Tag Archives: Random

Is this going to improve the game? – A Design Question

“If someone says, ‘It would be cool if…’ tie them up and throw them in a closet until the game is done.”

That might be a bit of a harsh reaction, but if there is one thing I have learned in video game design it is this: ALWAYS CRITIQUE YOUR WORK.

Is this thing you are doing, this choice you are making, is it *vitally* important to the game. Will it make the game better as well as not break or make the game worse?

Let’s look at a few examples:

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, I worked on the Darklight Crypt expansion. One of the things I chose to do early was have a “boss” fight at the end. Most of the other levels, if they had bosses, they were against Kaos, and all done by another designer. But Darklight Crypt was an adventure pack level, meaning the user would have to spend extra money to get the toy for it to unlock the level. The theme was dark and very haunted crypt castle kind of place. So the boss I created ended up being a huge eyeball.

Queue the jokes. “I see you!” The boss would shout and kids would burst into fits of giggles. Was the boss fight the best? Nope. It was a super simple push the button to make the boss vulnerable and then hit him with the big guns, repeat three times, and win. The fight wasn’t the reason to include it. The ability to cleanly mark the end of the level with a climatic moment was. The addition of a bad guy the player could see and interact with was pretty important too. The humor that tagged along turned out to be vital to the level as well, but at the time we didn’t know that would happen.

The inclusion of the boss was risky. I was new to the project and studio. The fight was a complex bit of scripting. There were a dozen things that could have gone wrong. There was bad choices made within the fight (locking out players from using two cannons at once). BUT in the end, we can see that it added so much of the heart and character to the level, it wouldn’t be the same without it. When I suggested putting it in, I made these arguments for it: It makes the level feel different from the main game, with a boss fight at the end. It gives the player a firm target and goal, that is clear from the beginning of the level. It wouldn’t detract from the level, because it would give it a climatic moment and would be very simple for the player to understand.

I think, for the most part, it was successful. One thing that we did fail on, and learned our lesson, was using the main mechanic of the level, switching worlds, in the boss fight. Occulus, while awesome on so many levels (did you notice after him, there comes Eyebrawl?) didn’t fit within the switching mechanic of the level well. I shoehorned some switching in, but it felt out of place. In Giants, we did this MUCH better with the boss at the end of Wilikins Isle, the new switching level. I worked with the designer who did the boss fight to make sure that it incorporated switching in an organic way. Of course, it helped that before I ever suggested it, I knew he was an Ikaruga fan. It made it very easy to convince him.

So why is this so important?

Because not every game can patch out their problems. You have to put every design decision under the microscope. Think about the player and how they are going to have to deal with each decision you make.

Another example:

World of Warcraft recently added pet battles. All the minipets crazy people (like myself) had been collecting as pure vanity items suddenly became the source of gameplay. They essentially turned pets into Pokemon, complete with elemental affinities and weaknesses. Pet battles is an amazing feature, that needs a great deal of polish. Deciding what parts need polishing becomes very clear the minute each decision has to be defended.

One of the major things to do as a pet battler is go out and fight Trainers. Much like Pokemon, these are NPCs that have a team of their own, that you, as a player can challenge and beat for rewards. One design decision, that looks good on paper, is that the early trainers have set orders to their team. The order that their pets fight in is always the same. This allows the player to start off on a good foot, by stacking their first pet against the trainer’s pet. As the trainers level though, their pets begin to appear in a semi random order. Meaning that they will choose to use one of two of their pets seemingly randomly at the beginning of battle. I know, I hate random. But in this case, it is clearly worthless.

Let’s say I go up against a trainer that can bring out either a critter or a dragon first. Well clearly, I want to stack my first pet to be against one of these two. So I pull out my humanoid, who is strong versus dragons. I initiate the battle. The trainer brings out their critter. I could, and it is clearly designed that I should, switch pets, forfeiting one turn to the trainer, to have my strong pet out. BUT they allowed us to forfeit the fight entirely, with no punishment for doing so. So instead, I just forfeit, then re-initiate the fight. Repeat until the trainer brings out her dragon first, then battle away. Sound tedious? OH IT IS.

