Games

Praying to the RNG Gods: What is Chance's Place in Gaming?

Erik Kersting
Twisted Fate from League of Legends

Chance may make eSports a little too interesting.

Chance has had its place in gaming since its beginnings. Board and card games either rely on it partially or entirely for their gameplay. Luck can be so fundamental that in games like poker, a player's real skill comes in making deductions about chance, not in the actual “gameplay”. Even in pre-video game narrative games like Dungeons and Dragons, luck plays a huge role in what happens, determining the results of nearly everything that the player does. Today luck plays a part in many video games, from narrative-based games to competitive ones, but is that a good thing?

Roguelikes are a great example of “chance” based video games. While player skill still influences the outcome, in most roguelikes luck can change the amount of skill needed to win. As this very long video shows, even a very skilled player can have trouble completing every run of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. In the run, NorthernLion, perhaps the most famous Isaac player, had a string of very bad luck, and while he made it very far into the labyrinth before he died, even his immense skill and knowledge could not save him from a doomed run.

On the flip side, a lower skilled player can still easily beat Isaac if they get a little lucky. Some items that a player randomly obtains are flat out better than others. Thus, a string of good items leads to an easy victory, while a string of bad items can easily lead to defeat. Does this make the game unfair when the player's skill is only part of the equation for success? I think there is a certain amount of unfairness in roguelikes, but that is precisely what keeps players coming back run after run to try again. They tell themselves, “Maybe this time I'll get lucky”, and in the process of trying to get lucky, they make their own luck by becoming more skilled. While luck naturally creates a lack of balance in a game, it also creates dynamic and interesting gameplay.

There is also skill in mastering the statistics of luck and using it to your advantage. In a board game like Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride, understanding dice rolls or card drawing statistics can influence the strategy that the player takes. A player that rushes into a plan without considering the probability of success for their venture can succumb to “bad luck” and blame the game, when in reality their failure is their own fault. Still, in these games, chance is an equalizer, often creating a closer competition between players of wildly different skill levels.

While this “problem” of luck can easily be rationalized away in single player games and casual multiplayer games, it can become a serious problem for competitive eSports. Is it okay when players practice for eight or ten hours a day to perfect their craft only to have a competitive event come down to sheer luck? While ability may still be the major deciding factor in these games, these players are often so close to one another in skill that even a little luck can sway the outcome of their games.

Thus, some competitive games do away with chance through rule changes. In a casual game of Super Smash Bros, items rain down from heaven randomly, which creates good fun, often enhancing the party game quality of the game. Also, many of the stages feature unpredictable hazards that can harm the player. But in competitive Smash, these items and maps are removed from the equation, creating a game with significantly less content, but significantly more balance.

Other competitive games are designed to avoid chance. In Counterstrike: Global Offensive, I don't know of any luck based mechanics that affect play. In fact, while the player is moving, their gun shoots much less accurately, but instead of shots being randomly placed, they follow a consistent and realistic spray pattern. Thus, the players are theoretically in control of everything that happens in Counterstrike, even though the way that their weapons work can change.

This is not the case with League of Legends or Dota 2, both of which allow for a chance of critical strikes. Critical strikes are basic attacks that deal significantly more damage, but occur semi-randomly. The player can buy items that influence that rate of chance, but whether the chance is 20% or 50% ,it is still, of course, random. In a game in which one fight can determine the results of winning a lane or even the entire match and a lucky string of critical strikes can win a fight, one has to wonder what such a chance based mechanic is doing in the two most popular competitive video games on the planet.

Riot Games, creator of League of Legends, is already starting to phase critical strikes out of their game. In a recent update to Ashe, a character that has traditionally relied on critical strikes, they removed luck entirely and added a mechanic that made her deal additional damage based on her critical strike chance. Over time, I think we will see a shift away from critical strike based champions and a move towards a more fixed and consistent system. It is fairer for all players who play the game as a serious competitive experience, from more casual competitors to professional players.

Ultimately luck makes games more interesting. Chess, a game with no luck, can be excruciatingly frustrating for a less skilled player, while Settlers of Catan is enjoyable regardless of skill level. Chance is a great equalizer, but in competitive video games, equalization mechanics should be discouraged, not implemented. Perhaps chance makes eSports a little too interesting.

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