How Designers Engineer Luck Into Video Games

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Fairness is the unspoken promise of most video games. Controlled by an omniscient and omnipotent designer, a video game has the capacity to be ultimately just, and players expect that it will be so. (Designers also have an incentive to be even-handed: A game that always beats you is a game you’ll soon stop playing.) And yet, when video games truly play by the rules, the player can feel cheated. Sid Meier, the designer of the computer game Civilization, in which players steer a nation through history, politics, and warfare, quickly learned to modify the game’s odds in order to redress this psychological wrinkle. Extensive play-testing revealed that a player who was told that he had a 33 percent chance of success in a battle but then failed to defeat his opponent three times in a row would become irate and incredulous. (In Civilization, you can replay the same battle over and over until you win, albeit incurring costs with every loss.) So Meier altered the game to more closely match human cognitive biases; if your odds of winning a battle were 1 in 3, the game guaranteed that you’d win on the third attempt—a misrepresentation of true probability that nevertheless gave the illusion of fairness. Call it the Lucky Paradox: Lucky is fun, but too lucky is unreal. The resulting, on-going negotiation among game players and designers must count as one of our most abstract collective negotiations… More at Nautilus.

A must read.



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1 reply

  1. Even beyond luck, it’s kind of weird how games favor the player. How many games have the player absorbing dozens of bullets while foes are dispatched with 2 or 3?

    Some of the problem is it’s tough to know if a computer player is good per se or just well situated. When a games “fog of war” kicks in, and you don’t really know what’s going on, a realistic “I’m dead and don’t know why” is frustrating. (I haven’t played multiplayer combat games but I imagine this is why snipers are so reviled. Come to think of it that’s true for real life.)

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