Sunday, April 28, 2013

20 Misses

If you make a game where the player has a 95% chance to hit a target, somebody is going to miss 20 times in a row. Someone else might miss 100 times in a row. Some other guy may never miss at all. This is the terrifying truth of trying to work with randomness. How can you balance around someone missing twenty times in a row? Dying in half as many turns is hardly unheard of in roguelikes. From my perspective, there are three realistic approaches a designer can take to solve this problem:

  • Allow the player to mitigate randomness with time investment. This is fairly common in the major roguelikes - you start off with a relatively high miss rate, but it is reduced over time by increased attributes. It will often times end up at absolute zero. Does this solve the problem? Potentially, but players can still run into truly cruel RNG early in the game before the stat system really comes into play.
  • Remove missing. This has been my personal go to solution in the past. Does this solve the problem? Yes, but it makes combat rather predictable throughout the entire game. No one will ever miss twenty times in a row in most of the current versions of my games, but it will always take three rounds to defeat the most basic enemy with little variation. This isn't an inherently bad thing, but it has the potential to make combat stale.
  • Ignore it. The guy that missed twenty times in a row, the guy that missed one hundred times in a row, and the guy that never missed in a playthrough - they're all outliers. Perhaps there's no need to balance around them at all? This answer may seem like a copout, but if the rest of the game works fine, you can probably just ignore strange one-in-a-million chances.
This issue can apply to many concepts that crop up while discussing game balance in a roguelike. For example, if you make three items (x, y, z,) and give them an equal chance to show up, there are going to be playthroughs where a player doesn't find "x" or doesn't find "y" or doesn't find "z". A game doesn't necessarily need to have uniform structure to be an enjoyable experience though - it's well within the realm of possibility to make a fun game where missing is absent but random item distribution still exists (or vice versa).

As a closing thought, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is frequently lauded for containing tight mechanics and for constantly pursuing balance. It's also one of the most random roguelikes out there and yet, in my opinion, it works. Sure there's a one-in-a-million chance my assassin will never find a quick blade or I'll miss a dozen times against the gnoll, but these are issues I can work around without cheesing the system too much. Sure having the quick blade might make the game easier, but not getting it doesn't make the game impossible. And the gnoll...well, I could probably just run away.

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