At this point, the designer should defend their decisions. They have made two. 1. That pet trainers should pull out pets randomly. 2. That forfeiting costs the player nothing. First, look at the source design, Pokemon. In Pokemon, the trainers always use their Pokemon in a set order (also generally having a team with nearly all the same elements). Also, if the player wants to quit a fight… they have to lose all their Pokemon. So there is a conflict with the source design on both points.

Which feature makes the game better? If you could only have ONE, which one would you chose: Random pet order or forfeiting? I choose forfeiting. It’s never very fun to realize that your entire team is all wrong and then just have to suffer through being bludgeoned to death so you can try again.

So what about the random pet order? Well, defend it. 1. Does it improve the game? The argument could be made that it makes the fights more challenging. 2. Does it break or make the game worse? The ability to forfeit negates the challenge introduced in point 1, and the constant cycling to try and get the “correct” pet up first makes it tedious, so yes, it makes the game worse.

At this point, CUT IT. Rip it out. Not only are the battles less tedious, but also they make the fights easier on the players. If there is a need for challenge, do that in the numbers with a systems designer, or have the trainers use more “dual affinity” pets (like dragonkin who use all magic abilities, super tricky!). It takes some of the randomness out, and improves the flow of the mini-game. Designed is always better than random.

Unfortunately, according to patch notes, Blizzard has already decided to create a punishment for forfeiting. Now each of the pets on your team will take some small amount of damage when forfeiting. So rather than streamlining the game, they left the tedious part in, but increased the time it takes to get past it. NOW players will forfeit, then wait for the 8 minute timer on the ability to heal their pets to come up, heal the pets and try again. Or they will just stop fighting the trainers completely. (In explanation, they will not just switch out pets, because the high level trainers are so tightly tuned that even one miss or dodged attack can lead to the player losing even WITH the first pet being stacked to win.)

No design decision should be made without first asking, “Does this make the game better, without making anything worse?” Would the game be better without this feature?

Once the game is shipped, the players will see it, and rip it apart. They won’t ever know about the features that were cut or didn’t make it in their original state, but they will see the broken or bad features that are present.


Diablo 3 – Random Returns for Vengence

I have always been perfectly upfront about how I feel about using Random as a game design tool.

To catch anyone new up: I hate it. I think it is a terrible idea. It’s a terrible crutch.

The entire point of a designer is to sculpt the experience for the player. To create the world for them to interact with. To make something amazing for the player to play in. Using random takes the control away from the designer and puts it in the hands of a program.

So by this extension, I wouldn’t even try Diablo. It’s a randomly generated world, with randomly generated enemies, with randomly generated loot. Good lord, it’s a trifecta of bad random. But I love Blizzard and I had fun playing the beta, so I knew I would play the game.

How does Diablo 3’s randomness make me feel? Like I was right all along.

1. The Problem with Randomly generated gameplay spaces.

First off, Diablo 3 doesn’t use randomly generated levels everywhere. And to be fair, their code is much better at creating spaces than it was in Diablo 2.

BUT. Diablo 3’s random maps all suffer from the same problem: Jogging simulation. If you don’t head the right direction, and there are a bunch of branches in the path, you can and will find yourself backtracking over huge portions of terrain. For a game that is all about fast paced action and demon slaughtering, this leads to some very boring lengths of time in the middle of your fun.

Even worse is when you have these huge sprawling dungeons, where the named enemy you are supposed to be killing spawns three rooms over from the chest of loot. Way to protect your treasure man.


2. Random Enemies – oh god or yawn.

The idea behind the enemies sounds good. Each enemy has a modifier. Vortex, Frozen, etc etc. The idea is that when an enemy gets created, it has 2-4 of these modifiers which gives it abilities and makes it more interesting.

A good idea, in theory. But in practice shows the painful problem with random modifiers like that. Some modifiers aren’t that scary or dangerous to the player. Many are extremely dangerous to the player just by themselves. If you get a monster with two of the weak powers, they are a one finger pushover, almost on par with standard enemies. If you get one with 2 of the powerful modifiers, you are toast.

