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  • Chance and Skill in Game Design

    [12.11.14]
    - Lennart Nacke
  •  [This is an except from a post first published at my own blog The Acagamic as part of my Basic Introduction to Game Design course. I hope this is useful to you.]

    Welcome to the fifth week of class in the course: Basic Introduction to Game Design. Make sure to read the syllabus and course information before you continue. Today, we are going to discuss chance and skill in game design. This text follows closely from our textbook (Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 5 and 8). I also take inspiration from Schell's The Art of Game Design (Chapter 10, pp.150-170) and Adams's and Rollings's Fundamentals of Game Design (Chapter 11). However, this is the part when I break free.

    Games, which feature meaningful decisions, do not always have to require or evoke skills from a player. Some games operate entirely by chance. Games that rely more heavily on chance than on skill are often found in the context of children's games or gambling. Why does this difference matter? The player is going to play, play, play, play, play - are they not? Do not shake off the notion of chance too swiftly. Games of chance can be very engaging, because they can allow players of different skill sets to engage in a balanced competition. Games are for everyone; for people, who are used to rolling the dice and people, who like to feel the fear in their enemy's eyes. Some people even think it is fun to lose and to pretend. However, games of luck in particular seem to feature more attainable goals and are winnable by more people.

    On the other hand, games like Tic-Tac-Toe are entirely skill-based and can be mastered, once a player figures out a dominant strategy. See this example lecture for forming a Tic-Tac-Toe strategy via reasoning.

    It might seem crazy what I am about to say, but there are several reasons for games to use chance as a game mechanic:

    • The game designer wants to prevent or delay the player from solving the game.
    • The game designer wants the gameplay to be balanced and competitive for all different kinds of players.
    • Chance can increase the variety of elements in your game system.
    • Chance can help you create dramatic moments in your game.
    • Chance can enhance the decision-making in your game.

    On Game Balance

    Adams and Rollings describe a balanced game as "fair to the player or players, [...] neither too easy nor too hard, and makes the skill of the player the most important factor in determining his success." A game that is considered well-balanced, therefore, has the following characteristics:

    • The game provides meaningful choices. Several strategies can allow the player to win. There is no dominant winning strategy in the game.
    • Chance does not play a role so great that player skill is irrelevant. A player with more skill should be more successful than a poor player.
    • The game's level of difficulty should be consistent. The players perceive the challenges in the game as not abrupt and within a reasonable range of their abilities.

    In Player-vs-player games, the following characteristics also apply:

    • The players perceive the game as fair.
    • Any player, who falls behind early in the game, gets some opportunity to catch up before the end of the game.
    • The game seldom or never results in a stalemate if the players are of unequal ability.

    Playtesting for luck and skill balance

    When balancing games, an important factor to consider is the balance of skill and luck elements in the games. Some of the following are signs indicating that your skill/luck balance might be off:

    • Your players are bored. This is generally a sign of missing interesting decisions in the game and too many luck elements.
    • Your players are only bored when it is not their turn. Your game is likely lacking some strategic elements as none of the things players do during their turn seem to affect other players' turns.
    • Your players do not become engaged in the game and are confused about what to do. This could be a sign of too many decisions or too much information to process for players.
    • One of your players beats all the other players by a wide margin. This could be an indicator that your game is heavily skill-based and one player has mastered this skill. To keep a game balanced for players with different skill levels, it is important to add some elements of luck to it.

    Generally, adding "luck" to a game comes down to adding elements of randomness. In board games, this is often done through dice rolls or shuffling cards. If you find that you are using too many of these random elements, you can replace them by using distinct automated advances (e.g., moving a player token a distinct number of spaces during a turn) or by adding a player decision instead of the random element (e.g., players can choose from a given range of movement options). Player decisions are not just complex thinking decisions at all times, but can also be split-second dexterity-based decisions (twitch skills like hitting notes in Guitar Hero).

    Our textbook (Challenges for Game Designers) distinguishes between three types of luck/skill games:

    1. Games of chance. This can be either children's games or gambling games. These games can often be enhanced by adding twitch and strategic elements to them. Often just the illusion of skill in those games is enough to make them more interesting.
    2. Games of twitch skill. These are games that are focused on a challenge of dexterity. These games tend not to work too well with chance elements, but adding simple tactical options is quite common. Anything that keeps the flow of the game is a possible addition.
    3. Games of strategic skill. These games can feel tense and slow, because they involve a lot of thinking. Adding twitch elements can be a welcome interruption of these long strategic sessions. Many long-winded RPGs feature little twitch mini games (such as lockpicking in Skyrim) to interrupt some of the longer stretches.

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