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  • Solving Luck Manipulation In Roguelike Design

    [10.29.20]
    - Alex Pine
  • Randomness is one of the most controversial topics in gaming circles, right up there with difficulty, monetization schemes and SocietyTM. It's fairly common to see players complaining about pesky chance getting in the way of their skill, as they feel like their performance could have been so much better - if only they were luckier with the dice rolls.

    It's rather strange, then, that game designers, unlike many players, seem to have reached some sort of consensus on whether randomness is bad or good. It's neither. It's a tool, and, as with most tools, everything depends on how one uses it. It can provide exciting, replayable, unpredictable, hilarious scenarios - but it can also make the player's actions and effort feel irrelevant, it can be cruel and frustrating.

    Well, that's it then. Chance can be fun, but it decreases the role of skill. A mixed bag, but extremely useful in the right hands. Case closed, right?

    FTL: Faster Than Light is a game often argued to be too reliant on randomness, with many game-changing events happening at random

    But then there's roguelikes. A quickly spreading genre that's a swift kick below the waistline of this false "skill vs. chance" dichotomy.

    Let's put aside the questions of whether or not "roguelike" is an acceptable name for a genre and whether or not the way we understand genres is reasonable in the first place*, and let's give roguelikes a very vague definition. Mechanically speaking, most roguelikes (and, yes, all the weird sub-genres that exist within this category - roguelites, roguelike-likes, procedural death labyrinths (if you ever actually use any of these words, you are instantly arrested by the Game Design Police)) have three characteristics that are almost mandatory: randomized level designrandomized progression (usually in the form of various random items and upgrades you find), and permadeath, meaning you lose all or most progress when you die.

    *no to both

    This loose definition is about as full of holes as any other genre definition built solely on mechanics, but it gives a vague outline of what to expect to those who haven't played any roguelikes.

    A genre notorious for gate-keeping

    Some of the more widely known roguelikes include The Binding of Isaac games, Enter the GungeonDead CellsSlay the Spire, the Risk of Rain games, SpelunkyNuclear ThroneCrypt of the NecroDancerFTL: Faster Than LightHades, and many, many others. The genre is growing rapidly, though I would argue it's still in its infancy, with a lot of uncharted design territory and some awkward design practices.

    One particularly interesting thing about this genre is its relationship with randomness. You see, roguelikes are not just all about exploration of these randomized scenarios, they're also about adapting to them and making the best of unlucky situations. A skilled player will be able to perform well even when randomness is working against them, and, more importantly, account for potential unlucky scenarios before they happen.

    Roguelikes actually find a strange way to tie randomness together with skill. It's not just about whether you rely on your abilities or sheer chance to overcome obstacles - chance is giving you the tools to work with and you must have the skill to use them effectively. You can't memorize or master specific scenarios, you have to gain a mastery of the overall rules of the game. Permadeath works together with this randomness, as it makes progress temporary and resets the game once in a while, allowing for extreme and weird scenarios to happen in-between. These games can get away with giving players extremely game-changing or even messy items because the player only has them for one run.

    In this Enter the Gungeon run, I gave up most of my items to get more junk for my companion, a knight made of junk. A messy build that no other genre could get away with, but because it was super temporary, I had great fun. The bond that grew between me and Sir Junkan was more meaningful than any human interactions I've had in months.

    I think this makes it easy to see why this genre is gaining traction - most of these games have millions upon millions of situations that this randomness could put you in, and the amazing freedom that the game's systems have creates a sort of madness that is amazing to explore - and when it's over, you get to explore another, still new and different one.

    But this whole interesting cycle of adaptation can be broken by a player who refuses to let randomness decide their fate. While the idea of "RNG abuse" can mean a different thing in some cases, mostly we use it to describe cheese tactics where a player will reset randomness over and over until they get an unfairly lucky scenario. This often happens in the very beginning of a roguelike run - it's easy to press some "quick restart" button repeatedly until the very first item you get is very powerful.

    Unlike randomness itself, RNG abuse is not "sometimes good and sometimes bad". It's bad. It sucks out most of the fun from the experience, not only by reducing the conflict to something much easier than the developers ever intended, but also because, well, pressing a "reset" button over and over again is hardly riveting gameplay.

    The Binding of Isaac is an extremely fun and unique game, but a lot of players, especially in the late-game, will reset the game over and over again until the starting item is very powerful. The game's relationship with RNG can be quite awkward.

    So, with this article, I want to address this issue as thoroughly as possible by taking a closer look at how RNG works in this genre, finding the root of the problem, and presenting various solutions as to how you could reduce RNG abuse in roguelikes. This might seem like a rather narrow topic, but what's so important about it is that this will help us understand and improve the genre's overall relationship with RNG. Even in games where RNG abuse is not a problem, applying these methods can reduce frustrations often associated with RNG.

    A lot of the conclusions and ideas could be useful in other genres, too, as roguelikes are not the only games that have a complex relationship with randomness, they're just an easy and accessible lens through which the topic can be studied.

    It should be noted here that I have no experience designing roguelikes, I'm just a game designer who happens to really enjoy roguelikes and who has noticed a few interesting patterns in their design. I'm about as quotable on this topic as a monkey with a keyboard, so I'll try to present clear arguments for all my ideas here.

    Figure 1.4. The author of this article

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