Tuesday 28 September 2010

Luck never gives; it only lends

How much randomness do you like in a game? Do you prefer the intellectual cut and thrust of Chess, a domain where Lady Luck holds no thrall, or do you like to test your favour with the gods through the medium of dice in Snakes and Ladders or Ludo (“Fucking Ludo”, to give it its full title)? Perhaps a mix of skill and chance works best, such as in Backgammon or Poker, or KiaSA Industries newest offering: Luda-Chess™. It’s just like normal chess, but you have to roll a 6 before you can move each pawn; all the wacky family fun of Chess with the deep strategy of Ludo!

Greg Costikyan gave a fantastic presentation at GDC Austin last year, “Randomness: Blight or Bane?”, reaching the conclusion “If randomness dictates outcomes, many players will find the game unsatisfying. But there are times when a degree of randomness plays an important, and useful, role in a design.” In MMOGs randomness is sometimes to the fore, typically in loot drops; perhaps pages from a book, or a lovely sword with a 5% chance of dropping from a boss (and a 99% chance of being rolled on by the rest of your party), and much as we might curse Lady Luck’s digitised cyber-counterpart Lady RNG when we miss out on that shiny trinket we still line up for another pull on the mob-lever of the slot machine dungeon. It’s an accepted form of randomness. In the combat that resulted in the loot-piƱata-boss spraying forth his bejewelled intestines there was probably also plenty of randomness going on, in to-hit rolls and damage and crits, but enough rolls over enough time with little enough variance for that not to be the decisive factor in the combat. Maybe you get a bit lucky as a DPS character with a few extra critical rolls to nudge yourself up the damage meters slightly, maybe a tank gets unlucky and doesn’t block as many attacks as they’d normally expect, it keeps things interesting. What you don’t get is a boss who rolls a d6 every ten seconds, on a 6 instantly kills a player and on a 1 accidentally punches himself in the head for 1/6th of his total health; that would be Bad Random.

I’ve been thinking about randomness because I bought Blood Bowl on Steam the other week when it was on sale for less than a fiver. After a few games getting the hang of the rules I’m two games into a league campaign and I’ve decided it’s brilliant and rubbish, an excellent tactical sporting simulation and a foetid pile of badly thought out random goblin droppings. This might have something to do with my triumphant 3-1 victory over an Orc team in the opening game of the season being followed by brutalisation at the hands (and tentacles) of a bunch of Chaos Warriors, much of the difference seeming to come from dice rolls.

Almost everything you do in Blood Bowl, apart from moving, needs a dice roll; attacking other players, moving through tackle zones, throwing and catching the ball, even picking the ball up from the ground. In the first game things went swimmingly, I knocked a couple of his players out of the game quite early, didn’t suffer any serious casualties, and pulled off a couple of lovely moves (if I say so myself) like tackling the opposing ball carrier a few squares out from my endzone, scooping up the loose ball, chucking it down the sideline with a pinpoint pass, and sprinting in to score myself the next turn. The second game I finished with five players on the field, the other six in various states of injury and death, and featured such glorious triumphs as failing to pick the ball up from a kickoff, and an attempt at recreating the sideline pass of great victory from the first game that resulted in the ball squirting out of the thrower’s hand, off the pitch, and coming straight back in the hands of an opposing player. By some miracle the game actually finished in a 1-1 draw, due to the AI opponent either just being rubbish, or more likely properly roleplaying a Chaos coach almost entirely unconcerned with minor points of the game like “the ball”, but with at most eight or nine players available for the next round of the competition, two of those with stat damage from injuries, the longer term prospect don’t look good.

You can buy re-rolls for your team, and certain player skills mitigate dangers by allowing you to re-try or ignore certain results, but at the start of a campaign with a raw team it seems like randomness is the main factor in dictating outcomes. Of course there are strategies and tactics, websites and forums full of them, but with decisions based on a d6 there’s always a significant risk of failure; even a simple action like an agile player picking the ball up with no opposing player anywhere near fails if you roll a one, leading to the best laid plans of Skaven and Men ganging aft agley. This might just be sour grapes after a particularly bad mauling, perhaps I just need to buck my tactics up, and (possibly) excessive dependance on dice rolls apart Blood Bowl is rather fun. I think it could be a different experience against another person, where you could at least gloat over their critical fumble, or curse at their flukey luck if they pull off an improbable long bomb, against a CPU opponent it’s just the random numbers laid bare and maybe a bit of canned commentary.

That rather chimes with something from Keiron Gillen’s Ludo “review”:

“At a core level, especially when played with friends, everything’s fun in multiplayer. Stating the obvious: the most important part of multiplayer is the multiple players. This is where a worrying amount of a multiplayer game’s merit comes from. Is this actually a good game, or are these just good players? By which I mean, not actually anything to do with the commonly accepted idea of whether someone is good at the game – but whether they’re actually good to play with. That’s the only sort of “good player” which ever really matters.”

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