"Bad players will never think they can win, and they will stop playing."
"Your game can't thrive if it doesn't have luck."
"You'd be crazy to try and make it a commercial success."Challenge accepted. I guess we're crazy. Of course, it's no secret that there are many benefits to having elements of luck in competitive games. Randomness can create exciting moments for players, alleviate balance issues, and provide losing players with an excuse to avoid feeling bad about their performance. As a design decision, it has become the de facto standard in card games, copied from one game to another throughout the industry. But are luck-based game mechanics the only method of achieving these goals? After four years of struggling over this issue, the answer is finally clear: a resounding NO.
The SecretWhat took us four years to understand is that luck-based game mechanics are not necessary to achieve excitement, balance, or consolement. All of these objectives are reachable through other means, without the player frustration or toxic community behaviour that inevitably arises in games featuring a high amount of randomness. In a nutshell, we've concluded that it's possible to design a compelling competitive game without luck. Possible. Not easy. Not necessarily doable in a manner consistent with the breakneck pace and intolerance of failure that characterizes much of AAA game development. But possible.
Forms of Luck in GamingMost types of uncertainty or variance in competitive gaming fall into one of the following four categories: (1) Absolute Luck Examples: coin flips, die rolls, waiting for the result after going all in pre-flop in poker.
How Luck can FailTo see a key example of where the presence of RNG can have a strongly negative effect on some players' enjoyment of the game, we'll examine Hearthstone. As the Hearthstone metagame has become more fully explored, many strong players have become frustrated at the lack of opportunities for skill expression. Unlike in chess--where the best player in the world is a 91% favourite when playing a single match against the 100th-best player--in Hearthstone, the best player is often only a marginal favourite when playing any reasonably good player with a good deck. Gosugamers reports that popular player Tidesoftime, who is currently ranked 4th in the global ELO rating, has won only 63% of his matches. With that win rate, a player will lose a best-of-five series over a quarter of the time, meaning that most tournaments (televised ones in particular) don't have nearly enough games to have a high likelihood of rewarding the most skilled players. Worst of all, unlike in poker--where a talented player will inevitably see a profit from playing millions of hands over the course of his or her career--skilled Hearthstone players have only a few opportunities each year to do well in a meaningful tournament, where winning requires an enormous amount of luck. Being good isn't enough. Of course, many players insist (rightfully so) that this is how card games typically are--luck is a part of the game. But it's also abundantly clear that at least some fraction of players are very unhappy with the current state of the game. This week, popular streamer Reynad announced he was taking a break from Hearthstone, complaining that the game, in its current state, doesn't reward skill enough. Kripparrian--another renowned gaming celebrity who streams Hearthstone regularly--posted a video of his own in the wake of Reynad's announcement, in which he stated the following:
Kripparrian: In Hearthstone, in constructed, at this time, it's pretty much just about draw RNG, and that really dictates who wins the matches.Gaara, a teammate of Reynad, had similar concerns, which he made clear in a video. Gaara complains that Hearthstone has too many auto-win hands and situations where there is little decision making involved. If the opponent gets a good draw and you don't, there's often very little you can do. For those familiar with Hearthstone, one picture says it all:
Are We Better Off Without Luck?Mark Rosewater, head designer of Magic: The Gathering, has written extensively about the different types of RNG effects found in card games, and their effects on player enjoyment. Though he stresses that most players of card games don't enjoy too much randomness, he also emphasizes several key benefits of RNG: increased surprises and excitement, the ability for losing players to make comebacks, the ability for weaker players to win, and the increase in opportunities for strong players to demonstrate skill by accurately preparing for random events and reacting to them. We'll look at several of these points. In each case, the question we're asking is "can the same effect be obtained without any luck?" Comebacks Mark lists a catch-up feature as the fourth entry on his list of ten things every game needs and describes how the random card draw system in Magic and other card games ensures that players who are behind can always draw a key card required to make a dramatic comeback. However, I think Mark is missing the bigger picture here (he loves to say "every game needs X", where X is a feature that Magic has.) Having talked to our players, we've learned that what they truly want is NOT comebacks. They simply want to avoid being dragged along for many turns in an unwinnable position. Comeback mechanics are one way of achieving this, but not the only way. Let's go back to our "awful zoo hand" from above. If you're in this situation, you're faced with an uncomfortable decision: do you play on, knowing that the chance of winning is likely under 2 percent? Or do you resign, saving yourself some time, but costing yourself a chance to win? Many players choose to play on, unable to resist the urge to eke out every last percentage point of possible winnings. But players who do so seldom have a good experience during the remainder of the game, often just sitting there cursing the RNG gods for dealing them such an awful hand. Another common example can be found in League of Legends, where teams often play on for 20 minutes or more in situations where they have an extremely low probability of winning, but are forced to cling on in hopes that their opponents make enough mistakes for them to catch up:
Just Imagine...Given our understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of luck in card games, let's perform a thought experiment to see what it might be like if we tried to design a card game in which all of the luck was removed. Imagine a game like Hearthstone or Magic: the Gathering where there was no draw phase at all; you simply drew your whole deck on the first turn, and could play any card from your deck as if it were in your hand. Let's call this imaginary game: DeckHand. In DeckHand, there are no mulligans, no bad draws, no RNG, and you can "live the dream" every game. You can always play a perfectly optimized ("on curve") sequence of cards, and you always have access to whichever cards are necessary to deal with whatever your opponent is plotting.