Add this to the random placement of enemies, in randomly generated terrain, and you get serious gameplay problems. I zoned into a basement area, that had an enemy with the modifier that lets him freeze me in place, and the modifier that lets him create arcane orbs that generate a beam of death that moves in a circle. Both of these abilities are combated by moving away from them and kiting the bad guy. But I was in a basement. Not only that, the boss’ trash mobs with him managed to corner me and block me from moving at all. I got thrashed repeatedly, because I couldn’t even get far enough into the room to not be completely surrounded and have collision preventing me from moving away from the stuff I knew was bad and I shouldn’t be standing in.


3. Random Loot – Good thing we have the auction house.

I have a level 42 Wizard in Act 3 of Nightmare. I search every corner, every dungeon, kill every enemy. I pick everything up. I just bought the third tab of my stash. I like to loot.

Over the course of the game, I have probably gotten 40-50 rares. Of all these rares, I have been able to equip about 5 of them. Only one actually had stats that made me want to equip it. I haven’t equipped a drop since I was level 15.

I get all my gear from the Auction House. Period. I sell things I get that are decent, but I can’t use, and I buy things I can use.

If not for the auction house, I would be sitting around farming some boss or other hoping for rares. Only 1 in 50 of which I will be able to use.

Boy, that sounds like fun. (Or not so much.)

Would it really change the game that much to have the rares at the very least be ones I can equip on that character? Even then you have the second random of it getting stats you want/need, but must we double roll to get anything? Actually, triple roll, because not all bosses drop rares all the time!

To recap: The boss has to drop a rare, which might not happen, you have to be able to equip the rare, which might not happen, and then the rare has to have useful stats on it, which my wands with strength on them prove doesn’t happen. Yay. This is fun. *said in Simon voice*


I get that all of this is kind of the “point” of Diablo. That’s the base of the design. But really, it just means that here I am, in Nightmare, already sick of the game. Already ready to go back to WoW, where at least I am fairly certain a boss will drop something useful, even if I can’t use it.

I feel that there is a possibility for a Diablo like game (in the base game play idea) that doesn’t rely on random or at the very least mitigates the negatives of using random. Loot may be randomized, but at least have logical limits placed on them. (Like all wands have to have Int and Vit, but the secondary stats, and the amount of the primary stat can be random. Also guarantee that at least 1 rare item off each boss is equip-able by the character playing, though in multiplayer this could be any one of the characters playing.) Monsters may be randomized, but their powers weighted, so you never have an enemy with more than a 10 difficulty rating and then you give all the worst powers a 6 so they never appear together. Levels shouldn’t be randomized. I mean honestly. Use modular pieces, and throw something together. Anything designed by a person will be better than a computer.

It’s worth a shot huh?

Random the Third

Time spent leveling to 85? Three days. Time spent grinding dungeons to have enough gear for heroics? Four days. Time spent grinding heroics to get enough gear for raids? Two weeks. Time spent learning a single boss in a raid and finally downing him? Two weeks.

Finally downing a boss only to have him drop THREE pairs of plate tanking boots? When you have a single BEAR tank? Skull bashing frustrating.

Random is not fun. I have said it before and I will say it again.

So if random is so terrible, why is it used so WIDLY in Massively Multiplayer games? It is an archaic and ancient method used by designers to increase difficulty, include “surprise”, and artifically inflate playtime.

My Issues with Random Drops in WoW:

1. Random is a complex idea, frequently misunderstood.

Casinos are completely based on the misunderstanding of random. People pay money into a slot machine believing they will eventually hit the number needed to win.

I frequently have to explain the difference between random chance and probability to players. So why stick to this misunderstood random? We are not trying to con players out of their money. If they are playing, we already have their money. If the general group of players don’t understand random then when they hit a bad streak they will feel a sense of betrayal, like the game is cheating. Or that the game “hates” them. One of a designers common issues is how to match player expectation with what is happening in the game. Why not remove this and instead put in a progressive random, or a even a weighted random that takes into account the player’s time and dedication to the task? This falls in line with player expectation.

2. Random is not fair.

Quell the urge to say life isn’t fair. Games are not meant to parrot life. Even the Sims did not stay true to life. When the player is competing against an AI or the game there is no reason not to be fair. It has a dedication to be fun. I don’t want to endlessly make futile attempts at something while watching another player succeed with seeming ease. This creates a stepping away point, where player one says, “Screw this, I can go play a better game.”

