The Deliberately Capricious Nature of the Random Number Generator
Although I enjoy Hand of Fate 2, due to the nature of the game’s underlying narrative, you frequently have to pick a card, roll a dice or select yet another card from a spinning wheel, to determine an outcome to an event or an encounter. Hence the game relies heavily on the use of a random number generator mechanic. Sometimes, depending of the speed of the card-based activities you can visually track the one you need to pick. However there reaches a point when you can’t do this. There are either too many cards to keep an eye on or the spinning wheel is simply going to fast. Then it becomes a matter of random chance. And if the odds are unfavourable a matter of repetition. And then frustration. And then a potential abandonment of the game.
Random number generators are utilised in many genres of games. From MMOs to MOBAs, Action RPGs and FPS. When they favour the player they’re a delight. When you find yourself on the wrong side of the curve, they’re intolerably unfair and can ruin your gaming experience. Furthermore, they’re frequently not true random number generators because computers are notoriously bad at producing truly random outcomes as this quote from Steve Ward, a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT, explains. “One thing that traditional computer systems aren’t good at is coin flipping. They’re deterministic, which means that if you ask the same question you’ll get the same answer every time. On a completely deterministic machine you can’t generate anything you could really call a random sequence of numbers because the machine is following the same algorithm to generate them. Typically, that means it starts with a common ‘seed’ number and then follows a pattern. They are what we call pseudo-random numbers".
This presents two problems. The first is simply a PR and marketing problem. A pseudo-random number generator is unfair because it is not what it claims to be. Getting screwed over by a true random number generator is far from a fun experience but it is nobody’s fault. Getting stuffed by a crappy outcome via a pseudo-random number generator is not a blameless and unattributable event. It’s ultimately is down to the developer and they will subsequently get the flak from disgruntled gamers as a result. The second issue is that pseudo-random number generators will follow a pattern. It may well be complex, but a pattern can be determined. Hence there is the risk of manipulation and abuse. Certainly, with regard to single player games, a simple google search will produce links to “trainers” and other cheat file that will circumnavigate the random number generator of your game of choice.
The random number generator as a game mechanic is very convenient from the developer’s perspective. They create the illusion of chance which we see in some real-world decisions, which then adds to the game’s immersion. They also bring a degree of longevity to the proceedings by introducing a fail state. Now for those who consider “competition” to be the foundation of gaming, fail states are not necessarily a bad thing. However, failing due to lack of skill or knowledge can both be addressed. Failure due to random chance is something that has to be endured and is a far more egregious barrier to success. However, the random number generator can make other contributions to a game, other than determining outcomes that give rewards. Unit stats, map generation, mob generation can be handled in such a fashion and frequently are without any major controversy.
If you wish to be pedantic, you can cogently argue about the random nature of much of the real world. However, on a more superficial level (which is also the level that most of daily life is conducted), we like to conduct our daily business here in western civilisation within the confines of a relatively organised and contained society. When I go to the supermarket, I assume that as it’s in the business of selling groceries, that it’s shelves will be adequately stocked. As humans we try our best to manage the daily variable of our lives using knowledge and experience. For example, if I needed to build a foot bridge over a small stream, I would research the best way to do this using mathematics and science, and then undertake the task using appropriate materials. I may fail but if I’ve followed a tried and tested process, the chance of that happening is quite low. In gaming we have no data on the variables and thus cannot manage them. Random chance in this instance is therefore far more of a factor, less realistic and inherently unfair.
Regardless of whether you seen gaming as a competitive undertaking, a broader leisure activity, or as a quid pro quo paid service, the ham-fisted use of a random number generator can be a thorn in the gamers flesh. Is there an alternative? I’m sure there is although I am not sufficiently versed in game theory or development to definitively tell you what it is. But I can say with confidence what I don’t like and being hamstrung by random chance at crucial points in a game’s progression is a prime example of this. It’s not a question of “bad luck”, as luck in this context is being bastardised by the application of anthropomorphism. What gamers need to understand is that the random number generator by default predominantly produces negative outcomes because that is its job. It does this not with malice of forethought but purely by design. Furthermore, it’s ubiquity is due to its expediency and cost. What developers need to do is realise that as a mechanic it really doesn’t have any long-term benefits. Try harder, please.