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  • Solving Luck Manipulation In Roguelike Design

    [10.29.20]
    - Alex Pine

  • RNG and player agency

    Just to get it out of the way in case anyone reading this lives under a Dwayne: RNG stands for Random Number Generation. This is, in layman's terms, what decides all chance in a computer, it's the digital equivalent of a dice roll, and as such, it is often used interchangeably with "randomness".

    Now, if you're already familiar with the topic of RNG, you might be expecting me to introduce ideas like input random vs. output randomvariance, or pseudo-random, but we'll try to only focus on the ideas most essential to the topic at hand. If these interest you, I left some helpful links at the end of the article.

    I believe that a significant portion of player frustration with randomness stems from its effect on player agency. Agency, roughly speaking, is the amount of control that the player has - more agency will mean the player is allowed to make informed, meaningful decisions with outcomes that feel reasonably predictable and meaningful. More agency is not always a good thing, but a game that doesn't have enough of it will make decisions feel arbitrary.

    By definition, RNG introduces uncertainty, which in turn reduces agency. And players tend to be more comfortable when they have more agency, control gives them advantage. This is what RNG abuse boils down to - players abusing the game's systems, it's how they exert agency over something that decreases agencySave scumming is an analogous type of system abuse, and it's often best buddies with RNG abuse.

    So, to sum up the important bits in one sentence:

    RNG can cause unsatisfying scenarios that feel out of the player's control, so they abuse random systems to make victory as easy as possible.

    The formatting in that sentence is very intentional, I chose to highlight the key phrases around which we'll create methods that allow us to combat RNG abuse.

    Item progression

    Scientifically speaking, losing is for losers. We want to win, because winning is for winners, which we want to be. Now, my apologies if I'm overwhelming you with hardcore ludology terminology, but this is basic psychology, and an important thing to consider when dealing with RNG abuse.

    Players are drawn to any methods that make victory easier, even if those methods aren't particularly engaging. RNG abuse clearly falls under this umbrella, giving players a strong advantage at the cost of engagement.

    So you might be asking - can we keep randomness in our games without causing situations where RNG abuse creates unfair advantages? Sort of, yeah! One thing we could do is lessen the importance of players' progression near the beginning of a run, so that in the grand scheme of things RNG abuse doesn't really help them reach victory. Or at least, not as much.

    We do this through item progression, that is, having the items (or upgrades, or any equivalent thereof) near the beginning of a run influence victory less than items that players get later on. This means they have much less incentive to abuse RNG, as their victory will largely be determined by items that they get later, when they'd lose a lot more progress by restarting the game.

    Let's compare a few games from this standpoint (note that I will simplify most mechanics that I'll list as examples - the nuance is interesting, but not very important to us).

    The Binding of Isaac, which I already mentioned as an infamous case of poorly handled RNG abuse, has a very limited amount of item progression; the items you'll find in treasure rooms near the beginning of the game will be drawn from the same pool as the items you'll find in treasure rooms later on in the game. A few of these items stand out as ridiculously powerful, so a lot of players keep restarting the game until they get one such item. In many cases, said item ends up being absolutely central to the success of not only the first few stages, but the whole run.

    Dead Cells is a good example of a game using item progression instead. Each item in the game is assigned a gear level, which has a significant impact on the item's strength. At the beginning you get randomized weapons, but they all have a gear level of 1. There is no reason to abuse RNG here because these weapons won't matter at all by the time you reach later stages, as survival in the late-game relies heavily on weapons with a higher gear level.

    The items in Dead Cells have item progression. Here I am halfway through the game, finding items with a gear level of 6, significantly more powerful than my starting items.

    Similarly, in Nuclear Throne, the weapons you get near the beginning aren't particularly powerful, but random weapon drops get stronger as you progress. This discourages RNG abuse as victory isn't as dependent on these starting items.

    Nuclear Throne's late-game items have modifiers that make them much more powerful than the ones you find near the start

    Some games approach item progression in a slightly different manner. Enter the Gungeon assigns a "quality" to each of its chests, with better chests giving better items. A neat, subtle detail that the game never tells you, and that many people don't notice, is that you have a higher probability of finding better chests near the end of the game. Like the examples we saw before, this makes your progression towards the end of your runs matter more, which lowers the effectiveness of RNG abuse.

    A chest drop chance table from the Enter the Gungeon wiki. The columns are chest qualities, the rows are the Gungeon's floors. Note that you'll be finding more high quality chests in the later floors.

    Item progression is already being used in quite a few games, and it's perhaps one of the more applicable methods. This works in pretty much any game, as long as you assign some sort of quality or level to each item.

    By severing the link between early and late game, you also ensure that players won't be frustrated with their starting items for the whole run. Unfortunately though, this solution doesn't create a perfect relationship with RNG, as early game might still be frustrating for such players and RNG might still destroy runs later on. In other words, it solves the problem of players abusing RNG, but doesn't remove the frustrations players may have with RNG.

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