Ahhh, luck – that mysterious, oft-fickle force which evokes so much glee or misery. There’s no consensus opinion among players on whether luck and randomness enhances the gaming experience or detracts from it. From a designer’s perspective luck is neither intrinsically good nor bad. Because the collective gaming audience has such broad tastes a game can easily live one end of the spectrum and be completely deterministic or it can fall at the other extreme and be almost entire based on chance and either way still appeal to a vast number of people. While this does mean a game will find fans no matter how much or little it relies on luck, careful analysis must be done to guarantee the effect of luck is actually what the designers had in mind. In this article I’ll examine what “luck” means in the context of design, as well as a few common applications of it and what these do for a game.
What is Luck?
Before investigating what luck does, we first have to establish what it is. In a broad sense, luck fits under the larger umbrella of randomness, but for this article I’m going to focus on luck simply in the traditional sense of “having good luck” or “having bad luck.” This narrow focus still leaves us with plenty of material to cover, and none of us want this to end up being twenty pages long.
When faced with a situation with an unpredictable outcome, all of us will formulate some idea of what the ‘average’ result should be. “Luck” in the game design universe is when the actual results differ from these expectations due to forces outside of the control of the players. You might consider it ‘bad luck’ if you’re playing rock-paper-scissors and you choose scissors, while your opponent chooses rock, but your defeat was the result of the choices made by you and your opponent rather than the game itself. The only luck we as designers should worry about is when they’re an element no one controls – things like rolling dice or drawing a card from a shuffled deck. AI opponents in computer games are a tricky grey area because, technically, they’re just another system that lives outside of the player’s influence – but there’s a lot more to dig into with this topic so I’ll save that for another day.
Before digging into too much detail, let’s use combat damage as a simple example of what good and bad luck can look like in a game. You’re in control of a melee fighter in an RPG. We’ll say that your basic sword attack does, on average, 10 damage. If you did exactly 10 damage with it you’d say “yep, makes sense.” Obviously no luck involved there – the results matched the expectations perfectly. On the other hand, if you did 15 damage that would be ‘good luck’ and if you did only 5 that would be ‘bad luck’. Your actions might be guided by the perfect strategy, or maybe an absolutely stupid one (I’m going to first hit him with attack A, then finish him off with attack B!), but once you’ve pressed the button to attack the ultimate outcome leaves your control and enters the realm of luck.
Now that we have a established what luck is, our next task is to identify its purpose. The main effect luck has is to add suspense. This can be ‘good’ suspense (“I wonder what’s behind prize door number one… oh wow, now that’s awesome!”) or it can be ‘bad’ suspense (“Man, if I don’t roll a six here it’s all over…”). The moment when you’re anticipating the next card to be flipped over can be incredibly tense. The game which has always stressed me out the most is poker. While a big part of the suspense offered in that game is not knowing what cards your opponents have in their hand, there’s also a significant element of luck – you or your opponent might be holding pocket aces and lose to a 7-2, or you could be sitting on an extremely poor hand and have only a single out in the entire deck but still miraculously hit it.
So what does Luck do?
As noted above, players have very different feelings towards luck. Highly competitive gamers, in general, tend to hate any form of randomness because this sometimes leads to less skilled players winning. If you ask hardcore Magic the Gathering players what they think of the possibility of being “mana screwed” (where, due to bad luck, you don’t draw enough land cards to cast your spells) – nearly all of them will say they hate it.
At the other extreme, very casual players often enjoy games with a great deal of luck. Many won’t actually come out and say “I really like games that are completely random!” but whether they realize it or not, luck is usually taking their side behind the scenes. Players that are significantly less experienced or talented will find it nearly impossible to win games that are entirely skill-based. Very few of us would keep at it if we played 10 games against someone and were utterly destroyed in all 10. The mere luck of the draw in Magic will often lead to a complete newbie winning at least a couple of those games. This is one of the most significant reasons why Magic is constantly being revitalized with new blood, and why you can’t really say the same about chess.
Another way luck appeals to casual players is that it offers interesting surprises. If you’re not going to bother playing a game 50 or 100 times and master it, a few random wacky events help make a game more memorable. The reality is that most people only play a game a handful of times, and for this audience the fact that a game is well-balanced or highly skill-based is completely irrelevant.
