Friday, February 13, 2009

Randomness and the Black Swan in RPGS(Part 1.5)

Before looking at the random generation of game content in Part 2, I want to elaborate on a point made in Part 1 concerning combat mechanics: "The point of this comparison is that predictability isn't necessarily more fun because it is "balanced", sometimes it is just boring. And if it would be boring in a pen and paper game, then fundamentally, it is probably still boring electronically. It is just dressed up in a such a way that people put up with it."

Admittedly, I glossed over all the elements which can compensate for predictability in a electronic RPG's combat system. For one, the game can require the player to manage an assortment of abilities/skills in a real-time situation where tactical decisions must be made quickly and the player has to adapt to evolving situations. This is the approach taken by most MMORPGs, and some, like World of Warcraft, do it well. I still argue that too much predictability is a negative, though. Few encounters in such a system are unique and there is a very clear delineation between encounters the player can handle and encounters he can't. It is common for a player to find himself in a situation where if he draws/lures one enemy he will win fairly easily, but if he draws two he will die. This type of certainty reduces the depth of decision making. The challenge is moved firmly into the realm of player execution.

Interestingly, Final Fantasy 12, which I used as an example of predictable combat, seems to recognize that its base combat mechanics aren't very interesting on their own. Recognizing that the opportunities for complex decision-making in Final Fantasy combat are fairly rare, the developers automated the system. The combat in Final Fantasy 12 plays out in real-time according to simple, player-assigned AI rules controlling each character's actions. The player can pause the action and intervene if necessary, but this is rarely required outside of boss battles. Instead, the player takes satisfaction from tweaking his party's AI until it is as self-sufficient as possible.

The lead developer of Battle for Wesnoth, an open source turn-based strategy game, explains why his game has a substantial random element in its combat mechanics here. He makes a number of excellent points that apply just as well to role-playing games:

In Wesnoth we want a player to plan out a complex situation, to estimate carefully the possibilities. To have to work out a good strategy. If a player can simply rely on all sorts of assurances that their units will hit, they don't have to do any of this. Sure, there will be a certain amount of fun to planning out a situation where you can set up a cool 'domino effect' of enemy units going down as you attack them. But this is nothing to do with the skill of planning out a real strategy in a dynamic situation where you have to consider all kinds of contingencies.


Trying to "slide down the scale" of luck would simply make Wesnoth less interesting, in my view. Suddenly the difference between a two attack unit and a four attack unit would be trifling instead of critical. Not near as much planning would be necessary. Simply, in my view, Wesnoth would become less fun.

The point I want to make in this post is that although predictability can be compensated for, especially if the combat system plays out in real-time, an infusion of unpredictability into the system can make it even more interesting.

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