In a game where the acquisition of the newest thing is the goal and success identifier, the player who gives the greatest amount of effort should be rewarded first. If a player spends all their time focused on a single goal, and then spends a great deal of time, proving their dedication, shouldn’t they be rewarded, as opposed to someone who accidentally stumbles on it through a mathematical coin toss?

3. Removal of Random allows the experience to be defined.

If we remove the random element we can truly design the experience the player has. We take control over the fun and can tailor it to be precisely what we want for that point in the game. Also this allow a definable goal or time line to completion. The player knows how long they will be at a task.

The ability to determine the length of time allows the player to set goals and builds excitement towards the reward. As a player gets closer to a reward, they work harder, faster, and more diligently to get closer to it. As I near the required number of badges to buy an item I am far more likely to persist and keep coming back every day to get my daily dungeon done.

4. The inflation of time is unnecessary.

Portal proved a game doesn’t have to be long to worth it’s cost. I would even go so far as to say Portal is so exceptional because it’s experience is so cunningly condensed into it’s purest form then spread over an appropriate amount of time. As the industry gets better at making games, there are more games worth the time to play. But our time is limited. We don’t need artificial inflation of time to keep the player playing. Make each experience engaging and worth the time spent to play it.

In MMOs, it is all about keeping the player playing and thus paying. Interestingly, using rng to artificially inflate the playtime of the game actually drives possible customers away. It also makes the game stale for older customers. If I got 1k gold for every time a friend of mine quit playing WoW because they just didn’t feel like doing the grind any more, I could open my own gold selling business.

The interesting thing is seeing people who will grind on a dungeon for an item for 2 or 3 weeks and never get it. They invariably cancel their account and then return at a later date, only to get stuck in the same situation. I also see where people reach this point of frustration, get convinced to run it one more time, and then get the item, at this point their interest is renewed.

5. Blizzard is ALREADY combating this problem, just not consistently.

One of the big themes that was beat into us at the Guildhall was make your design decision consistent. If you can’t do x in the game, that’s fine. Explain it, and go on, but don’t change the rules, without re-teaching the player. If a barrel that explodes is red, it needs to be red the whole game. You can’t change it to blue without telling the player and giving them a reason why.

Blizzard already has a progressive random integrated for their quest items. They already use badges, crafting, and reputation rewards as partial backup for bad drops. They just need to make it consistent across the board.

There is no reason to cling to this outdated design idea. The difficulty should come from challenges, not in gearing. The surprise comes from new experiences, new raids, new classes, and maybe getting that item early. With the sheer size and scope of classes, raids, professions, dailies, quests, achievements, and even pvp, there is no reason to artificially inflate the playtime. The play time on WoW is already insanely high and they add new content every few months. Even with tweaks to speed old content, there is still more here than a standard player could ever hope to experience. So why not at least give them the chance to see more of it?

It may take a bit more code and a bit more design thought, but doing away with rng would also make a better game. And isn’t that our goal as designers?

That’s why they are called “heroic”

The great race began at midnight, then barreled on into Tuesday morning. Camping spawns, blitzing from zone to zone, barely reading quest text. All in the hope to be 85 as soon as possible. Of course, it isn’t just getting to 85, it’s all about the epics. Those lovely purple items that make a character so powerful and makes them truly feel like a Hero. This means getting what gear is available and running dungeons until the player’s eyes bleed. In true Blizzard fashion, dungeons come in two flavors, Regular and Heroic. Heroics drop better gear and points which can be exchanged for gear.

In Wrath, many players complained that Blizzard went too far into the “welfare” epics. Implying that by having an epic item drop off the last boss of a heroic instance, allowing players to buy epics with badges dropped from heroics, and having “major patch” dungeons drop the mid level of epic, they had made epics less awesome and amazing.

