Tuesday, May 17

On Chance

Sorry, been busy for a couple weeks here, moving and job searching in my summer home and whatnot.  It has given me some good time to ponder a new topic, and I think I like this one quite a bit.  It may end up a little longer than usual, so bear with me if you can.
Let’s start out with a game comparison.  Two games for the Game Boy Advance: Final Fantasy: Tactics Advance and Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones.  Both are turn based strategy/RPG games, though there are obviously a large number of differences between them.  In both, a display window will open when you decide to attack indicating your chance to hit and probable damage.  These are certainly a good indicator for the player, and despite their implementation, have never thrown me out of the experience because I’ve always loved to feel like a general making calculated decisions in an epic war.  Here’s where the most important difference lies: If FF:TA says the character will deal 12 damage, that character could deal anywhere from 6-18 damage, but if in FE:SS the display says 12 damage, the character will always deal 12 damage.
Still awesome, play it.
There is a fundamental flaw in what Tactics is attempting to do with this display and the actual specifics of the attacks that are dealt.  Surly, the purpose of the display window is to allows the player to think their attacks through and understand the effectiveness of their strategies.  But the unreliability of the information hurts that immensely.  As Yahtzee put it “… when you put random chance into combat mechanics, all strategy has been thrown out the window, then scraped off the ground and used to pick up the broken glass.”
So we reach the meat of the article: the presentation of chance.  I don’t mean things like the chance of you understanding a puzzle or the chance of hitting a hammer-on in Guitar Hero VS Rock Band.  No, what I’m talking about are the chances players depend on.  You won’t see this in all genres.  A grenade is never a dud in Modern Warfare, for example.  The place I find this is most visible, and most prevalent, is board games.  Try to remember the board games you’ve played before: Trouble, Life, Candyland, there was no skill involved in those games, you were at the mercy of the dice (or spinner), almost entirely.
I don’t believe this should be the case, in board games or videogames.  Now, in board games it’s generally a multiplayer affair, which makes in more difficult to balance among four players without relying on chance.  I’m working on a board game right now, and it’s very difficult to even out every player without relying on chance.  So far, I think the best strategy I’ve found is to give the players the option of chance, to allow them their risks, but also make sure they have set numbers they can control more or fall back on.  This may sound quite complicated and yes, it will never be as easy as Life or Candyland was, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn or play smoothly.  The key is “Easy to learn, hard to master.”  That rule does not apply to itself.
But lets look at chance in video games a little more.  How about Mario Party?  I think that link sums up what a lot of people think about it.  I was once playing a game of Mario Party 8 (don’t do it) with some friends, one of whom was becoming incredibly angry because he felt like the rolls of his die were screwing him over at every turn.  he would lose all his coins, miss the star, fall on the red spaces, and so on.  He was swearing and sweating and just generally pissed off with the whole game.  Then the ending came and the game decided to give all three bonus stars to him, and so he won the round.  But he still wasn’t happy because he never felt like he did anything that made him win, and that becomes the important thing about chance.
It may be awesome, but it's in no way your fault.
If you’ve played Dungeons & Dragons, you can surly understand the fun of roll a natural 20, or the disgrace in rolling a natural 1.  It’s fun, and yet entirely based on chance, isn’t it?  No, because you can affect the outcome.  As long as a player has influence over their character and abilities, you can be fairly assured they will be more satisfied with their experience.
So, to go back to FF:TA, is it necessarily unsatisfying for its random aspects?  A little.  When it means the difference between a kill and another round, the chance has misled too far, especially in a game all about the tactics and strategy.  You have to understand the level of precision the players expect from the style of game and cater to that as you can.  The best games and board games are ones that understand the chances the players need to take, and implement them in ways that pray wonderfully on the player’s emotions or on tactical thinking.  A great example exists in the Battlestar Galactica board game, where the goal can be reached more quickly at the possible loss of vital resources.  Do you give your enemies the upper hand for a chance at nearing the end of the game and victory?  It’s a hard decision to make, especially when one of your allies isn’t an ally at all (Hint: Play it).
So at the end of the day, chance, like everything else, has its place, but it must be carefully applied.  In video games, it tends to need to be more behind the scenes so players don’t notice it, and in board games it’s the carefully applied unsure nature of equality, the element that gives hope to that one Risk soldier against an army of ten.  Chance is the dice roll that could save your life or end your opponent’s, and wherever it is, be sure the players involved understand exactly fits into play.

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