One of my own experiences that serves as a good example of luck making a game memorable is one time I played the Settlers of Catan tabletop game. For those of you unfamiliar with it, dice are rolled at the start of every turn to see what resources players collect for that round. Each player has ‘ownership’ over a couple dice result combinations, and the luck tends to even out over time. However, in this particular game I went 17 (yes, seventeen) turns without getting anything. That, my friends, is the definition of bad luck. Someone did the math and I think the odds of that happening were so low I could have won the lottery a few times and been less ‘lucky.’ While I certainly wasn’t happy with Catan at the time, I’ll certainly never forget that experience, and I’m now glad to have such a ridiculous memory to share with friends. On the other hand, had that particular game been during the GenCon Masters Tournament I probably wouldn’t be laughing about it now!
The types of surprises which appeal to casual players can also be less dramatic. For example, in a game like Civilization a tribal village (aka “goody hut”) could occasionally surprise the player by giving a much larger payout than usual. This kind of bonus will excite some, but the more hardcore will often find something like this imbalancing. Neither approach is inherently right or wrong – it simply comes down to what the designer’s goals and priorities are.
Common Applications of Luck
One of the most prevalent uses of luck in games is when dishing out rewards. When players open up a treasure chest, they often wonder what’s inside. Will it be more boring money? Will it be a potion I can use? Will it be something awesome this time? The possibility of lucky results can tickle an almost gambling-like part of the brain.
A very polarizing mechanic that leans heavily on luck is the “grind in order to hit the miniscule chance of getting something really awesome” that many players are familiar with. For some, this ‘works’ and they might even call it fun. The tiny probability of finding a rare Pokemon, or getting an uber-epic loot drop in name-your-Blizzard-game is a major reason why those games have such a large and dedicated following. But the downside of this mechanic is the brain-dead grinding necessary to earn your shot at the big payout. While I can’t claim to have never played or enjoyed these games, one would be hard-pressed to claim that it’s actually good design and not just psychological manipulation. The only reason rewards of this sort are so satisfying is because they required spending an hour (or fifty) doing something unfun – it wouldn’t be nearly the same if it only took three tries.
In many games, combat is one of the places where luck is most on-display. Earlier in the article we looked at a simple example of randomized damage. In general, a large variance in damage reduces the value of strategy, while systems with a very small variance are vulnerable to being reduced to a simple formula – “I do move X, then two Ys to kill this type of enemy.” Games with a deep combat system can minimize this tendency, but doing so effectively is a very difficult achievement. Most games are best-suited for the middle ground which avoids the problems found at the extremes.
Critical hits are another way combat in games use luck to spice things up. It can be exciting to do a bunch of extra damage when you only have a 1-10% chance of doing so. However, if this likelihood creeps much above that range players will come to expect a critical hit and be disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Something else for designers to keep in mind is that while landing a critical hit on an enemy is awesome, being at the receiving end of one is not nearly as gratifying. A game can strive to be completely ‘fair’ and subject human and AI to the same rules, but developers less dedicated to that noble pursuit might consider ‘fudging’ things a bit. The only place “fun” really exists is in the player’s head, after all.
The final application of luck I’ll talk about is the player’s access to resources. A “resource” in this sense can be anything from an actual source of iron on a map to the amount of mana in your opening hand of Magic. It’s simply the stuff players must obtain in order to unlock certain actions. Luck of this type is most often confined to the strategy genre – the environments in other types of games like shooters and RPGs tend to be mostly static. The purpose of applying luck with resources is usually either to force players to adapt (“hmmm, no iron… I suppose I should play for science instead”), to marginalize ‘perfect’ strategies that can unhinge a game (just imagine what Magic would be like if you could order the deck in any way you like!), or simply to provide variety. Randomized maps fill this role superbly and there’s a lot more to discuss with them, but I’ll save that for another article!
Luck can make a game beloved or reviled. Designers should ponder not only “how much luck is there in my game?” but also “how is luck used in my game?” Luck is a major force in shaping players’ experiences, and we have to ensure we’re using it, instead of letting luck take the wheel and send our games to places we don’t want to go. As with everything in design, we must maintain a clear focus on the goals we’ve laid down and ensure the systems we craft don’t betray our intentions.