First off, the belief that something in the game is “rare” or “special” is a fallacy. Nothing is difficult to get, provided sufficient time and persistence. Want all ICC 25 gear? Join a guild that has ICC 25 on farm and show up every run. Want Kingslayer? It was sold on many servers for less than 10k gold. Also rarity in this game is completely relative. Take the Celestial Steed and Rivendare’s Deathcharger for instance. The Celestial Steed is obtained from the Blizzard Pet store for $25. Rivendare’s Deathcharger is a notoriously low drop rate mount from Stratholm. The average number of Stratholm runs to get the mount is 100. Most players give up after about 20, especially since it is not a guaranteed drop after 100 runs. Pinecone of Echo Isles will point to his 242 runs to acquire this mount as proof of the vileness of the RNG. (Random Number Generator.) Logic dictates that the Celestial Steed then would be more common, thus less rare than the Deathcharger’s Reins. Over the entirety of the game, this is likely true.

However, the player base is split across four regions, hundreds of servers, and two factions. So in reality, the rarity of something in relation to a player is really only drawing from a few thousand players at most. In Booze Hounds, of Echo Isles, the Celestial Steed was dubbed “too expensive” for many of the adult players with children. To that end, only 4 of the guild members had the purchasable mount. In contrast, many of these same players were completely willing to spend downtime in the game farming Stratholm, and as a result there were no less than 8 of Rivendare’s coveted mount. In this small sample the Celestial Steed was more rare than the Deathcharger, despite the ease of acquiring it. In the end, when playing WoW, it doesn’t matter what the entirety of the game has, it matters what you, as a player has and the people you play with (generally your guild). The rarity is relative. Was Kingslayer rare? Not in BH, where nearly everyone, including a few alts had the title.

Now, having explained this odd view of rarity, back to the epics.

In Cataclysm, Blizzard returned to the “older” way of thinking. Epics no longer drop in Dungeons, Heroic or otherwise. Epics can no longer be purchased with badges (though likely this will change when the second raid tier is implemented). And Heroics are… frustratingly difficult. The key word is frustrating. Something can be difficult or challenging, but not be frustrating. In the Lich King fight, Defiles made the battle difficult, as the players have to spread out at just the right time, in the proper fashion to prevent chaining the effect. A challenge, with 10 people, but if the effect did chain, everyone knew why. It was obvious.

Heroic Deadmines presents a boss, Admiral Ripsnarl, who spawns adds after he reaches 75% health. These adds have 60k health and must be killed within a few seconds or they double in size and health. If they double 3 times, they explode, wiping the group. Logically, the dps roles all turn and burn these adds down as quickly as possible. When attempting this with my dungeon group we repeatedly failed miserably. In an attempt to understand what was happening, I looked at the various people in our group. Every single member was over the 329 item level required to queue for heroics. Most members were even up in the 340 item level range, in addition to 3 people having the achievement for Cataclysmic Superiority, meaning all of their gear is the blue level to start this expansion. We were a full guild group, with vent, and understood the mechanics of the fight, but it was very clearly beyond our ability. It’s possible we needed more burst dps (with 2 warlocks, we were in the killing things slowly but surely) but hasn’t Blizzard’s motto been “Bring the Player not the Class”? Our tank was well geared, even gemmed and enchanted. Our healer was well geared and healing efficiently. All our dps was doing 10k+. It felt absurd that we couldn’t take this boss down.

The frustration of this fight ruined the night. There was no explanation for why we failed. Everyone was geared at the level the game said we should be. Everyone was playing efficiently, avoiding damage, and fulling their role. This lead me to one conclusion. Either the gear requirements were “off” or the boss was. The boss needed a nerf, or the item level required to queue for the dungeon needed to be higher. With a well coordinated group, on vent, well balanced, we should have been able to succeed with minimal wipes. According to Wowhead, Ripsnarl is a gear check. Does your group have the gear needed to succeed. Blizzard said yes, the boss said no. The inconsistency needs to be addressed.

I don’t think heroics should be easy, I do think they need to be doable, with an understanding of why you fail. I do think that the gear required needs to be clear. In Wrath, a stair stepped gear requirement for harder instances was implemented and understood. Perhaps they need to revisit it for Cataclysm. The worst part was, when someone pointed out that we were wiping more than we had in Heroic Raids in Wrath. And even so, we weren’t fighting for Epics, we were fighting for blues… The group almost immediately fell apart due to the morale dive bomb. Say what you will about Wrath welfare epics… At least the game was fun and I didn’t go to bed more bummed than when I started playing that night.