“I just got unlucky there,” “this damn game is just pure luck!” “Man I hate RNG in this game.” These can sound like the bitter laments of sore losers. But they can also be at least partially truthful. If you’ve ever played a collectible card game like Hearthstone, you know how it feels to play all the right cards, only that have your game come crashing down as your opponent luckily draws the only card in their deck that can stop you.
So why do we keep playing these games?
Surely online gaming is meant to be a match-up of skill and wit and preparation? And it’s not as if these complaints are new. Gamers have been blaming their lucky opponents or their own cursed fortunes on their losses since Pong. If chance truly were a bad, unintended feature of games, then developers would have stamped it out years ago.
But they haven’t. Let’s examine why. What follows is my defence of chance in games.
To start with, let’s take a look at the precursors to video games: sports, board games and tabletop games.
Chess is often seen almost as the Platonic form of games. It has, after all, lasted millennia and found popularity in countless different cultures and societies. It also has no element of chance – beyond, maybe, how the players are assigned black or white pieces.
The game is characterised by a closed system and perfect information. That means that both players are able to see every aspect of the current gamestate, and there are no unknown potential external influences or additions. Essentially, it’s pure logic and strategy. Players must predict what their opponent will do with the gamestate, but they don’t need to guess at what that gamestate is. This is not the case, for example, in a card game in which the order of cards in the deck is unknown, or in a real-time strategy game with fog of war shrouding what the opponent might be doing.
So why don’t we simply copy the approach taken by chess?
Unfortunately, many games like chess have suffered the fatal flaw of the perfect information game: they get solved. Checkers, Tic-Tac-Toe, Connect Four, the list goes on. The only difference with chess is that it has more variables than those examples. As the game goes on, the number of possible gamestates increases exponentially. By the end of it, there are more possible different games of chess than there are atoms in the observable universe.
So the only thing saving chess from the fate suffered by similar games is the raw mathematical difficulty of solving it. What that does, in effect, is create an almost artificial uncertainty. It’s not that it’s not solvable, it’s just that it’s so difficult to solve that you will regularly come across a gamestate or a move or a response that you weren’t prepared for, because you weren’t able to be prepared for it, mathematically.
This avoids the issue of perfect information games that Greg Costikyan points out in his book Uncertainty in Games, that “players adopt identical strategies, the correct move is almost always blindingly obvious, and it is, in a word, dull.” But it avoids it not by avoiding uncertainty and therefore chance, but in simulating it essentially by overloading the player with information.
The same is essentially true of most sports. Everyone knows where every player is, where the ball is, what the pitch looks like, and so on. But no one can know what the opponent will do – there are simply too many possibilities. Plus, with sports, things like injury and weather can also have an impact.
Let’s look at the other end of the spectrum: casino games. Enduringly popular, and yet almost entirely (depending on the specific game) predicated on luck. Online casinos offering the full range from roulette to blackjack are more popular than ever. Even arguably the most skill-based of casino games, poker, is largely based on luck, but in the sense that good play is all about managing your risks, reading your opponents and trying to convince them of false information (such as that you have a better or worse hand than you really do). While many would argue that money is the deciding factor here, it’s also possible to play casino games on or offline for free, or using fake money.
Clearly, there’s something about these games we find thrilling. The chance to win big based on a gut feeling that makes us feel like some sort of savant when we get it right. Pitting your wits against friends and laughing as some turn of fate draws a totally unexpected card and flips the game on its head. The uncertainty makes for a different, novel experience each time we play, and that’s exciting.
So what about the middle ground? Where chance is an element but not everything.
This is where most board games and video games lie.
Developers know that this balance works. In a game of perfect information, better players can simply dominate weaker players and it quickly stops being fun for either party.
And the introduction of chance brings with it a new skill, mentioned earlier: managing risk. We could also look to the business world here. Why do top business people love what they do so much? Because of the uncertainty, the need to manage risk. Because that leads to the thrill of taking those risks, and the suspense while we wait to see if it pays off.
It also means that you can never totally master a game. There will always be those matches you lose, those things you hadn’t accounted for. And that makes players feel like they can always improve, which in turn motivates them to play.
Chance and luck have a place in games. Of course, it can be done wrong. And when done poorly, it just feels unfair. But when uncertainty is introduced well – as a risk to manage, and as something that keeps the game fresh and competitive – then it opens up new skills for players to master. And remember, for every time your opponent lucks out on you, odds are you’ll luck out on them at some point. What goes around comes around. Probably.