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