Multiplayer Game Design: Randomness

Today I’m writing on the use of randomness in multiplayer games.

luck skill randomness multiplayer games game design mobile app design

In a post on, Daniel Cook, blogger and Chief Creative Officer at Spry Fox, explores randomness from the perspective of mastery and pattern recognition: both significant in a single-player environment. It’s a great post; check it out here. In this post, I want to take up where he left off. In multiplayer environments, randomness has some different effects and consequences. Here I discuss the axis of luck and skill, and how you can use randomness to effect skill leveling.

Every game exists on some axis of skill vs. luck. Take the classic card game War, for example.  In War, you divide the deck between all players. In each round, all players flip over their top cards.  The highest card wins. War is an entirely luck-based game; fittingly, its primary players are around seven years old.  Chess, on the other hand, exists on the other end of the axis. Every move in Chess is selected by the player; with no luck involved, chess is completely skill-based.


Most games exist somewhere in-between. The trick is deciding where on the axis you want your game to land. How much randomness do you want to build into your environment? And since Daniel Cook has already addressed this so well, I’ll change that question to: how much randomness do you want to have in your multiplayer environment? The answer is: know your audience. High-skill people tend to like high-skill games. But not everyone wants to play Chess all the time. A little bit of randomness opens your game to a wider field of people. More people to play with is good news for a multiplayer game.

One game that I think is a great example of this is  Settlers of Catan.

settlers of catan randomness mobile app game design multiplayer gameIn Settlers of Catan, the probability of each tile getting rolled is calibrated as a number that you can see on the actual tile. You build your settlements and cities in relationship to a probability that is laid out in front of you on the board. You then roll dice every turn. The dice roll determines which tiles produce, completely at random. It is a probability that a given tile will come up more often. As we learn from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, however, probabilities are just that: probabilities.  The joy of probability is that each dice roll is just as random as the one before or after it.

Settlers of Catan strikes a nice balance between luck and skill. I have friends who aren’t very good at it, yet they occasionally win because the dice roll in their favor. (Or perhaps I just have an excuse when I lose.)  It makes it a lot more fun for all of us because they still want to participate.

In video games, it is possible to control outcomes that appear to the player to be random. This is a place where game designers can apply a hidden handicap. This handicap allows people with higher skill to compete against people with lower skill.  For example: you have a random combat result in your game.  You have a contest with a high-skilled player and a low-skilled player. You can skew the numbers toward the low-skill player, thus bringing the contest a little closer together. Be very careful with how much you do this. If you do it without telling the players that you’re doing it and they figure it out, you have betrayed their trust. That can be hard to recover from.

As a generalization, high-skill games with tight cause-and-effect loops and little randomness will appeal more to core gamer types. A little bit of randomness can add spice even for those players and it usually opens up the game to a wider audience.

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