So What About Prismata?Of course, the whole discussion about DeckHand is very much an analogy of some of the struggles we faced in designing Prismata. Prismata is essentially just DeckHand with modified combat rules, and an economy that feels a bit more like a turn-based version of what you'd find in a real-time strategy game. Prismata isn't completely free of RNG, but the only randomness present lies in the random selection of units available for purchase in each game, and the selection of which player goes first. Once the game begins, there is absolutely no luck involved. There is one last point that we didn't address. As I mentioned at the very outset of this article, there was one serious doubt that was much harder to shake:
"Bad players will never think they can win, and they will stop playing."Back when Prismata was our pet project and we were still in school, we never intended for it to be a game for "bad players". We were massively addicted to it and tried quite hard to play well! But before quitting school to work on Prismata full time, we needed to be absolutely sure that players inexperienced with strategy games wouldn't have a bad time. We did several rounds of user testing, and what we discovered was quite astonishing. Despite Prismata having no randomness, beginners who lost actually thought they were unlucky. As it turned out, beginners had not formulated any concrete strategies when deciding which units to buy, and had just chosen some at random. If their units happened to be strong against whatever their opponent chose, they would win. If not, they would lose. And they didn't blame themselves for losing, because they had just chosen randomly. The best explanation that I have for this phenomenon is that it exemplifies a fifth type of luck in games: (5) Outcome Uncertainty Examples: strategy games, in which players choose a strategy without knowing whether it will work. Outcome uncertainty is sometimes called opaqueness luck as it refers to situations in which the final outcome of a choice is not visible to players, even though it may be deterministic. A quick example would be a contest in which the goal is to guess the closest date to a chosen person's birthday. Such a contest involves no RNG in any sense, but to the participants, the results are essentially random. Opaqueness luck is not unique to beginners; in fact, much of the variance in performance among chess grandmasters can be attributed to it. Strong chess players may make a move thinking, "this is probably good for white", but they seldom know for sure. As it turns out, opaqueness is the key source of luck in games like Prismata. With a near-infinite number of possible combinations of initial configurations, games of Prismata present limitless opportunities for players to be placed in unfamiliar situations. While still learning the game, beginners often buy the wrong thing and lose. Frequently, they develop a favourite unit as a result of getting lucky with it, and then continually purchase that unit whenever it's available, regardless of whether a unit countering it can be bought by their opponents. Confronted with a loss, they actually tend to blame the RNG for providing their opponent with a counter to their favourite unit. In any case, I'm now wholeheartedly convinced that strategy game players will never change. Despite our best efforts to make a luck-free game, there will still be threads in which people claim that going second is OP, or whine that the randomly generated card sets are rigged, or complain that there are too many whiners. In the end, such discussions are a healthy part of most strategy game communities, as excuses help protect players' egos. However, we think players are good enough at coming up with excuses on their own, so we've come down firmly against the idea of adding more randomness for its own sake. Instead, our highest priority (on top of creating an enjoyable game) is to provide a quality matchmaking service guaranteeing that our players genuinely have a 50% chance of winning. That should be enough to keep them happy. Or so I hope.