All card games rest upon chance as a primary source of play, as do the vast majority of commercially successful board-games – so why are videogames less commonly found relying on chance and luck as a central mechanic? Let us explore briefly the question of designing games of luck.
This post is part of an ongoing sequence developing a new (and disposable) taxonomy of videogames, largely as a spur for discussion. The following posts are worth a look if you haven’t seen them already:
- The Rituals of Alea: the original post about Roger Caillois’ play pattern “alea” (games of chance) – essential groundwork for this discussion.
- Emotions of Play Revisited: a new look at the connections between emotions (and Nicole Lazzaro’s work) and Caillois’ patterns of play.
- Wargames: the first of the new taxonomy pieces.
- Rushgames: the second of the new taxonomy pieces
The Appeal of Luck
Believe it or not, games of luck have wider appeal than games of skill – evidence for this can be found in the vast revenues made by the gambling industry. The global gambling industry had a turnover of $950 billion in 2001 (this figure has almost certainly risen in the last six years). By comparison, the global videogame industry is worth about $30 billion, and the global movie industry is worth $27 billion (just based upon box office receipts; DVD sales add another $5 billion or more). In other words: gambling is worth fifteen times more than videogames and movies combined!
Furthermore, TV game shows based on luck are phenomenally popular. For almost as long as TV has been around, Mediterranean nations have had game shows which under the hood are essentially games of chance. Even in the United States, where the dogma of competition and meritocracy dominates all aspects of the culture, “Wheel of Fortune” remains the most watched syndicated show on television, and the successful export of Endemol’s franchise “Deal or No Deal” to the US shows beyond a doubt that luck sells.
The secret: universality. Only a competent player can be victorious in a game of skill, but anyone can win a game of luck. But there is more to chance in games than just this aspect of accessibility.
Sources of Play
There are essentially two sources of play that any game can draw upon: the first is chance, which can be seen most clearly with a game like Beggar-my-Neighbour (AKA Strip Jack Naked) or Snakes & Ladders which use only chance to drive play. The second is choice (or design), which we see in any FPS game, for instance, which eliminate all random elements (excluding, perhaps, as a driver in AI) and place the player in a tightly controlled environment.
There are few if any card games that do not use chance as the source of play; this is inherent in the nature of card games. The player learns a small set of rules, and then operates within these mechanics to process randomly generated hands in a certain way, wherein the fun of play can emerge – either by offering interesting choices for play, or by generating interesting situations within the play. (Even though the player does not choose to play an Ace in a hand of Beggar-my-Neighbour – it is turned over as the next card – it is still fun to do so; there is the schadenfreude of making the other player suffer, for a start!)
If we extend our attention to include board games, and in particular the hobby games which are the more interesting part of that commercial field (since selling “reskinned” Monopoly sets is about marketing, not about game design), we can see that successful games in this market almost always draw upon chance. There are classic strategy games like Chess, Draughts and Go that have no random elements, but these are invariably a smaller market than those games that do draw upon chance to drive play – a new non-random board game can't offer much more than Chess or Go already offers, so it would be competing with a dominating established brand. Most, such as the short lived 1979 board game Kensington, vanish without a trace. I should perhaps acknowledge that chess sets probably do make up a big market share in the board game market, but the point remains: if you want to make a new commercially viable boardgame, it will include chance either via random tiles, a deck of cards, or by dice.
Does the same thing happen in videogames?
Chance in Videogames
The second most successful videogame of all time uses chance as its source of play – Tetris (33 million units on GameBoy, admittedly on the back of bundling with the handheld unit, but even without this, Tetris remains one of the most popular videogame of all time). Indeed, almost all puzzle games share this facet: Bejewelled and Bust a Move also draw upon chance as the primary driver of play (although there is a strong design factor in the latter), and it is difficult to find exceptions. Lemmings is a notably unusual case – although the appeal here can be traced in part to other factors.
What’s interesting about this link to puzzle games is that the connection – both in terms of play and in terms of popularity – between card games and puzzle games becomes apparent. Both are formed around similar principles: a small set of rules that mediate the way the player deals with a randomly generated sequence of cards, tiles, bubbles or what have you. I might go so far as to say that if you want to make a successful “Casual game”, you would do better to study the way people play solitaire card games than to study anything that happens on a Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft platform.
So why do we not see more use of chance in other videogame genres? The answer appears to be twofold: firstly, a widespread (but not universal) prejudice among game designers and programmers against chance that is probably connected to a micromanagement mentality, and secondly, a pragmatic quality assurance (QA) problem.
Games which use chance such as card games and puzzle games essentially represent atomic systems, which need to be tested and balanced in a variety of different ways. This is a viable QA task, because the scope is constrained. But consider what happens when subsystems in a larger game switch to random sources – consider (for instance) what would be implied in a subsystem that gave randomly generated monster distributions in the rooms of an FPS: the QA workload would be exponentially higher as a result of this. A single configuration could be checked in one pass, while a random configuration might not be fully checked in a thousand passes.
This resistance from QA is actually a powerful and necessary force inside the games industry, and arguably the reason that games drawing up on chance are found principally outside of the console market. Game designers love to posit design ideas that will generate “a different game every time” – but such games rarely make it through to the upper market. Games of this kind are much more commonly found as independent games, which by nature of their lack of budget have reduced scope, and thus inevitably fall into the comfortable arena of just one major randomly-driven system to balance and tweak. (Strange Adventures in Infinite Space springs to mind as an example).
The exception? Treasure tables in cRPGs and MMORPGs (think: Diablo, the game that spring-boarded Blizzard into the big time). These do employ chance as the major driver, and the QA implications are bridged by the simplicity of the mechanics involved (which are rarely more than the equivalent of a dice roll compared to a table). Animal Crossing manages to use this same random "treasure" mechanic without any violent play elements, and has outsold all but the most successful cRPG titles (8 million on DS, beaten only by Final Fantasy VII's 10 million and the Pokémon franchise's sales which go up to 14 million for Gold and Silver). Note how these exceptions reinforce the idea of the inherent appeal of chance as a mechanic within games.
You, Chance and Games
And now I must turn the discussion over to you. I have noted several instances of the use of chance to drive play – outside of videogames we have card games, board games, luck-based game shows and gambling games; inside videogames, puzzle games and treasure in cRPGs and toyplay sims. But there are doubtless situations that are using chance I have overlooked.
What other situations have you seen where a game has drawn upon chance to drive play? How successful was the attempt? Did it create play you enjoyed, or play that you hated? What is the most fun you have had with luck? What is the least? How much do you think your experiences – positive or negative – reflect your taste in games, rather than a deeper fundamental aspect of play?
At some point, the decision has to be made as to whether this new (disposable) taxonomy requires genres equivalent to Caillois’ “alea” – what I would end up terming luckgames. But while Caillois’ alea is still quite clearly a powerful force in play in general, it is not so clear that within the context of videogames a genre based on luck will hold water – especially when the main contender (puzzle games) can also be seen as rushgames. But then again, Bejewelled is not obviously a rushgame – but it is clearly a luckgame.
What do you think? Discussion in the comments is both welcomed and encouraged!