialized. Can the player keep functioning with his standard M.O. of actions -while- he’s dealing with the randomness (ex., can they shoot/swing/heal while they’re repositioning? etc.)

    I think you don’t see much of this nasty randomness, which, by the way, I think is necessary, because there are too many variables to consider when designing it and implementing it, and to top it off most have the potential to sour players. The solution would be to tone it down; make it easier to deal with, but keep it strictly in nasty territory. That’s an act of balance in itself, but when you set the nasty threshold so high, you naturally end up with only a handful of scenarios where you can introduce nasty randomness and get away with it. That’s why you don’t see it much.

    Keep it nasty, but tone it down, and more possibilities for it to appear open up.

  10. I can’t stand scripted events and I don’t have any desire to “figure things out”.

    What I like is for the mobs to use approximately the same abilities available to the players in a manner analogous to how one would imagine that creature would use them.

    I am absolutely not interested in any way, shape or form in competing either with NPCs with godlike abilities or matching wits against game designers.

    On the other hand I would be entirely happy to have NPCs behave in a much more realistic fashion. For example, if I go through a door in a dungeon and there are 20 orcs in the room and one of them sees me, all 20 should have the immediate option to attack, except for the ones that run to fetch even more, bigger orcs.

    In my opinion, that would provide all the difficulty needed to maintain constant interest.

    1. If you just want mobs that act exactly like players though, why should the designers bother ‘designing’ that- why shouldn’t they just put you against other players? It’d be easier to implement on their part, and way more diverse and challenging for you.

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