Vague Patch Notes: Why do MMOs have randomness?

Order from disorder.

If there’s one concept that is nearly universally reviled among MMO players, it’s randomness. Yes, pretty much everywhere. You could make a little fairy that flies around randomly and dispenses helpful buffs at random, and people would hate it because what if the fairy doesn’t show up when you need a buff, or you get a lousy buff? No one likes things being random; the term is as close as you can get to being an accepted dirty word.

So why do MMOs still have so much randomness in them?

Well, because games have randomness in them. But that’s only part of the story; the fact is that randomness does two different things in MMOs (and games in general, to be fair), and it’s fun to pick apart why we still have so much random stuff when no one actually likes anything being random. And yes, if you’d like to point out that computer have a hard time generating truly random numbers, we’ve covered that before. Let’s move on.

So where should we start? Tic-Tac-Toe, or Noughts and Crosses, or whatever you call the game with a nine-square grid played by two players. You know, the game without any actual randomness.

If you and your opponent are playing optimally to win (which is pretty likely, since otherwise you’re either just losing for giggles or playing someone too young to know better), this game is always going to end the exact same way. It’s even possible to map out every possible move quite simply. The only reason that the game persists is because of people playing sub-optimally; put two optimized computer opponents against one another and they will play to a draw every time.

Now, let’s say that you’re designing a computer version to play against a human player. If both the computer and the human play optimally, the outcome is going to be the same every time. So you add some randomness. For example, every other move the computer makes is optimized, but the computer’s first move is always random. That alone gives the game longevity because even if you play optimally from that point on, the computer has only one chance in eight of making the optimal move right away – and you might screw up, because it’s an unfamiliar situation!


That’s one of the big goals of randomness right there. Randomness prompts variance. Why are critical hits in combat? Because sometimes that means you can deal a lot of damage sooner than expected… or can take a lot of damage unexpectedly. It makes optimal play a lot harder to hit, even when a lot of other elements of play are completely under your control.

You might immediately be pointing out that “variance” doesn’t matter a whole lot if, say, you’re killing wolves for Wolf Fur and half of them don’t drop fur. And you’d be right! Variance is a big deal in tabletop games, but randomness has another tool in video games that’s not as present in tabletop experiences even if it does have similar roots: investment.

Rest assured, this existed in tabletop games too, as surely as there’s a whole section in my vintage Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks discussing the rules for exactly what magic items can be found in a treasure hoard of a certain type. The result is the time-honored process of being encouraged to go out and slay more stuff for a chance at the magical weapons or armor or whatever you really wanted. So your run today makes you want to play more tomorrow and maybe buy a new sourcebook or two so that you can go run in the Cave of Remarkably Easy But Treasure-Laden Monsters once you whine enough to the person in charge of the game.

Once you pass the age of 14 or so, though, you realize that the game will let you just… give characters whatever. Those Boots of Striding aren’t real. You can just tell the GM you want them and what do you know, the next time you get a magic item, you have them. Or the GM just never has them show up because they’d wreck some encounter or another.

Video games, on the other hand, do not have someone running the game who can be reasoned with that directly. Instead, you have code. And herein randomness can help capture your investment in one of two ways: You keep running content to have that 1% shot at something you want (a time investment), or you keep buying boxes of random stuff in the hopes of a 1% shot (a money investment).

Really, what matters there is more about business model than anything else. If the game has a subscription model, a time investment is way more valuable, since you develop more of a habit around the game. If it’s free-to-play, a money investment is better. I’m listing both because they’re both fundamentally taking something you have in limited quantities and asking you to devote it here.

Is that a bad thing? No. Also, yes. It’s a complex thing.

All these moments will be lost, in time...

We have generally accepted that money invested for power breaks the game, due to the fact that… well, it does. Money invested for cosmetics? Not so much, especially if there are other cosmetics available that don’t require money. But time investment is one of those things that we still generally accept as part of games, simply because we all know that most games require a time investment to stop being awful at them.

We were a little less accepting of this back when, say, games like Darius were new and going concerns, requiring both time to know how to play the game properly and more money each time you tried again. But at this point, we’ll buy games that tell you things like, “You have infinite lives, and you will need every one of them because this game will kill you over and over again.” Time investment means skill.

However… randomness kind of breaks that sense of things. You farm for eight hours to get the materials to build a new jacket, then you build the jacket, then you do more damage and take less damage. So you feel like you’re better now, but… what really happened is just that you sunk time in, and eventually that time rewarded you in exactly the way you knew it would. It’s not a matter of more skill, but it sort of fakes its way into that.

None of this is to say that randomness is inherently bad or good. Variance might feel like it’s the “good” reason for randomness to exist, but variance can either be too far (some fights you can’t use any of your abilities, others you just sneeze and kill your target) or too limited (if your only variance in combat is critical hits, people will not be invested in the hundredth identikit combat encounter). They’re both just reasons.

Instead, it’s a useful way to think about the random stuff that you’re experiencing. To pay attention to the game and ask if you would still play the game without these random deviations in either form. And, perhaps more importantly, to determine if the problem is that the random chance is off in some direction, or if maybe this would be more fun if you weren’t randomly hoping for your Boots of Striding to show up when the game could just give you the damn boots.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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